Weaves that tell a story...

Weaves that tell a story...

Textile tradition

Weaves that tell a story...

It has a gorgeously smooth texture and resplendent aanchal. The Baluchari saree is the pride of West Bengal’s textile tradition.

The pictorial detail on these sarees is created with great artistry, the appearance is glossy, and the texture is smooth, making for the sari’s appeal among women.

Long ago, these richly woven sarees took nearly a whole year to make. But nowadays, with the introduction of modern Jacquard machines and electricity which extends working hours, the average saree takes about five to 10 days to be ready to wear.

More elaborate, customised versions could take about three to four weeks.
Today’s draw looms have a mechanism for creating multi-warp and multi-weft textiles.

The borders and pallus use untwisted silk threads in colours that could contrast with that of the body so these areas of the saree and the motifs stand out. Interestingly, the Baluchari saree is similar in its appearance to the Banarasi brocade saree, but the big difference is that the former uses only silk threads and no zari.

But that is because of the Varanasi connection, but more of that later. Some historians also say this tradition was also influenced by the Jamdani sarees of Dhaka.

Changing with the times

Even the motifs used have undergone a change over the centuries. At one time, the sari motifs drew inspiration from the royal lifestyle of begums and nawabs.

After all, they were the patrons and it paid to keep the patron happy. So, you had marriage processions of the wealthy, a rich man smoking a hookah, a Mughal-style woman or man smelling a flower, and others inspired by Persian miniature paintings, and images of Mughal emperors, etc.

But then the evolution and changes in an art are often linked with the political and social history of the region and so it was with the Baluchari heritage.

Today, however, you see lots of floral motifs including flowering shrubs, peacocks and graceful women in traditional attire, musicians with their instruments, people on horses, and designs inspired by the terracotta temples of Bishnupur as well as the Ajanta-Ellora paintings, and of course, scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

You will also see lots of kalga or kalka motifs which can be taken to be a representation of a mango or a stylised leaf and something which you see frequently in other traditional weaves from south India, both in cotton and silk. The pallu is the Baluchari saree’s highlight — generally, you will see a large panel in the centre of the pallu with motifs worked in rows around it.

These sarees draw their name, it is said, from an obscure village called Baluchar near Jiaganj in Murshidabad district of the state. When this weaving tradition began, Murshidabad had just become the capital of erstwhile Bengal in the 18th century. Murshid Quli Khan, the then Nawab of Bengal, transferred the capital from Dacca (currently Dhaka) to this city.

A group of skilled weavers from Kasi (now Varanasi) migrated to Murshidabad for better prospects and their art immediately received much encouragement from the wealthy aristocrat families and upper classes.

With the coming of the British regime, many members of these classes became gradually dispossessed of their wealth and position and thus patronage dwindled. Incidentally, you can still see some specimens of these sarees from the early 1900s or slightly earlier than that at museums.

However, post-Independence, around the mid-1950s, there was a revival, thanks to combined efforts from government authorities, official bodies for the promotion of arts and crafts and some dynamic representatives of this weaving community. And Bishnupur became quite a big centre for production.

However, even now, the traditional jala technique, which was the forerunner of the jacquard system, thrives in parts of Varanasi. With it, a wide range of colours and patterns can be created, we are told. But it would take some searching to find these traditional jala looms in Varanasi.

As for the ones made in West Bengal, the Baluchari saree-weavers use a time-consuming and painstaking process. The silk for the loom is derived from the raw material which comes from the cultivation of cocoons.

The silk is prepared for the loom by removing the glue from the raw silk by washing it with hot soda water. Once dry, it is dyed in an acid colour and stretched on either sides.

The design is prepared by using plain white paper on which specimen figures are drawn. A suitable one is selected and calculations are made to fit the pallu and borders of the saree with these perfectly proportional motifs.

Rectangular cardboards (paata) and a punching machine help create the pattern for the sari. Thousands of cards are used in the process! Then the weaver uses the loom to weave the sari using different cards to produce the various designs on the entire length of the borders and pallu.

The Baluchari sari shopper’s best bets are the stores in Kolkata.

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