Weaving jamdani wonders

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Communities of the weavers of Jamdani saris flourished with Mughal patronage in Varanasi.  The word jamdani is of Persian origin – jam means flower, and dani means vase or container. The Mughal aristocracy lifted the textile to its heights, when they captured the centers and these woven dreams were presented in all their diaphanous beauty to the Emperors year after year. The luminous gold in the sheer tissues is so subtle and captivating.

By Sabita Radhakrishna

Communities of the weavers of Jamdani saris flourished with Mughal patronage in Varanasi. Kamala, a festival organized by the Crafts Council of India, will showcase exquisite creations of Jamdani at the Lalit Kala Academy, Chennai, in January 2011.

Apart from being the seat of culture with its poets, philosophers, musicians and textiles, what is prominent in Varanasi is the rich brocades, the soft jamdani and the versatile draw loom. The jamdani is a great technical achievement of Indian weavers and it means “loom-embroidered,” truly one of the most exquisite products of Indian handloom fabrics. The word jamdani is of Persian origin – jammeans flower, and dani means vase or container. In Pupul Jayakar’s words, it is a cloth that is “light to the body, that moves to the gentlest breeze, a cloth of great beauty recalling flowers and running water and moonlight…” indicating the delicacy of its color and weave. The Mughal aristocracy lifted the textile to its heights, when they captured the centers and these woven dreams were presented in all their diaphanous beauty to the Emperors year after year. The luminous gold in the sheer tissues is so subtle and captivating.

Traveling techniques

Varanasi bears the tradition of weaving fine cotton fabrics, but the more popular silks may have been acquired from migratory weavers from Gujarat in the mid-eighteenth century. The cotton fabrics are woven loosely with fine cotton yarn and brocaded in the jamdani technique with floral sprays or scrolls in metal thread or cotton yarns and bear similarity to the cotton jamdanis of Bengal. Weavers turned to silk and organza because they fetch a better price for labor.

The design range is mind boggling. There are geometric motifs, floral creepers and buttis, the ubiquitous paisley, even a bunch of flowers. Persia, China, Tibet and Europe have undoubtedly influenced the jamdani weave. This is a craft that has been nurtured by royal kharkanas supported by royalty or nobility from Varanasi, Avadh and Rampur. The Mughals have contributed enormously to this splendiferous craft through their unstinted patronage. The delicate fabric requires immense weaving skill and consists of woven motifs in additional weft over a transparent and delicate background, which is often in a pale color. Very often the main body of the textile is woven in unbleached cotton yarn and the design is woven in bleached yarn in threads heavier in count than the background, which makes the subtle contrast exquisitely beautiful. What sensuous pleasure to watch shadow on sheer transparency, in attenuated color tones! The extra weft is worked to give the special effect to the motifs, placing the design placed under the weaving frame. The jamdani butta was an ornamentation used often in ancient India. This specialized loom embroidery entailed the working of exquisite floral or geometric motifs to cover the entire body of the cloth, using bamboo spindles separately for each motif (and not any technical contrivance), like the naksh to help the weaver formulate his design. Very fine yarn is used which could easily break if the weaver is careless. The traditional motifs in jamdanis are chameli, (jasmine)panna hazaar (thousand emeralds), genda butti (marigold flowers) pan buti (leaf form), and lehari (diagonal stripes). Today the treadle operated jacquards have replaced the naqsha as a pattern device and has saved substantially time and labor, doing away with the draw person.

It was during Mughal rule and patronage that the muslin weaving in Bengal reached heights and the legendary Ab-i-Rawan or “flowing water” was woven. The locally grown cotton was so fine that it lent itself perfectly to the weaving of softest of muslins. Sir George Watt during the British reign is said to have been amazed at its sheer delicacy when he passed the delicate fabric through a ring.

Some saris are patterned with meenakari (enamel work) where the background is in silk and the zari used for the design. The classic khinkhab whose noble antecedents were favored by Mughals and the courts of Northern India, is gold twilled, compacted with motifs sometimes married to silver in the single motif. These gold and silver brocades are converted into yardage for luxury furnishing and the heavy brocades converted to garments for the nobility.

The draw loom is a complex hand loom for weaving figured textiles. The design harness used in Varanasi is one of great complexity and width and it is the cross cords which lift the warp for executing the pattern. All these intricate arrangement of cords form the design module called the naqsha. The designing of the naqsha was done by extremely skilled naqshabands, a diminishing set of artisans. Today the dependency is removed with the introduction of the treadle operated jacquards, which have saved substantially, labor and time, and the extra draw person. With the decline of Mughal patronage, the crafts persons migrated to other centers and Avadh became a center for jamdani weaving.

Going natural

In a bid to address the contemporary market Chola-pur clusters in Varanasi have been working on a new range, in natural dyes like Allium Sepah (Onion Skin), Jathropha Gossipifolia (ratanjot), Acacia Chundra (Katha), Indigofera Tinctoria(Indigo), Punica Granatum (Pomegranate), and Hellianthus annus (Sunflower). These natural dyes have been specially developed with the help of Weavers’ Service Center — Varanasi. This collection “Shabnam …Lak weaves in Natural Dyes” will be showcased at the exhibition.

Weavers in Varanasi faced the impact of Chinese “Benares brocade saris” imported at a fraction of local prices. Again this is a story of utter poverty and despair and the weavers unwilling to remain shackled to a crippling tradition. Thousands of weavers around Varanasi became pawns on the chessboard of a capitalist system of merchants, brokers and bureaucracy. There are different reasons in every state for traditional weavers to move away, but craft NGOs together with the government have to protect their interests and give them sufficient incentive to carry on with their centuries -old skills.

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