Sunday Herald: This weave? You could use a hand

Sunday Herald: This weave? You could use a hand

Made of weaves and based on everyday stories, this craft of Punja darrie

 A darrie weave

The darrie I’m viewing is over a century old; it has a striking handwoven design. At the top end is a white rooster perched on a brick wall. In the middle section are stylised flowers, and at the bottom there is a boy in a bright pink turban and a girl on a swing with a flowing sky-blue dupatta. I’m asked to guess what the pattern indicates. I come up with all sorts of permutations, which make the group of rustic Punjabi women giggle. “We will sing the answer for you, and you’ll feel daft,” they chorus and break into “Chitta kukar banere teh, kashni dupattae waliyeh munda sadqe tere te... (There’s a white rooster on the parapet, oh you draped in a sky-blue dupatta, this boy has fallen for you!” It’s a tremendously popular foot-tapping romantic tappa (Punjabi folk song), almost-always sung at the sangeet. I do feel daft. But more than that, I’m captivated by the skill in weaving this ditty into the warp and weft of a punja darrie.

I’m at a handloom lec-dem in Chandigarh and this particular darrie is from a private collection, but the happy women I have been conversing with hail from all parts of Punjab, and are here to exhibit their weaving talent. Incidentally, they are all homemakers who do not make a living out of this craft. It’s a skill that has been passed down to them from their elders, and they, in turn, are carrying out a tradition: of weaving darries for personal use, to gift it to the daughters on their weddings, to commemorate the birth of a grandchild or a special occasion.

Punja darrie is part of India’s craft history of flat weaves. It is said to pre-date carpet-making that emerged around the 16th century with the establishment of the Mughal empire.

These darries are woven on rudimentary horizontal looms with cotton thread that used to be largely handspun and handwoven but is usually mill-manufactured now. The technique employed in weaving is the weft-faced plain or non-continuous weave, also referred to as the tapestry weave, which presents an identical flat pattern on both sides. The only tool used is a punja, so called as it mimics the shape of a hand. It’s made of wood with comb-like teeth in metal and has a small mirror attached to one side that allows the weaver to check the design taking shape on the underside. The punja is used by weavers to tighten the weave so that it compactly packs the weft yarn. The resultant weave is dense, the reason why these darries initially feel stiff.

The punja darrie exhibits rich and bold geometrical or figurative vocabulary derived from the world that exists around the women who weave them. What makes Punjab’s punja darries talked about are those that weave the region’s social culture. Thus, patterns that represent marriage, folk songs, harvest or a new purchase are most sought after. I recall seeing a darrie with rows of teapots and cups-saucers. The weaver apparently had woven the British style of tea-drinking!

Weaving darries is a lot about community bonding. “A lady of the house works on the darrie during her leisure. Usually women of the neighbourhood drop in while she is weaving. Some may knit along, some gossip, some bring in ingredients for pickles, and some will help her with the weft pattern. Time passes by happily this way,” tells Rajwinder Kaur of Samana, who has trained a number of girls in the craft.

Punjab has always been a prime centre for flat-weave cotton darries, which are now woven in other states too (Rajasthan and Haryana). It was the abundance of cotton in Punjab that gave the initial thrust to this craft, which has developed commercially via handloom clusters and NGOs, but it still remains a household activity undertaken by women of the family across the rural belts who make threads come alive with the songs they sing and the lives they live.