Paithani: Weaves of wonder

Heirloom

When a Marathi girl gets married, she treats her Paithani saree on a par with her gold, as yet another jewel. These resplendent, richly-woven sarees in bright hues with gorgeous pallus originate from Paithan town in Aurangabad, Maharashtra.

They are a part of every wedding trousseau in this part of India, including Gujarat. And that includes filmstars like Kajol and Genelia who are said to have worn designer Paithani sarees for their marriage ceremonies.

Long ago, they were only worn by royalty and the aristocracy, and treated as heirlooms. Even today, a genuine handwoven Paithani saree can take anything from two-three months to one or two years to produce, and comes at a high price because it is so labour-intensive. The cost of a Paithani saree ranges from Rs 7,000 for the utterly simple variety to Rs 8,00, 000 for the more elaborate one.

The price depends on the quality of silver and gold used, purity of silk, and the kind of handwork it involves. The latter ones are also heavy in weight. Of course, the cost of a designer Paithani is much higher. From Ritu Kumar to Neeta Lulla, some of India’s top designers are offering customised Paithani sarees.

It is designers like these who made Paithani chic and thus contributed to the revival of this nearly 2,000-year-old craft which was in danger of dying out a few decades ago.

Around the 1990s, the Government of Maharashtra set up modern looms in Paithan and also an educational centre to revive the market for these beautiful traditional weaves. In 2010, the coveted Geographical Indication registration was won by Paithani sarees. This status, it is hoped, will protect the interests of the economically backward, skilled artisans who create these wonders.

On the day we visited Aurangabad, there was a flourishing business in Paithani sarees as well as Himroo products (the other famous textile product of Maharashtra). The Paithan town was also busy that day. Its small lanes and bylanes were crowded with wholesale buyers, a group of foreigners wanting a first-hand experience of Indian arts and crafts, two apprentices of a well-known designer, and a TV crew.

Paithan, at one time, was visited by Greek traders, between 400 and 200 BC, during the Satavahana era, for the Paithani weaves, we were told. This exquisite Paithani silk soon came to be exported to many countries and was traded for gold and precious stones. Such was its value! According to some sources, this technique possibly came to India from Central Asia and was developed into a fine art in the Deccan region and slowly evolved into the contemporary version you see today. The Peshwa rulers were big patrons of this art.

Paithani developed from a cotton base to a silk base. Silk was used in weft designs and borders, while cotton was used for the body of the fabric, we learnt. The present day Paithani, however, has no trace of cotton and is recognised as a gold and silk saree. There was a time when the base silk was imported from China. Now Yeola and Paithan weavers buy their silk from Bangalore, which is greatly reputed for this yarn.

Paithani saree is characterised by borders of an oblique square design, and a rich pallu within a rectangular format. The sari is bordered with silk or gold threads which form the zari border — a staple of Indian silk sarees. There is an ornate pallu with a rich sheen, and this and the border generally are in contrasting colour to the body of the saree. In many sarees, the body is often plain and minimalist but it is not unusual to have it embellished with tiny motifs or butis in the shape of a circle, star, flower, leaf, peacock, cluster of three leaves, or mango.

On the pallu and borders too, you will see what our weaver-guide Kakodkar told us is called totha-maina or parrots generally in leaf-green colour, or flowers and leaves on stems in which the veins of the leaves are clearly visible. A stylised flowering shrub is a popular motif.

Flowering vines are called asavallis here. The narali motif is another common sight. Peacocks are another favourite and you might find a single big dancing peacock woven into the pallu or several peacocks strutting across the expanse of the pallu in some sarees.

Our guide continued that Paithani weavers also like using the bangadi mor or a peacock in a bangle/bangle-shape. Lotus brocades are also frequently employed. In one weaver’s home we saw unusual motifs — a set of musical instruments including drums, tamburas and trumpets while another saree sported artistically embellished pots and pans.

You also find kaleidoscope-coloured designs in which  the kaleidoscopic effect is achieved by using one colour for weaving lengthwise and another for weaving widthwise. Generally, rich, dark colours characterise this saree though you also find whitish or cream-coloured ones.

“A great deal of time and effort goes into the making of Paithani sarees,” said Kakodkar, our guide. “But every saree lasts decades and is often handed down from one generation to another,” he added proudly. We came away with some instructions on how to preserve this saree — just be careful while washing it and keep it wrapped in soft muslin cloth; do not let silverfish get near it and also air the saree periodically.

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