Heritage,  Sarees

My Saree Stories: Part 14

Time to talk about some more spectacular weaves of India in this edition of my saree stories. Read about the glorious heritage of the Patola saree, the Ponduru khadi, the Aayiram butta saree, the Jawariya daana saree, and the Baavanbuti saree.

Saree #131: A resplendent Patola from Gujarat

So much has been heard about the tragic death of an elephant that I felt like wearing a saree with elephant motifs in solidarity. And I chose to wear a saree that was lying untouched for several months now. A Patola from Gujarat. Given the current circumstances, I don’t know when there will be a special occasion to wear it, so I chose to make today special instead, by wearing it.

But there are many parallel stories to share about this saree.

Last year in January, I travelled with my friends to Gujarat. We wanted to do a heritage trip where we explored the weaves of Gujarat along with its architecture and the stunning Rann of Kutch. Somewhere along this trip we had planned to go to Patan and see the Patan Patola museum. We had a good trip where we saw the International Kite Festival at Ahmedabad. From there we travelled to Modhera to see the dazzling Sun Temple. Then we moved to Patan. I remember reaching the Patan Patola museum and seeing the closed doors. My face dropped in disappointment. This museum is not closed on Diwali, New Year or Christmas. The only day of the year when it is closed is on Makar Sankranti, and I had chosen to go there on that very day! I remember sitting quietly on the steps outside the museum for a full 30 minutes ruing my fate. But then I consoled myself with two things. One, photography isn’t allowed inside the museum. So in any case I wouldn’t have enjoyed writing about it on my blog minus the photographs. And secondly the price of genuine Patan Patolas is upwards from Rs 1.5 lakhs, which was way outside my budget. So what was the point of seeing the museum? Just a way to provide solace to my meandering mind, I guess. But then all the nearby shops were also closed on Sankranti and I didn’t get to buy anything, despite going all the way to Patan.

However all was not lost. We did visit the spectacular Queen’s stepwell – Rani ni Vav. I clicked loads of pictures, including those of the designs which inspire Patan Patola patterns. You can read my story and see the stunning pictures of the Vav that I clicked here.

Coming back to Patola sarees. They have an intriguing 800-year old history. Patan was the glorious capital of the Solanki empire. It is said that weavers from the Salvi community with expertise in making these textiles originally belonged to Jalna in Maharashtra. But the Solanki king, Kumarapala had a tradition of wearing a new holy cloth each morning at prayer. This ‘holy cloth’ was always a Patola and it was discarded after the prayer. He wanted to be sure of the ‘purity’ of the new cloth which he received from Jalna. So he entered into a pact with the rulers of Jalna, and around 700 families of Patola weavers shifted to Patan under the patronage of the Solankis.

The Patola was an exclusive fabric worn only by the royalty and the aristocracy. Even today only the rich and famous can afford Patolas. There was a time when these fabrics were more famous outside India than within. Traders sold this fabric to Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia through the sea route, and it inspired the development of the Indonesian ikat style.

What makes the Patan Patola such a prized possession which is coveted by connoisseurs? It is not just the vibrant colours, but the tedious process of making a saree. Weaving one saree can take anywhere between 8 months to over a year. This is a double ikat tradition where both the warp and the weft are dyed before weaving. But first the traditional geometric designs are drawn on graph paper. The silk is hand-twisted to strengthen it. The process of weaving is more complex than the double ikats of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. Imagine ensuring the intricate design is correctly made on the threads before they are woven on the loom. The process of colouring the threads step by step by covering them by thread sequentially to get the right pattern is unimaginable. The loom itself is unique having a decline-incline style which needs two weavers to weave it simultaneously. A rose wood shuttle called ‘vi’ is used at the loom which led to the community being called ‘Salvi’.

It is a lot of hard work, which unfortunately does not give adequate dividends. So the children of these weavers are drifting to other professions. At the moment there are around 3-5 families in Patan which closely guard the secret of weaving Patan Patolas. The truth is that despite the GI tag, it is a dwindling art tradition, which needs more experts and practitioners.

Watch the weaving of a Patola saree here: 

There was no way I could have afforded a Patan Patola, so of course, my saree is not the real thing. This is a semi Patola which is 8 ply, which makes it as thick as the Patan Patola. And it tries to replicate the traditional design. This saree has a Nari Kunjar Popat Phul Bhat. Bhat means pattern. Nari means dancing woman, kunjar means elephant, popat means parrot and phul refers to flower.

