Cloth of dreams

Cloth of dreams

Textile traditions

Cloth of dreams

The landmark Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 showcased the best resources and products from over 33 British dominions. Inaugurated by Queen Victoria, it received over 5.5 million visitors — an unprecedented record for an exhibition. The comprehensive catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, while describing the magnificent array displayed at the Indian pavilion, contained these cryptic words:

“3 pieces of the Banaras kinkhabs or cloth of gold brocades call for no special remarks...” Going on to say “…but (they) command attention as the most effective of all the fabrics shown”. Elaborating further, they described the fabrics as “the gorgeous and beautiful kinkhabs and gold brocades from the looms of the holy Banaras.” 

Worldwide fame

Kashi, Banaras, Varanasi are the many names of one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world, whose textile links have been and remain an intrinsic part of the city’s identity. From 2nd century BC when Patanjal, the great grammarian, in his text Mahabhasya mentioned kasika textiles as being more precious than others, to references in ancient Buddhist and Jain literature that mention Kashi as an important weaving and trading centre, the glimpses continue through the ages.

The principle history of Mahmud of Ghazni, Tarikh-us-Subuktigin written in the 10th century by Bayhaqi, listed the textiles of Banaras as one of the prized plunders of his raids. Kabir, the great weaver-mystic poet, lived and worked in Banaras in the 15th century. In his 16th-century chronicle, Ralph Fitch, a merchant, wrote about the cloth made in Banaras for the Mughal court. Though his visit to Banaras was brief, French jeweller Jean Baptiste Tavernier was struck by the wealth of Banaras, which he credited to its textile industry. Accounts of weaving and the textile trade in Banaras continued from the Storia Do Mogor by Niccolao Manucci, the Italian who wrote of the great trade of gold and silver fabrics from Banaras up to the present times.

The textiles that fascinated writers and traders were not just the sumptuous silk brocades or the tarbana with its silk warp and metallic gold weft that created the fine textiles and cotton weaves, but even the legendary kinkhabs, the jewel-like cloth of gold and silver, caught their attention. With over a hundred thousand people engaged in both weaving and pre and post-loom activity, the economy of the ancient city is inextricably connected to the loom.

Using techniques that include the kadwa, which uses several weft shuttles of differently coloured threads to create the patterns, to the urtu where different grounds are made possible in individual patterns. The fekwa throw shuttle method results in surface patterning and the method of cutwork patterning is called katraua. In the three-shuttle technique of nal pherwa, two of the shuttles weave the contrast borders, while the third is used for the base of the cloth.

All in the family

The continuing familial handloom traditions, with weaves whose structures, techniques and quality remain related to the past, can be seen in the 6th generation of the family that wove the cloth of gold that were displayed at the 1886 exhibition. In Pilli Kothi, the ancient stronghold of Banarasi weaving, Badrudin Ansari of Kasim Silk Emporium strives to strike a balance between preserving traditions, while innovating and adapting textures and patterns to the changing times. 

Kinkhabs are specially commissioned, taking two months to complete a bolt of four metres. The Ansari family is also wellknown for the weaving of the gyasar brocades for Buddhist monasteries across the globe. The densely patterned silk, with auspicious Buddhist symbols and floral imagery, is rich with gold and silver threads. Usually woven in width of 24 inches in pit-looms using the discontinuous supplementary warp technique, these are used as altar pieces, drapery for walls, canopies, door and window frames, robes for the Buddhist clergy, as wall hangings, as a backing for thangka paintings. They have also been used in building authentic film sets for Hollywood movies like Kundan and Back to Tibet.
 Gyasar weaves were introduced at the time of Badrudin Ansari’s father Haji Nooruddin. Since the 1970s, the weaves have been supplied for traditional dress to the Royal family of Bhutan, while their kinkhab creations are used across the globe for both dressing and furnishing. 

The house of Kasim is also known for its morpankhi, woven with peacock feathers and a silk warp. The textile shimmers in iridescent colours, and Badrudin was awarded the President’s National Award in 1987 for his skill in weaving it. These feathers are gathered during monsoons, and are then painstakingly woven in a time-consuming process that sees completion of an eight-metre bolt in two months. 

The Ansaris now have a customer base spread across the globe that includes international designers and even the Greek Orthodox churches who hire them for weaving sacerdotal fabrics. 

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