Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
There are moments when I hold the Paithani
The Paithani of Maharashtra is not just a silk sari of gorgeous colours, intricate design and painstaking labour. It is part of a culture given more to thrift than flamboyance, but which also treasured elegance and beauty. It tells us of a people who were willing to spend lavishly to clothe their womenfolk in nine yards of the traditional silk and spun gold, crafted by indigenous weavers, especially on festive occasions. No Maharashtrian wedding trousseau was complete without the Paithani sari and shela or stole, the best the family could afford. They then became treasured heirlooms which could be preserved and worn by three generations of women, fragrant with memories. They represent the continuity of tradition, as we see in the verses from Shanta Shelke's poem. True, the Paithani brings nostalgia, but it also instils a sense of pride - and security. It is part of the ritualistic bonding of a whole community.
Talk about Paithani and the Maharashtrian's eye will light up. She will assure you that the art is 2000 years old, developed in the then splendid city of Pratishthan ruled by the legendary Shalivahana (now Paithan by the Godavari in Marathwada, some 50 km from Aurangabad). In the far past it had been an international trade centre for silk and zari.
Traditional Paithani sari from the Vishwakarma collection.
During the Bhakti period, Paithan developed into a renowned dharmapeeth or religious centre. It was here that the father of saint Gnaneshwar came to perform a penance, to be free from the sin of having fathered children by returning to married life, after taking the vows of renunciation. The village boasts of a temple to saint Eknath which attracts pilgrims.
Literature, both classical and folk, testifies to the existence of Paithani silk even before the Mughal age, though the last munificent patrons were the Peshwa rulers. The men wore the stole over their dhoti and kurta, while their women were resplendent in Paithani saris at weddings, festivals and religious ceremonies. Niloufer, daughter-in-law of the late Nizam of Hyderabad, was one of the last of the erstwhile royals to be fascinated by the Paithani magic.
As with most of the traditional arts and crafts of India, Paithani too suffered a decline under the British Raj. Once there were over 500 families practising this hereditary art which required high technical skill and aesthetic sense. And tremendous discipline to do the slow, tedious work. Their migrations began with Muslim aggressions. The khatri community of weavers got scattered in search of work and settled down to whatever they found.
What is Paithani? It is fabric woven entirely on handlooms, disdaining to use even the jacquard or jala. Its special dhoop-chaav (light and shade) effect is achieved by bringing two different coloured silk threads together in the process of a simple tabby weave. It has an ornamental zari border and pallav, and buttis (little designs) of tara (star), mor (peacock), popat (parrot), kuyri (mango), rui phool (flower) paisa (coin), pankha (fan), kalas pakli (petal), kamal (lotus), chandrakor (moon), narli (coconut) and so on. Many of these designs are found on the border and pallav in different sizes and patterns. The designs show the influence of the beauteous panels of Ajanta close by. The dominant traditional colours of vegetable dyes included neeligunji (blue), pasila (red and green), gujri (black and white), mirani (black and red), motiya (pink), kusumbi (purplish red) and pophali (yellow).
In the olden days the zari was drawn from pure gold. It had a classic grandeur sans garishness. Silver is the affordable substitute today. The zari comes from Surat, the resham (silk) from Bangalore. This raw silk is cleansed with caustic soda, dyed in the requisite shades, the threads carefully separated. Today's market also abounds in spurious material, cheap at Rs. 2000, minus quality texture and durability.
The sari takes its own time to get woven, from two weeks to a year, depending on the intricacy of the pattern. The cost can be anything from Rs. 5000 to Rs. 50,000. Saris worth over a lakh of rupees apiece are made to order. The finer work being extremely taxing prevents more than three hours of sitting at the loom per day. The weaver's son may take over the task in a second shift. Women do not weave, though they help with other processes like washing and dyeing.
Independent India sought to rediscover its lost traditions in several spheres of skilled endeavour. But renaissance came late to Paithan. Meanwhile the market was flooded with textiles from Benaras, Calcutta and Kanchipuram. Even Pochampalli and Tussore silks became well known in India and abroad. The weavers of Paithan remained totally ignorant of the renewed interest in handlooms. Besides, their infrastructure was pitiful. No loan facilities, long electricity cuts and heavy taxation. A high capital was required for production but the returns came late and remained unpredictable. The middlemen swindled them anyway. Naturally, the younger generation began to give up their priceless craft heritage in sheer frustration.
The Paithani was little known outside Maharashtra. During this century, it ceased to be indispensable bridal wear. "When I got married in 1964, the Paithani sari was not available in the market and I had to be content with an old stole my family possessed," says Saroj Dhananjay. That sense of loss probably started the lady off on a Paithani revival mission much later. In 1972 she again met with disappointment in her search for this unique handloom.
Besides the family business in chemicals, Dhananjay dealt in designer jewellery. So she was able to launch a socio-commercial project of reviving Paithani saris, especially as the government had started a training centre for weavers in Paithan. Without effective plans for distribution it could achieve little. "A vicious cycle," Dhananjay explains. "No supply, so no demand; no demand and therefore no supply. The government failed to understand that manufacturing means nothing without marketing." Meanwhile she was pained to discover that the younger generation knew little about Paithani or Kashidakari of Karnataka, worn proudly by their grandmothers, celebrated in legends and in the sensuous lavani songs. There is the story of Lord Krishna cutting his finger during a visit to his sister Subhadra's home, and the latter declaring that though she had splendid saris of every kind, the Paithani was the best, and therefore most worthy of being torn to make a strip to bandage her brother's bleeding finger!