Nari Kunjar Popat Phul Bhat

Being a Kanjeevaram lover, I didn’t think much of Patolas before I wore it this morning. But now that I have experienced the grace of wearing one, I am tempted to save up. Who knows whether I can wear a real Patan Patola once in this lifetime? What stops one from weaving castles in the air anyway?!

Saree #132: A Ponduru Khadi with a jamdani pallu

This saree is a Ponduru khadi with a woven silk jamdani pallu.

Ponduru is a small town in Srikakulum district of Andhra Pradesh. It shot to fame after Mahatma Gandhi’s praise of its quality of khadi. I stay at Sevagram and so for us, wearing khadi is a way of life. But the khadi that we get here, although comfortable, is coarse. Ponduru Khadi is extremely soft and thin. It is said that Gandhiji preferred to wear dhotis made from Ponduru. The trick is in the special indigenous organic cotton which is used. Two special cotton types, namely Punasa cotton and Hill cotton (both white cotton and red cotton) are used. This variety is surviving with difficulty in the times of BT hybrid cotton.

This saree is woven with the single spindle charkha. Sadly, the weavers and their families who are engaged in this tedious process of ginning and weaving were paid paltry wages of Rs 40-60 per day. No wonder, that they encourage their children to choose other professions. From the initial 2000 weavers less than 100 weavers remain who are adept at this craft. In the process, a valuable craft will soon disappear. Some efforts have been taken by the Andhra Pradesh government, but we can all do our bit by encouraging these weavers and buying their work. What can be worse than the fact that the weavers cannot afford to wear their own creations.

This blue saree, with the bright pink border caught my attention instantly. Because of the Tree of Life motif woven on its jamdani style pallu. To make this, a paper design is placed below the loom and the colours of the design are woven. The Tree of Life design has a number of colourful birds in conversation with equally colourful flowers. This is one of my favourite possessions.

Saree #133: A hand-drawn Madhubani on khadi saree

Today’s saree is an off-white khadi with hand-drawn Madhubani style peacock motifs all over the pallu and along the borders. This is a saree from Bihar. I paired it with a Kalamkari print blouse. This saree is a gift of love from Smita Singh ma’am and I really loved the combination. I have written about Madhubani sarees earlier as well (Saree #1, #26, #82).

Saree #134: A Baavanbuti saree from Bihar

Baavanbuti sarees are handloom woven sarees from Nalanda in Bihar.

Baavanbuti weaving is renowned for its iconic fifty-two miniature butis (motifs) on the fabric. This is a result of a small, yet significant technical innovation. The loom is prepared with warp (vertical) threads that run the length of the finished fabric. Sitting at the loom, the weaver works on the weft (horizontal) threads. This yields the pure, plain cloth. Any small woven motif or a scatter of woven motifs needs extra thread (extra weft), which are woven on the loom. Bavaanbuti weaving is similar to satin-stitch embroidery, except that the shuttle of the loom replaces the embroidery needle; the extra weft replaces the embroidery thread and patterns are directly woven into the structure of the fabric as the weaver continues to weave. This style weaving was revolutionary for its time and marked the beginning of cotton-on-cotton brocade.

The genesis of the word ‘Baavanbuti’ lies in the realm of mythology, folklore and tradition. The word for fifty-two, ‘Baavan’, holds special significance in the region as, not so far away, in a place called Amaawa, there lies a dilapidated old palatial building known as Tirpan Darwaazaa Baavan Kothi, with fifty-three doors and fifty-two rooms. However, there are numerous other folktales talking about the origin of Baavanbuti.

Weavers residing in Biharsharif, in particular, have the expertise in creating aesthetically-woven scenes from Buddhist folklores on the handloom fabric of various hues. The Buddhist symbols chosen as the woven motifs are the ‘Bull, ‘Elephant’ and the’ Pipal Leaf’. The Ashokan Pillar with the Bull Capital found in the historical buddhist sites of Rampurva in Bihar, was erected by Emperor Ashoka. The ‘Pipal leaf’ on the other hand, signifies Buddha’s Seat of Enlightenment. The Ashokan Pillars with the four animals of the Elephant, Bull, Horse and the Lion figurines as their Capitals, are symbolic of the four stages in Buddha’s life. The ‘Elephant’ being the symbol of Conception, the ‘Bull’ as the symbol of Nativity, the ‘Horse’ the symbol of the Great departure or Renunciation and the ‘Lion’ the symbol of Buddha himself.

