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Between the folds
SUBBALAKSHMI B M
The sari, says a legend, was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver. He dreamt of Woman. The shimmer of her tears. The drape of her tumbling hair. The colours of her many moods. The softness of her touch. All these he wove together into many yards. And when he was done, the story goes, he sat back and smiled, and smiled and smiled.
Shimmering silks or soft cottons or blends of natural and poly fabrics, saris come in a varied lot.
Types of silk
Silks fall into two main types - the mulberry and the non-mulberry silks. The classification is based on the kind of silkworms that are used as raw materials for silk production. Almost all the varieties of mulberry silks are derived from the silkworm Bombyx mori. The non-mulberry silks often called the ‘Vanya silks’ or the ‘Wild silks’ are derived from the silkworms which are not fully cultivated. The term ‘Vanya’ is of Sanskrit origin, meaning untamed, wild, or forest-based.
‘Wild silks’ generally come in natural colours - cream, beige, brown and gold. They are not only user-friendly but also healthy owing to their porous texture and thermal properties. All production processes are eco-friendly and do not at any stage produce chemical effluents. Tribal communities and economically disadvantaged sections of the society are the primary rearers of these silkworms. Most activities from cocooning to marketing are carried out by women.
A recent workshop held in Bangalore discussed in detail the origin and growth of ‘Vanya silks’ in India with a special focus on ‘saris’ under the section on ‘Textile study morning’.
‘Vanya silks’ of India include the muga, tasar and eri types and seventy-five per cent of all ‘Vanya silk’ is eri. The most expensive of the lot is the muga silk - a variety that costs nearly Rs 3500 to 4000 per kg as compared to the mulberry silk which costs about Rs 1200 for the same quantity. Muga silk is named after the Assamese word ‘muga’ which means the rich amber colour of the cocoon. It is produced by the silk worm Antheraea assama which is an endemic species prevalent in the Brahmaputra valley and adjoining hills.
For six hundred years, muga silk was worn only by the Ahom kings and noble families of Assam. The motifs that are used on muga silks are largely animals that belong to the Kaziranga - a direct indication of the region to which the muga belongs. The fabric was unknown to the outside world until 1662, when the French explorer Jean Joseph Tavernier travelled through Assam.
Muga is popular for its natural colour of spun gold, glossy texture and durability. The gold colour and shine of a muga textile increases with every wash, in sharp contrast to the natural law of decay of shine in fabrics with time. Clothes made from muga have been known to last for 50 years. Muga possesses the highest tensile strength among all the natural textile fibres and is comfortable to wear in both summer and winter. Muga is also believed to have medicinal properties and is apparently used as a skin whitener.
The eri silk, derives its name from the word eri also known as endi or errendi originating from the Sanskrit word for the castor plant, eranada. Castor leaf is the main food for the eri silkworms (Philosamia ricini). This is the only completely domesticated non-mulberry variety. As eri cocoons are open ended, the yarn is spun and not reeled.
Interestingly, in many parts of Northeast India, eri cocoons are reared for their edible pupae and silk is the by-product. Eri shawls and chaddars are popular because of their thermal properties. Eri silk is a little rough in nature. To meet the demand of the changing times, techniques for softening the silk have now been developed in our country along with spun yarns for weaving the fabric.
Another category of wild silk that comes from the tribal belt of Gondwana is tasar silk, produced by tasar silkworms (Antheraea mylitta and Antheraea proylei) that feed mainly on the leaves of Asan and Arjun trees. India is the second largest producer of tasar silk in the world and the exclusive producer of Indian tasar (also known as tropical tasar). The versatility of the tasar fabric and the ease with which it can be dyed, printed, hand-painted and embroidered lends itself to applications in not just sari making but also in furnishings and bed linen.
Down south, Karnataka is a major contributor to a varied kind of handwoven silks. It was the vision of Tippu Sultan and sustained encouragement and patronage of the Mysore royalty to the weavers and craftsmen that has placed Karnataka among the foremost in the country in silk production. The state accounts for more than 60 per cent of the fibre manufactured in the country and has the largest number of silk handlooms and powerlooms.
