Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
A rich textile tapestry
India, wrapped in mystique, enhanced with the romance of fabled crafts, has one of the finest textile traditions in the world. The quiet sensitivity of the weaver rooted in custom and ritual had its origin in religious fervour creating a relationship between him and the cloth that he wove. The cosmos, the ordered Universe, was considered to be one continuous fabric with its grid pattern of warp and woof over which is painted life in all its cycles, illusions and dreams. The Vedas, far from being merely antiquated, enunciate a period in the intellectual life of man which has no parallel in human history. The Atharva Veda in one of its passages personifies day and night as two sisters weaving, with the warp symbolising darkness, and the woof the light of day. The hallowed place that thread and weaving occupied is illustrated in many hymns of the Vedas and one such dedicated to creation says:
The sacrifice drawn out with threads on every side, stretched by a hundred sacred ministers and one. This do these Fathers weave who hitherward are come: they sit beside the warp and cry, weave forth, weave back.
Man extends it and Man unbinds it: even to this vault of heaven hath he outspun it. These pegs are fastened to the seat of worship: they made their Sama-hymns their weaving shuttles . . . .
19th century block printed sample cloth
Five thousand years ago, the people of Mohenjodaro knew the art of growing cotton and they knew too that this innocuous looking fluff could be magically transformed into cloth that would cover their bodies. Excavations from Harappan sites revealed a scrap of coarse madder dyed cloth. Ancient Sind deserts unearthed terracotta spindle whorls which proved beyond a doubt that the early inhabitants of the Indus Valley knew how to spin and weave, and that this was the earliest evidence that cotton and dyed cloth were used in the Indian sub-continent. Spinning and weaving existed during the Mauryan period over 2000 years ago. This then was the beginning of our textile heritage.
It is highly probable that the discovery of natural dyes was sheer accident, a by-product during the quest for the elixir of life in alchemic laboratories. Ancient dyeing processes of madder and indigo were discovered, nila tinted the cloth indigo blue. Lac provided the red, iron shavings combined with vinegar gave black and turmeric was used for yellow. Dark green was derived when pomegranate rind was combined with indigo . . . and so the colour palette was born with basic primary colours. Colours permeated the textiles to the extent that they added a fresh dimension. They came to life drenched in the hot sun and they faded gradually into soft gentle tones attuned to the wearer.
While these natural dyes were the only ones known at the time and reachable by the common man, today, natural dye fabrics form the exclusive preserve of the elite with their exorbitant price tags. The first synthetic colour was discovered in 1856 and in a few years the formula for alizarin which replaced madder, reached India. By the end of the 19th century, synthetic indigo was in the market, and after a span of 150 years all traces of natural dye became extinct till recently.
It was undoubtedly cotton which gave the master weavers of India their splendiferous expression, but another astounding discovery was that silk and woollen cloth was also pre-Vedic in origin, indigenous to India. Tussar and the gold mugha were woven by the tribes in the dark and shrouded forests. Wild silk cocoons were reared by the tribes of Eastern and Central India who used simple bamboo loin looms to weave these rough silks.
Religious traditions claimed for their rituals the finest creations of the master weavers. Craft guilds of weavers, embroiderers, painters and dyers were established around the main centres of religious worship. Painted cloths which told the story of gods, astrological charts and esoteric paintings on cloth appeared in temple shrines, special ritual cloths were also offered to the godhead. There is an isolated group of weavers in Orissa, following a custom spread over a thousand years, which weaves the first verse of the Gita Govinda in a vivid red dye in tie-dye fashion, into a silk scarf which forms the main ritual at the Jagannath Puri temple.
The Kancheepuram weavers claim descent from Sage Markanda, believed to be the weaver of the gods who wove the first fabric from the lotus fibre. In the South, cotton cloth is offered to Lord Siva an ascetic, and silk to Lord Vishnu. This accounts for the cotton looms which sprung up around Siva temples, and the silk looms around the Vishnu temples. Indian heritage weaves linked with religion mirrored existing culture patterns, and the rituals that bound man with invisible links to his ancestors and to God. As a result training schools were started around religious centres and the richest expressions are found in South India, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Amr Vastra Kosh
India's textile history has been layered and enriched by nuances of other religions apart from Hinduism like Buddhism, Jainism and Islam, besides Western influences later on, which were so integrated into Indian weaving skills that they seemed to be part of their own design vocabulary. In parts of the ancient world Indian textiles were proverbial and as early as 200 BC Roman ships docked at ports on the Southwest coast of India to pick Indian fabric from which their coveted togas were fashioned.
It was from the 12th century onwards that Islamic influences prevailed in the patterns and textures of textiles with an infinite variety of tones, colours and hues in its new colour palette. A new aesthetic sensitivity was born and delicacy in tonal expression transformed Indian textiles into world class fabrics. Migratory weavers added to existing skills of the region. India's expression in textiles has been governed by the topography of the countryside, the climate, the presence of minerals, salts and waters. By the mid-18th century, Indians were virtually clothing the world and from 1600-1800 India became the greatest exporter of textiles the world has ever known.
Buddhist literature chronicles the work of the skilled weavers and spinners of Kashi who excelled in fine muslin, so fine that oil could not seep through. It was women who spun, and the cotton cloths were washed, calendered, starched and perfumed. It is believed that this fine muslin was used to wrap the bodies of emperors and also the Buddha when he attained nirvana. Roman emperors paid fabulous sums for the prized Indian cotton which was known as mul mul khas. They were called abrawan (running water) or shabnam (morning dew). This was because the muslins stretched on the grass and drenched with dew would become invisible because of their fragile transparency.
