Weaving timeless beauties

Intricate Baluchari saris are works of art woven in silk. The borders and pallu are embellished with exquisite motifs inspired by the epics, mythology and traditional texts, as also scenes from courtly life. Each panel of these delicately woven sarees tells a timeless story. A single sari can depict an entire episode from the Mahabharata or Ramayana, woven into its border and pallu. The magical weaves with their centuries-old tradition continue to enchant through generations. They take pride of place in the heirloom collection of Bengali women.

Baluchari sari. Photo by authorTraditional Baluchari sarees are woven in the history-steeped town of Bishnupur, in West Bengal’s Bankura district. There are several clusters of weavers here who continue to create enchanting sarees. Haradhan Bishoi oversees one such setup, where eight or nine weavers work at any given time. The mulberry silk is sourced locally, he tells us. The entire process, from rearing silkworms, to spinning and dyeing the yarn, and then designing and weaving sarees, is done locally. The fine and soft local silk has a unique lustre. To make the yarn supple and shiny, it is boiled in a mixture of soda and soap and then dyed. Designing these sarees requires elaborate planning and execution. Each saree takes two expert weavers, working by turns, around a week to weave. The more complex ones can take much longer. The sarees are hand-woven on jacquard punch-card looms. Creating intricate designs for the border, butis and pallus of Baluchari sarees is an elaborate process. The design is drawn on a graph paper and then punched on cards. After punching, these cards are joined in sequence and fixed in the jacquard machine. These coded and punched chains of jacquard cards control the movement of the warp on the loom to create finely woven details in silk.

Baluchari sarees were first woven over 200 years ago in Baluchar village in Murshidabad district, West Bengal. Baluchari weaving flourished in the 18th century under the patronage of Murshid Kuli Khan, then Nawab of Bengal. While jacquard looms are used today, Baluchari sarees were originally woven in the 18th century using the jala technique. Jala was a more flexible process, and multiple variants of basic patterns could be created more quickly and cheaply as compared to the jacquard process. Jacquard patterns cannot so easily be changed or touched up once they are fixed, but jala patterns can be tweaked repeatedly. Balucharis woven in the Nawab’s times incorporated scenes from courtly life as motifs. The art declined during British rule.

Owning expensive looms was beyond the reach of poor weavers, who fell into a cycle of debts to moneylenders. Baluchar village was submerged by floods, and the weavers were compelled to move away to Bishnupur, which already had an established silk industry since the times of the Malla rulers. The last known weaver using the jala technique passed away in the beginning of the 20th century. Samples of his exquisitely hand-woven silks continue to be displayed at various museums.

The fascinating history of Bishnupur is entwined with that of Baluchari sarees. Situated around 130 km from Kolkata, Bishnupur was once the capital of the Malla kings, who ruled the region for nearly a thousand years. The Malla rulers were Vaishnavites, who constructed striking terracotta temples in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. Royal patronage also gave rise to the Bishnupur Gharana of classical music, and the Bishnupur school of painting. Mythological stories and other decorative designs on the walls of the ancient terracotta temples continue to inspire the patterns woven into Baluchari sarees.

Other motifs such as riders on horses, people in boats, flowers and leaves are also woven into contemporary sarees. In the earlier years of the 20th century, Subho Thakur, a well-known artist, attempted to infuse new life into the tradition of Baluchari silk weaving. He invited a master weaver of Bishnupur to learn the method of jacquard weaving. The weaver, Shri Das, returned to Bishnupur and wove beautiful designs.

Today, Baluchari sarees face stiff competition from their better known and cheaper rival, the Benarasi silk. Popular tastes are changing, and typical designs inspired by Hindu religious stories have limited appeal, especially to people of other religions. The social and economic fabric of this art is fraying. Small groups of mahajans or businessmen control much of the trade. They own the looms and provide the silk and designs. The poor weavers usually earn a meagre sum for their skilled work, and find it difficult to eke out a living.

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