Weaving is such an integral part of living in Karnataka that the type of fabric woven takes its name either based on tradition, or on the need or the technique employed in weaving or the village of origin.
Molkalmuru in Chitradurga district is considered the silk capital of Karnataka. The Molkalmuru sari distinguishes itself with its rich, heavy, pure zari pallu that uses bird (mainly parrots), animal and fruit motifs. The other feature is the 9-10 inches broad, two band solid zari border in a contrasting colour. Unlike saris from Kanchipuram these saris are slightly stiffer in texture and lighter.
Also from Karnataka is the Gandaberunda sari made of pure silk and gold zari which is believed to have been worn by the royal family in the 18th century. The Gandaberunda motif on these saris signifies the importance of the royal emblem and the kind of influence the royal family had on the society then.
Another popular variety of saris worn by the royalty goes by the name of Simahasana saris that was characterised by its light colours and geometrical motifs. This was used while attending the royal assembly.
The Daria Daulat saris, also from Karnataka, characteristically carry motifs depicting sculptures of Tippu Sultan’s summer palace, an indication of their royal patron.
While royal patronage is one thing, saris like those from Anekal in the state speak of the way of life of the people in the region. The saris have a plain body and are only about 8-9 yards long, their width extending to as much as 40 inches. Most of the users of this sari are field workers and labourers, who wear them at knee length for ease at work, which justifies their increased width and decreased length.It becomes clear that the sari is not a mere garment but a direct reflection of the lifestyles of the people of the region, especially those using them.
Ilkal, in Bijapur that takes its name from ‘Illekallu’ or the ‘slope down the hill’ because of its location, is home to about 60,000 people, a third of which is involved in sari weaving. Much before it made its way to the outside markets, Ilkal saris enjoyed a pride of place in festivities and weddings in north Karnataka and towns of Maharashtra bordering Karnataka.
The signature feature of the Ilkal sari is the pallu (serigu) or end piece made of red silk with patterns in white. The monotony is relieved by different style spokes at the extremities of the white band of the pallu. These spokes are named after their shapes like ‘hanige or comb tooth, koti kammli or fort ramparts, toputenne or jowar shape and rampa or mountain range’ shape. The pallu and body are joined by a technique called kondi or locking, deftly executed with the hand.
The other striking feature of the Ilkal sari is the four to six inches broad border, that is maroon or red in colour with distinct designs, patterned in ochre. The body or field of the sari is in cotton or a combination of cotton and silk, art silk or in pure silk in rich colours like pomegranate red, brilliant peacock green and parrot green. The most revered of these are the saris that constitute the bridal wear. Available in a colour that is called the ‘Giri Kumkum colour’, the sanctity associated with these saris derives from the colour of the ‘Sindhur’ that the wives of the priests of the region wear.
Ode to the railways!
The borders that the ‘pallu’ of these saris bear are of two types: one called the ‘Gadi dadi border’ which represents the railway lines and the other the ‘Rudraksh border’. Since the place is very close to Maharashtra, people often traversed the borders through rail to sell their ware in the markets there and hence the ‘Gadi dadi’ design. The ‘Rudraksh’ on the other hand, is indicative of the social preferences of the population in Ilkal, majority of whom are lingayats. The ‘Toputenne’ pattern on the ‘pallu’ is indicative of jowar, the crop cultivated on a large scale in the area.
Ilkal saris are often embellished with ‘kasuti’ embroidery known for its intricate and stunning workmanship. The origin of this delicate needlework dates back to the Badami Chalukyan times (6th 10th Century A D) whose rulers played an important role in the revival of art, culture and learning. ‘Kai’ means hand and ‘Suti’ means cotton, kasuti being the handwork of cotton thread. It was one of the 64 arts that women of the 17th century Mysore court were expected to be adept in. It is the tradition in these parts to have a couple of kasuti embroidered saris as part of the bridal trousseau one of which is a ‘Chandrakali sari’, a black silk with kasuti embroidery.