Dhananjay's first visit to Paithan in 1985 showed a dismal scene. Weavers were poor, their morale low, their ignorance and illiteracy prevented any unity or self help scheme for advancement. Some were alcoholics. It was an uphill task to convince them that she meant business and would buy regularly with hard cash if they delivered what she wanted.
Dhananjay refused to compromise on quality and authenticity, even though uncertain of sale or profit in her first exhibition of the "New Wave Paithani" held in Mumbai ten years ago. "That was because my interest is not purely commercial. I want people to know that we Maharashtrians are skilled at this wonderful art form, which clothed our royalty and aristocrats in matchless splendour." She got cooperation from everyone, including the government centre which she invited to participate in her venture. There was wide press coverage too, and much curiosity from the big silk shops in the city. "People were amazed that my advertisements invited them to come and view the saris as works of art, even if they could not afford to buy them. What kind of businesswoman would do that, they said," she chuckles. " How many people can buy a Husain or a Picasso? But don't they go to art shows all the same?"
There were many surprises in store for the revivalist herself. She expected to sell ten to 15 saris but sold 80. She thought the affluent upper class would be her clients and was touched to see the middle and lower middle class families looking at the saris with an earnest nostalgia. "Maharashtrians usually invest in gold or land, certainly not in saris. But I saw the husbands prepared to spend and urge their wives to pick up a good piece!" In subsequent exhibitions Dhananjay was to see waiting queues, with people coming from distant Vasai, Virar, Karjat, and with those who timed their visits to Mumbai to coincide with the show. Many thanked her for the "privilege" of getting a bit of their treasured past back. "Now all the silk shops in Mumbai and a few in Delhi stock Paithanis. I can honestly take much credit for that."
Dhananjay has shifted her operations from Paithan to Yeola near Nasik, with its community of 100-150 weavers. She notes that their standard of living has greatly improved in the last decade, visible in the refrigerators and television sets in their homes, and in their children attending school and college.
The roses come with thorns. "Their minds are conditioned to resist change, they want to do the least for the most short term gain, they are ready to undercut their neighbours." Dhananjay shakes her head. "Since the weavers don't know the market and lack the unity to form co-operatives, they are still at the shopkeepers' mercy and are exploited by middlemen." Some of the old-timers have the ego of artists which prevents them from following suggestions to use vegetable dyes (a more arduous process than dyeing with chemicals), or to revive a forgotten design.
Education has distanced the younger generation from the craft of their forefathers. They aim for desk jobs. "I tell them that if they don't put in more thought into the product, and to suit customers' needs, the market will dry up," shrugs Dhananjay. "In fact, the peak period is over. I see a decline already."
We get a different point of view from Naina Javeri, another enthusiastic Paithani crusader in Mumbai. Accident led this member of a family of diamond merchants into the textile scene. To her dismay, her widely admired Paithani, bought in 1989 after a long hunt in Pune, turned black in three months. This set Javeri on the track of finding a quality product which soon developed into a full-scale business as "Swayamsiddha," initially with a clientele of family and friends. The BBC featured her on its Network East programme.
"I learnt many things along the way. Sub-standard zari and too much starch (for easier weaving) had ruined my first Paithani. Nor did I like the quality of the Yeola fabric. But on my first visit to Paithan I found the weavers unwilling to try anything new in shade or design. Also, they found it difficult to digest that a woman could 'tell' them to do anything," she laughs. The co-operation came when the craftsmen realised she was no fly-by-night operator but was there to give regular employment at fixed rates and advance payments.
With the Gujarati's inborn business sense, Javeri tailors the product to suit market needs. Every year she experiments with new shades and designs. "Tradition imposes limits to playing around, but I do what I can to vary the size of the butti and the checks, increase the size of the pallav from 18-39 inches. I can enlarge or compress the design, make it more defined and precise." She has tried weaving in the designs of the Himru shawl of adjacent villages on the pallav. She has developed techniques to "create" an antique look. This is done by chemical bleaching of the zari and crushing it before weaving, to make the lines uneven. "I am careful to restrict the numbers of these designer saris for preserving exclusivity," she says. She has tips for maintenance - the sari must be stored wrapped in white muslin, no mothballs around, and no perfume sprayed directly on it. It has to be dry cleaned, as the technique of washing it with a reetha nut solution is lost.
Javeri has set up 14 weavers to work exclusively for her, moving them to villages near Pune for easier access. They are assured of work round the year (stocks are built up in the April-August off-season), and paid from Rs. 1900 to Rs. 8000 per sari.
Much of Javeri's experimentation can be seen as tampering with tradition. "I have no choice. Who will buy the same colours and designs? Moreover, it is such novelty which attracts the younger generation to this old handloom." Dhananjay also resorts to new combinations.
This raises uncomfortable questions. Granted, change and adaptation infuse vitality into any art or craft. In fact, change can sometimes be seen as a synonym for growth. But where do you draw the line between innovation based on tradition and kitsch? Or experiment at the cost of authenticity? Do artificial processes of creating the "antique" look leave you with fakes?
How can one ensure good taste in the designer? True, survival depends on the commercial viability of the product. But whose responsibility is it to educate both craftsperson and consumer to uphold the genuine values of their heritage?
In other words, is it worth preserving the craft of the Paithani fabric if it is going to look like something else?
Copyrights © 1999, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.