Of lost weaves

Tartan of panipat

Of lost weaves

While initially the ‘khes’ fabric provided many weavers economic independence, today it is surviving on the work of a lone ranger.

The most important fabric of Punjab is khes…” This high praise from B H Baden Powell, ICS officer in the Imperial administration in the late 19th century, qualified the khes fabric as ‘rare and beautiful’. Now not to be found either in museums or in any well-known collection, this many-centuries-old-tradition is practised by a solitary 70-year-old weaver in Panipat.

While a wide variety of khes was woven in both silk and cotton, in either plain or patterned weave combined with colour-threaded borders or interwoven with gold yarn, it was the geometric mixed-checkered double-weave patterns that were acclaimed. They were very similar to the damask tartan of Scotland, with the obverse and reverse sides appearing differently.

J Lockwood Kipling — father of author Rudyard Kipling — when writing about the khes stated, “The cloth is prized for winter wraps,” adding that it was “suitable for some European uses… (as) these cloths are something like the ginghams and checks of England.” The khes was usable on both sides and Kipling attested to its hardiness as it was “proof against water, and will stand any amount of washing and knocking up by the washerman.”

Fitting titles

The names given to the weaves were lyrical in their description — from the simple or sadaa khes that had lines and checks  woven straight across or down the cloth to the special or khas khes with its patterning weft yarn interlaced alternately with the warp to create diagonal geometrics.

The poetic bulbul chasam or the eye of the nightingale pattern with its diagonal diamond pattern with a dotted-eye in the centre; the gulbadan or many-coloured pattern that was constructed by combing a single-coloured warp with multi-hued weft threads to produce a combination of stripes, and w-shaped patterns or four-cornered checks.

The khes patterns and colour choices were determined, as in the tartan, with different communities and religious beliefs. From the expressly woven Jat ka khes or the khes of the Jat community to the special colours woven for the Hindu and Muslim communities, what remained evident was its wide clientele and their individual weaving preferences. For the cognoscenti, the appeal of the khes was replicated in silk and made more precious with metallic gold and silver zari yarns interwoven into the floss silk. Called the shahi-khanis or royal squares, they were comparable in cost and beauty to the Jamevar shawls of Kashmir.

The khes was traditionally woven in a pit loom that was built wider than the norm and equipped with four to eight or more pedals, depending on the skill of the weaver and the complexity of the patterning involved. These reversible patterned damask tartans were created using the clever and unusual diagonal weaving technique that used a twin warp thread interlaced with the shuttle to create the two-sided look. The appeal of the khes also lay in its many uses and sizes, from being donned as a men’s shawl to being a base for beddings, and being used as a counterpane.

Through the ages

Soon after the seismic partition of India and the displacement of huge numbers of people, the newly formed government, encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi, actively worked towards a scheme to resettle the displaced weavers in the then small town of Panipat in Haryana. Efforts were made to provide the weavers housing, work-sheds, looms and other facilities that would boost the progress of their work. Within a short span of time, the industry and endeavour of these erstwhile refugees led to Panipat being known as the ‘City of Weavers’ and the ‘Textile City of India’, where all manners of cotton and woollen textiles were being woven.

The khes weave also took root under the direction and leadership of two master weavers, Narayan Kaul and Govindlal who introduced new and innovative complex patterns that were poetically named chandni gulbahar or the moonlit rose-red, laila-majnoo, gol-chakkar (squared circle), and other equally evocative labels. These pioneering developments continued to take place and till the late 1980s, over 250 looms were dedicated to the weaving of the Panipat khes that was celebrated across the country.

However, with the start of the export boom in textiles, Panipat became the go-to place for home furnishing with its resultant emphasis on quick deliveries, deadlines, price-points linked to international designs and deliverables. This led to the inexorable move towards powerlooms, replacing the handloom, and the slow and steady decline of the complex and time-consuming khes weave.

Now only Khem Raj Sundariyal, a master weaver, continues his lone battle to preserve the heritage, skill and history of the traditional khes. While continuing to train young weavers, adapting his craft to produce more contemporary products, he faces an uphill climb, though his efforts have won him many accolades, including the prestigious Sant Kabir Award. He fights a lonely battle to keep the legacy of the Panipat tartan alive.

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