On the gossamer route

On the gossamer route

Textile trail

On the gossamer route

I recently travelled along a silk route from Chanderi to  Maheshwar, two towns in Madhya Pradesh that vie with each other to produce the most exquisite, gossamer-fine sarees and fabrics made on traditional handlooms. It was in a sense a journey back in time because the tradition dates back centuries, and is kept alive today in these two weaving centres.

Chanderi and Maheshwari fabrics seem to have so much in common that they could easily be mistaken for each other. They are woven on traditional looms; they use silk yarn on the warp (length) and cotton yarn on the weft (width), they use zari thread on the borders and in the body for butis (motifs). But here the similarities cease. For, Chanderi and Maheshwari weaves spring from different cultures, and have unique stories and history behind them, which help their artisans lend their own signature style to the fabrics.

Old as the hills

Chanderi is a charming little hamlet on the banks of River Betwa. Surrounded by rich forests and the green Vindhya mountains, it lies dreaming of the time it had once been the melting pot of music, weaving, arts and crafts, through the times of the Marathas, the Mughals and the Rajputs.

As far back as the 12th and 13th centuries, traditional cloth weaving was done mostly by Muslims here. In 1350, Koshti weavers from Jhansi migrated to Chanderi and settled there, and gradually, the textile business became a flourishing trade.

The story goes that during Akbar’s reign, a length of Chanderi cloth was sent to the emperor in Agra, folded and packed in the hollow of a bamboo. When it was taken out, the court was astounded to see that it could be unfurled to a size that could cover a whole elephant. It was this delicacy and sophistication of Chanderi weaving that fascinated the Mughal Empire down the centuries.

Chanderi fabric was in demand by many different communities for their traditional wear. It is said that in Jain Gajrath Samarohs, held between1436 to 1468, turbans made only from Chanderi cloth were worn. Weavers produced fine quality turbans woven on a 6 inch loom for export to Maratha rulers who proudly wore their cocked turbans. Chanderi was also popular among the nobility of Gwalior, Baroda, Nagpur and beyond.

Woven air

Chanderi was once woven using handspun cotton warps and wefts. It was spun as fine as 300 counts and the yarn left ‘degummed’; these processes made the fabric so light and transparent that it was known as ‘woven air’. It is said that the maharani of Baroda would identify the cotton quality by just a ‘rub on the cheek’ and decipher the finer nuances of the motif work and pay accordingly!

Due to Chanderi’s proximity to trade routes, supply of handspun cotton threads was never interrupted. However, in the 19th century, the British imported cheaper 120 to 200 count cotton from Manchester, which brought down the market for the more expensive Chanderi, and traditional weavers started to use mill spun thread.

Then in the 1930s, Chanderi weavers began substituting Japanese silk in the warp, and also developed a silk-by-silk variety in which their profit margins were higher. But even this did not give the translucence of cotton, so they finally switched to silk-by-cotton weaving, and this is what we know as Chanderi cotton today.

The clackety clack of looms greets me as I wander down the dirt tracks of Pranpur village near Chanderi. Ducking into the low doorways of a lime-washed brick house, my eyes take a few moments to get accustomed to the darkness within. Then I can see the outline of a wooden structure rising out of the floor, and realise that it is a pit loom, an old and traditional mechanism that rests in a rectangular pit dug about three feet into the floor of a house.

Jagmohan sits at floor level, his legs dangling below. I watch the master weaver’s hands as they clatter the fly shuttle from side to side, press the treadle and tug at the rope to complete a line. The timing is flawless, the hand and foot co-ordination perfect, otherwise there would be a knot of threads before you know it!

A river sutra

Maheshwar is a small town on the banks of the Narmada and traces its history back to the times of the Mahabharata, wherein it is mentioned as Mahishmati, a centre of thriving art and culture. It was in the late 18th century that Rani Ahilyabai created the Maheshwari saree that has become a geographical index today. The story goes that the queen asked the craftsmen of Surat and Malwa to weave exquisite silk sarees of nine yard length to be gifted to her guests and dignitaries.

In fact, it is said that she designed the first saree herself. At first, all Maheshwari sarees were made only of pure silk, but over a course of time, they began to be woven in pure cotton, and later in cotton-silk combinations. The designs were inspired by the grandeur of the forts of Madhya Pradesh and these were reflected in the borders and motifs.

The sarees are usually either plain in the body with exquisitely designed borders, or have checks and stripes in different variations. Pastel shades, unusual colour combinations and innovative designing have made the Maheshwari saree a collector’s item today.

Weaving on the banks

Along the banks of the quiet flowing Narmada, nearly 3,000 looms, some in the village and some inside the Ahilya Fort, weave the magical Maheshwari saree of the Malwa region. In 1976, the NGO Rehwa brought in a weaving renaissance to Maheshwar; and looms were set up in village homes, women trained, prices fixed for the products, and free education and medical facilities assured for weavers’ families.

In her spotless little house, Deepa, one of the village women who is a part of the Looms Revival Programme, works for up to 10 hours a day to produce one saree at a time. “I get about Rs 300 per saree, depending on border width,” she says with a shy smile. “People from the NGO prepare the looms for us, stretching the yarn and setting the design. So weaving is simple, though time consuming.”

There is steady income in the house. Deepa is content to weave the fabrics and her dreams, as do hundreds of women along the banks of the Narmada.