Go to one of India’s old albeit famous bazaars, ask for a “party-wear” saree and chances are that an over-enthusiastic fellow would roll out stacks of glossy fabric after fabric calling each of them “pure silk,” a distinction as misleading as it is incomplete. I mean can’t both Kanjeevaram silks and a rich Barasai Brocade be “pure silk?” But wait, there’s more.
More often than not, whatever is sold to us in the guise of the beautifully misleading adjective, “pure” isn’t really so! ‘But how does it matter if they are all beautiful,’ few might argue. Trust me, it makes all the difference! To us, to the weave in your hands, and more so to the artisans who work day in and day out to create these flawless weaves for you only to be outsmarted by a counterfeit mill.
This is where education comes to our rescue and thankfully, a little goes a long way. Coincidently, as we sit homebound during the lockdown, it makes for the best time for us to delve into the gorgeous beauties of the Indian handloom and their unique weaves. Differentiating between various textiles can be a good starting point here and that’s why we have curated a list of seven saree crafts in India that are as famous as they are misunderstood. Read on:
Known for their zari woven patterns, the Banarasi brocade sarees are created with a pit loom where a frame is used to lay the silk wrap threads in a recurrent pattern, which depends upon the size of the jacquard (a machine that powers the loom). As per the design, the weft (arrangement of threads to form the yarn) is thrown in a shuttle that yields the base of the fabric and then small spindles or spikes wound with zari are used as additional wefts to form the exquisite motifs or patterns of the saree.
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Some of the variations of Banarasi brocade include Kimkhwāb, Jangla, Tanchoi, Gyasar, and Mashru. Owing to a diverse cultural influx, the Banarasi handloom boasts of a rare richness that makes these sarees a trousseau must-haves. Each one of these different types are created by varying use of wefts and zari in the loom.
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Exclusively known for rich gold borders, striking contrast, traditional designs, and dense fabric, relatively heavier than the other silk weaves, Kanjeevarams are purely hand woven with mulberry silk and pure zari. Interestingly, while Tamil Nadu happens to be the hub of Kanjeevaram sarees, the mulberry silk threads are actually procured from Karnataka. This dense silk has a lustrous quality, which adds to the glistening finish of the saree.
The zari used for the saree is also procured from a different state. Pure silver thread coated in gold colour is used to add the finishing touch to saree’s border and pallu, and these threads are specially ordered from Surat, Gujarat. Perhaps the Kanji or the starch-rich rice water retrieved after boiling rice is the only local ingredient that goes into the making of these sarees.
Kanjeevarams are known to feature motifs inspired by grand scenes reimagined from Indian epics and Pallava temples. However, just telling a grand story doesn’t suffice for a saree to qualify as a pure one. Such is the expertise involved in making a Kanjeevaram that a real one always features interlocking borders. This interlocking is what imparts a Kanjeevaram saree with its signature touch. However, the technique is slowly fading into oblivion with way more counterfeit products in the markets than the original ones.
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A representative form of tie-dye, bandhani happens to be as old as the Indus Valley Civilisation itself. And though it was in China that the craft of tie-dye first originated, it quickly found its most articulate admirers in the Indian-subcontinent, with Gujarat and Rajasthan becoming the major hubs for the craft.
Almost a must-have in the bridal trousseau for Rajasthani and Gujarati brides, Bandhani happens to be a prized possession for the amount of precision and craftsmanship that goes into its making. Bandhini basically refers to a resist-dyeing technique in which the desired fabric is first plucked with fingernails and then tied with a cotton thread in order to yield a figurative design. However, before that the fabric is first dyed in the desired colour for the bandhani dot that mostly happens to be either yellow, white, or red. The fabric is then tied with threads in a labour-intensive process, which is followed by dying the saree in the desired colour. Once the saree dries up, the tied areas are opened to reveal the finished pattern.
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A welcome departure from an otherwise vibrant array of Indian handicrafts, Kerala’s airy Kasavu sarees are as elegant as they are beautiful. Embraced lovingly for all kind of occasions within the Malayali community, the Kasavu is intricately interwoven with Kerala’s cultural legacy. And while you must have surely spotted one of these pristine beauties on either Asin or Samatha Prabhu at some point, you’d be surprised to find out that it is actually just the border (zari), and not the entire saree, that is referred to as kasavu.
Minimalistic as it is, a traditional Kasavu saree generally consists of a plain cotton body and the zari border which can come in varying thicknesses and can be made with anything right from real gold and silver zari to semi-precious ones. You can ascertain the value of this handloom beauty by the fact that Kasavu garments can easily be re-sold at a decent price even after they have been torn and tattered.
The story of Chanderi weaves is as ethereal as their appearance. With its origins in a small village in Madhya Pradesh, Chanderi has actually evolved a great extent in comparison to its original weave. Chanderi first rose to prominence sometime in the 11th century, a period when export routes to India opened in a way that enabled a lot of handloom activities to flourish in the country. However, back then, the textile was woven entirely with cotton.
It was only with the introduction to silk yarn from Japan sometime around 1945, that the Chanderi evolved to become a combination of a silk warp and a 100-count cotton weft, which were woven together to yield a buttery fabric. Today, there happen to be artisans who create silk or silk chanderi. The fabric derives its exquisiteness from the fact that each and every single loom that goes into its making happens to be a handloom.
While just the mention of the word Patola sarees makes one think of Patan of Gujarat, not many know that patola has a certain Marathi connection to it. According to the most popular story, the patola sarees rose to prominence in the 12th century in Gujarat as more than 500 weavers from the Salvi caste moved to Gujarat to win the patronage of the ruling Solankis. It was at that time that this saree became a favourite among the royal women.
Just like most handloom sarees, patolas are also manufactured by the warp and weft technique. However, what makes these sarees unique is thee resist-dyeing technique that makes creating them a time-consuming technique. Vibrant as they are, every single of these sarees is made using a number of colours with each one of them playing an important role in deciding the overall pattern of the textile.
To add to the complexity, patola looms are tilted to one side and thus need two people to work on every single piece and even then the complexity of the pattern and the mathematically elaborate patterns make these sarees so expensive and valuable.
Hailed as one of the most advanced hand-weaving crafts across the world, Jamdani was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2013. To weave a Jamdani, motifs are added to the fine cotton fabric by adding a denser thread to warp threads by hand. A really intricate and time-intensive craft, Jamdani is known for its motif-rich textiles that have a way of mesmerising people with their delicate patterns.
However, the technique happens to be so labour-intensive that an artisan is said to be able to create only a quarter and one inch of the fabric of this glorious textile. The motifs that appear in these sarees are mostly inspired by nature and appear in geometric patterns.
Lastly, it is integral to remember that as we talk about the popularity of these weaves, it is important to note the contribution of artisans in the evolution of these crafts. Because we pay a hefty price to a designer brand to purchase any of these. Perhaps educating ourselves about the beauty and significance of these crafts is also a way of changing our consumer practices and how we approach fashion on a day to day to basis. Now, that’s some food for thought, right?
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