A weave like the skin of the moon

A weave like the skin of the moon

The Jamdani matchlessly interweaves a 2000-year-old tradition with a revival that ensures its relevance and modernity.

Pic courtesy: Madhurya Creations

The 13th-Century Sufi poet Amir Khusrau compared the Jamdani weave to the skin of the moon for its translucence and said its buoyancy is akin to drops of water.

A weave that came into existence nearly 2,000 years ago, the Jamdani had the British going gaga over its minutiae and was the favourite of several erstwhile royals in India. So much so that it was displayed as an extraordinary handloom at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the National Museum of Denmark. Known as Jamdani or the Dakai Jamdani, this refined, hand-woven drape originated in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Jamdani — declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013 — is a discontinuous weft technique of weaving on the loom with each motif inlaid into the fabric. Jamdani is a reference to the arresting patterns that were added by hand. It is one of the oldest weaving traditions of India wherein fine muslin fabric is used as the base to accommodate these motifs.

The time taken in olden days was long, as a single person worked on an entire saree. It shares its lineage with several ethereal muslin fabrics of India, which were lost when the erstwhile East India Company began its gradual rejection of India’s textile industry. “Our families talk of weavers who enjoyed sitting in the airy fields below the date trees, breathing fresh air, singing and chatting along as they weaved and enjoyed their vocation. But that was when fewer sarees were produced,” say Ranjan Das and Gautam Ghosh, sixth generation of weaver-community specialists, who individually hold their home enterprises at Narayanganj in Dhaka with branches in West Bengal.

Talking of Jamdani weavers who now produce an array of intricate designs for widened markets and contemporary stipulations, Das and Ghosh recollect that when Jamdani began in Dhaka, the motifs were nature-inspired and more geometrical in shape. Weavers created motifs without using a machine, and counted threads manually. The history of the weaving process gradually moved on to its unsung weavers doubling up as designers who brought in the ‘design paper’ to be kept under the warp for making it easier to replicate motifs/designs. “The entry of the ‘design paper’ helped weavers look at boundless possibilities and experience autonomy amongst themselves to individually try out more designs,” says Ghosh adding that in contemporary fashioning, the designs range from the ‘butidar’ (entire sari dispersed with florals), the ‘tercha’ (diagonally striped florals) or ‘jhalar’ (a network of floral motifs).

The decline and restoration

The empire of Jamdani gradually saw a desertion in the early 18th century, beleaguered by the internal strife of the Mughals. It’s only about three decades ago that Jamdani got a whiff of fresh air when textile revivalists and designers opened their eyes to its hidden splendour. They plunged into re-creating Jamdani on many other weaves and contemporising them to suit all tastes. “Today, Jamdani is available in innovative colours and is integrated into newer techniques. Whether figured or flowered, the Jamdani motifs were earlier woven on muslin until its evolve saw itself leap into other weaves like silk and more through the perceptive eyes of a master-weaver,” says Bharathy Harish of Madhurya Creations, a revival boutique in south Bengaluru offering custom-made weaves. “We get contemporary fashioning of Jamdani from weavers in West Bengal, Banarasi loom that has Jamdani motifs from Varanasi and Jamdani on Uppada. Jamdani as a fabric is now also used for apparels or crafting personalised couture garments by designers,” says Bharathy. 

Inspired patterns

“Wearing a Jamdani sari during occasions is an enthusiastic tradition that Bengali women take forward. The art gained popularity across Europe during the British Raj,” says third-generation weaver in Hyderabad, Lakshman Rao Tammisetty, who in the mid-1990s, brought the Jamdani work on to the Andhra Pradesh Uppada weave as the base. “The multifaceted, laborious hand-weaving technique is like tapestry work where each motif is inlaid into the fabric with dense threads,” explains the septuagenarian.

The motifs back then reflected a depiction of everyday objects from nature — plants, petals, buds, flowers and creepers, apart from angti (ring), baghnoli or bagher paa (tiger claws or paws), shankha (shell) or the chandrahaar (moon necklace). Small shuttles of coloured, gold or silver threads pass through the fine warp for creating these designs, says the master-craftsman.

Artisanal diversity

This weaving pattern provides enormous scope for artisanal diversity while retaining the original design that is identical on both sides of the saree, explains Niraj Selot from Varanasi who works on a Banarasi loom with Jamdani motifs. Says Niraj, “Banaras is a major textile hub that also uses the patterned Jamdani and brocades on its weave for a classic makeover. The silk Jamdani or the fashioned-muslin is an evolved variety of brocade here, believed to be amongst the signature products from the Banarasi loom.”

Niraj’s weavers have been the recipients of Padma Awards from 1983! The proud son of Girija Shankar Selot, who hails from the legacy weavers of Varanasi, Niraj says his father was constantly being noticed for his masterwork by Indira Gandhi, Pupil Jaykar and textile conservator Martand Singh. The Gandhi-Jaykar-Singh trio went a step further to have many of the weaves revived, including the precious Jamdani. “In 1982, the trio were responsible for getting some of the original Jamdani pieces displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. My father also pioneered the now famous ‘Nilambari series’ in Indigo-blue tones,” recalls Niraj.

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