The motifs used in kasuti embroidery are mainly festive motifs indicative of the popular festivals of the region. For example, elephant motifs represent Dusshera, Lantern motifs represent Diwali, Palaquin motifs are indicative of the deities used in religious processions. Other motifs like ‘Tulasi katte’ and ‘Rangoli’ are representative of everyday living.
Coming to costs, silks come at a price which is also what makes them much coveted. Ranging from hundreds to thousands, the costs are but a small price for the effort that goes into it. But the question is: Would anyone buy a sari that costs anywhere between one lakh to 2.5 lakhs for any reason?
Yes... if they actually saw a ‘Patan Patola’ sari from Gujarat.
Only two lakhs
The exquisite ‘Patola’ silks from Patan in Gujarat are examples of the highest level of skills in double ‘ikkat’ weaving in the world. Celebrated in folklore and referred to and praised in Gujarati literature, these fabrics are characterised by their intricate grid-based bold geometrical patterns, juxtaposed with floral and figurative motifs. These magnificent silks are hand woven on looms made with wood and bamboo. What makes them very special is the use of the tie-and-dye technique to prepare yarns prior to weaving, resulting in the exact production of the most intricate designs during the weaving process.
‘Ikkat’ style of weaving is also practised in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa besides Gujarat. The difference is in the patterns designed. ‘Ikkat’ weaving is such a complicated and intricate process that on an average the best of weavers can weave upto 3-4 inches of a sari a day, even that with two weavers working on one sari at a time. That is why entire families of weavers get involved in weaving saris of this kind. Given the kind of expensive proposition that weaving a ‘Patola’ is, very few weavers continue the practice, mostly out of pure passion for their work.
The dyes used for colouring the fabric are vegetable dyes with each colour significant of a religious ceremony or ritual during which the sari is worn. For example the colour green is used on a large scale for saris that would be given to a mother-to-be.
‘Patola’ saris have been associated with a high degree of sanctity. So much so that soldiers carried a piece of the fabric to wars and new brides and newborns were always gifted with a bit of ‘Patola’.
Exported to many countries from as early as the 12th Century, these silks became a symbol of purity and nobility. Used at ceremonials times, they have come to be associated with magical properties and lasting relationships and love.
The countries which benefited from the exports of ‘Patola’ saris were Cambodia, Java, Indonesia and the Gulf. So inspiring was the ‘Patola’ that during the 16th and 17th centuries in the Gulf only royal families were allowed to wear the fabric. It is also believed that the Indonesian ‘Ikkat’ draws inspiration from the Patan Patola. One of the early evidences of the use of ‘Patan Patola’ is seen in the sculptures of the Ajanta caves where the apsaras and queens are seen dressed in garments made of this fabric.
In an attempt to reduce the price, simplifications in the ‘Ikkat’ weaving in the ‘Patan Patola’ have occurred over time. Contemporarisation is one thing, but those who know their ‘Patola’ sari believe in the need to rediscover the same to prevent it from languishing in the darkness forever.
Changing times have prompted the simplification of many of these intricate motifs. In order to bring in a breath of contemporarisation, Ilkal motifs and fabrics have been used in the designing of salwar kameez, duppattas and accessories like bags, purses and files and in home furnishings. The designers believe these attempts will help to retain traditional skills with a modern appeal.
When one talks of modernisation, one cannot fail to mention how the ‘Vanya silks’ have found their way into the making of home furnishings and accessories of the present day. Traditional silk fabrics have been employed with the simplified embroidery, embellishments and prints to give them a contemporary appeal. While one would agree that this kind of contemporarisation would definitely go a long way in helping both the art and the artisan survive the changing times, there is a need to probably draw a line, else tradition may just be lost in those yards of silk.
Seen the ‘Wild silks’, hear the legends and you would agree with this poet who said:
Vanya silks have emerged from the shadows,
From the heaven-kissing Kumaon and Garhwal ranges of the Himalayas,
From the deep jungles of Santhal Paraganas and Bastar,
From the woodlands of the Garo and Kazi Hills,
From the mystery laden banks of the Brahmaputra,
Gliding gracefully with poise and flair,
Onto the fashion promenades and into the arc lights,
Homing in, at last, to their rightful place under the Sun.