From the Buddhist era, trade in cotton cloth flourished between India and Babylon, silk and gold cloth and embroidered textiles were carried by the merchant traders. From the eastern coast, woven and printed cloths travelled to Indonesia, Malaya and the Far East. In the beginning of the 16th century a tribe of Malaya used to store a pile of Ahmedabad brocade equal to their own height as security, as this was a standard ransom for a captive in war. From the seaports of the Western coast and from the Coromandel coast, woven and delicately painted and dyed cloth was exported to the Arab states, to Africa and the prospering nations of Europe. The masterpieces were from Machilipatnam and the Coromandel Coast, from Surat and Burhanpur, and some of the painted chintzes had a distinct western influence in their shading and floral patterns. For centuries the cultivation of mulberry silk in China was a closely guarded secret of the Chinese rulers, and legend has it that the mulberry plant was smuggled into India by a Buddhist monk.
Colonial rule drained India of its precious textile heritage. The value of Indian chintz and other painted textiles earned colossal profits for the white man. With the Industrial Revolution in Europe, India was reduced to becoming a handloom supplier to textile mills in Manchester, Birmingham and Lancashire. The handloom weaver was nearly decimated, with the import of cheap imitation printed fabric from England. It was Mahatma Gandhi's missionary zeal which inspired nationalists to spurn foreign fabric and burn English cloth in public. Handspun khadi became a statement which decried foreign exploitation of the Indian economy.
Towards the end of the Sixties the mushrooming of powerlooms posed a threat to the handloom industry. Entrepreneurs imitated handloom designs, with their setting up of decentralised powerlooms competing with the handloom weaver. The cloth produced was finer and cheaper, so more and more buyers turned to mill cloth. Despite this very tangible threat, owing to its tradition of design and texture, the handloom industry continued to survive with the exports of cotton and silk goods showing a dramatic rise from Rs. ten crores in the early Sixties to Rs. 350 crores in 1982-83.
The wide range of design and weave peculiar to the region of their origin are masterpieces dictated by the skills of the particular weaver and his tradition. The Bengal kantha is embroidered with fine running stitches on tussar silk . . . the phulkari of Punjab, with beautiful, vibrant compositions in satin stitch, the chikankari of Lucknow in shadow work and running stitches, the fine kasuti of Karnataka, and the mirror work of the tribals in Rajasthan and Gujarat are but some of the examples of embroidery by the skilled women artisans. The ikkats of India, visible in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, in their dye resist yarn interlocked to form a perfect design story, the tehlias of Puttapaka, the Patan patolas, the brocaded ikkats of Gujarat, the ikkats of Pochampalli, the Paithanis of Gujarat . . . the range is breathtaking.
In sharp contrast are the soft gossamer fine cottons of Venkatagiri and Kerala with their simple gold borders, the Uppadhas borrowing the naksha buttis of Benaras in cool cotton and gold in soft pastels . . . Chirala saris from Andhra Pradesh, delicately spun saris from Chanderi and the Maheshwari saris from Indore with their tiny bejellewed borders . . . the Tangails and Dhoniakalis from Bengal, the tussars of Assam, the romance of the South Indian heavy silks, the exciting Kancheepuram silks and cottons with their solid borders and weaves or the sheer elegance of the Benaras jamdani saris which surpass all weaving skills in cotton and silk. These are but some of the treasured textile legacies of India, but there are much more today which offer quality in texture and design with overtones of hybridity which cannot be helped in the contemporary idiom. The Coimbatore weaver, for instance, produces the finest of textures, and successfully reproduces Benaras jamdani weaves and ikkats in silk cotton to perfection.
The Government played a major role in ensuring the survival and protection of the handloom sector at a time when heritage weaving faced abyssmal gloom, with the establishing of the All India Handloom Board in 1952 and the All India Handloom Fabrics Marketing Co-operative Society which is an apex body concerned with the marketing of handloom goods through co-operative organisations. The technical wing of the handloom industry - the Weavers Service Centres - provided the handloom development concerned with applied research, service and training. Today the centres bear signs of neglect with hardly any activity worth recording, with no initiatives for further development, no documentation nor libraries worth talking about. Concerned about the textile craft,activists like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Pupul Jayakar and Rukmini Devi carved a niche for the handloom weaver who has today got out of the morass into which he was slowly sinking.
The awareness of heritage handlooms grew with the Festivals of India in Britain. It was then that all the Weavers Service Centres swung into action developing the most fabulous samples for the festivals. The almost extinct skills of the weaver were tapped and exhibited at a major exhibition in 1982; Vishwakarma - a homage to the Master Weavers of India, as talented dedicated young designers worked closely with textile experts to produce cloth as magnificent as those produced in the past 300 years with the same colour, texture, form and techniques.
Today the handloom industry is the largest economic activity in the informal sector after agriculture, with approximately 3.8 million handlooms in India engaged in the production of natural fibre fabrics like cotton, silk and woollens and in man-made and mixed fibre fabrics. Integrally a part of rural life, about ten million people or more depend on these looms fully or partially for their livelihood. India's heritage has been subsumed into the national and ethnic design vocabularies in the world.
One has to constantly remind oneself that the weaver is an artist, a musician, and his loom an instrument of music. He is powerfully aware of every nuance of the weave and energises the rhythm of the loom to coax it into reproducing the finest music in textiles. The raga is established as he throws the shuttle through the tautly stretched warp threads, back and forth, over and over again. He beats the warp rhythmically, keeping taal. The wooden pedal is depressed to synchronise the throwing of the shuttles. The bamboo reeds are his wind chimes. All his senses of touch, sight and sound come into play during this play of divine music, a reverential piece of art. Each expression has its own language and its own interpretation. An expression which deserves to be respected and admired for all time.
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