The ancient Buddhist city of Nalanda in Bihar, Baavanbuti was once a thriving and celebrated weaving technique. Unfortunately, this tradition was lost in jeopardy of mass flooding of mill made textiles and as a result, most of these weavers abandoned their looms in search of alternative employment. The pioneering efforts of connoisseurs of handloom and handicrafts like Upendra Maharathi, played a vital role in the revival and sustenance of this great tradition in the early 1940s. Despite these efforts, the drastic decline of the handloom sector in general in the post- independence era resulted in a generational depreciation of this traditional knowledge system. An immediate intervention was required with the few weavers capable of skills within easy recall at Basawanbigha, a small village of Nalanda, who were struggling to keep this tradition alive.

These sarees have been revived and promoted to give sustainable livelihoods to the weavers. More recently, this revival effort has been re-energised by the Asian Heritage Foundation, led by an internationally renowned designer, Rajeev Sethi, who took upon themselves to specially design an international make-over for Nalanda’s famous Baavanbuti sari tradition using buddhist motifs which are sold under the artisan-owned brand of ‘JIYO’, keeping in view the long sustaining international tourist interest in the Buddhist sector of Bodh Gaya, Nalanda and Rajgir.

(This information has been reproduced from the Jiyo website)

Saree #135: A cotton handloom Aayiram butta saree

Since I grew up in the south of India there has always been an ardent desire to explore the weaves of Tamilnadu. And this special saree had been evading me until now. This is a Kanchi cotton with the classic aayiram butta design. Aayiram is the Tamil word for thousand. So this saree is what you would call hazaar buti in Hindi and thousand motifs in English.

The entire body of the saree has equal sized squares woven on it. And within these squares are floral motifs in alternating lines of ochre and beige colours. Being the curious cat that I am I actually sat down to count the butas and found that there were not 1000 but actually more than 5300 buttas! More than a fair deal!

The thread work on the pallu is beautiful and has the yannai (elephant) and mayyil (peacock) motifs woven. All along the red border you can see the typical annapakshi designs. I have written about Annapakshi motifs earlier (See Saree #61).

This is a cool and crisp cotton saree to wear on a hot summer day. Makes you feel formal and comfortable.

Saree #136: A Bangalore silk saree with Kantha embroidery

This saree is a Bangalore silk adorned with Kantha embroidery. I fell in love with it at first sight. The white stitches simply stood out on the blue background with their geometric symmetry. There were more choices in more regal colours, but something about this spelled quiet elegance, and I picked it instantly.

Saree #137: A green banana silk saree

This is a saree made of plant silk that my husband bought for me from Kerala. And it is made of banana silk. India is the world’s banana fibre hub. The fibrous stems of the banana plant yield these fibres which are woven into fabric. While the inner lining is soft like silk and has a lustrous sheen, the outer lining is rough like burlap. When it comes to silk sarees, the whole sustainable and organic process of developing banana silk from the inner lining is expensive. The outer lining which is cheaper is used to make mats, rugs and other such artefacts.

Also have a closer look at the block prints all over the saree. There are subtle floral motifs and hidden between them are peacocks with gorgeous feathers, deers and elephants.

Saree #138: A Jawariya Dana Saree from Madhya Pradesh

Tired of wearing drab clothes every day I needed a desperate change. So picked up a soft mul cotton to beat the 44+ degrees C heat here. Today’s saree is from the Neemuch district of Madhya Pradesh. It is called the Jawariya dana saree. It is named so because the tiny dots all over the saree resemble the millet, jowar or sorghum. These are made by the tribal people of Tarapur. These are the preferred colors. This saree in addition has a block printed buta palla which is typical of Tarapur prints. You might have seen these in Fab India collections where they are often mistaken for Bagh prints. These prints have a striking combination of alizarin hand block printing on the body and Dabu resist techniques on the border and parts of the pallu. They are so comfortable, elegant and inexpensive that I’m thinking of ordering a few more.

Saree #139: An ilkal from Bijapur

Today’s saree is a blue ilkal which my friend Dr Medha Joshi picked up for me from Bijapur so throughtfully. Comfortable and cool. It has the typical chikki paras border. The special silk pallu of this saree is woven with the signature striped bands of red and white popularly known as the tope teni seragu. Ilkal sarees have the unique and ancient weaving technique where the cotton warp for the body and art silk warp for the pallu are externally knotted and joined. I have written about ilkals earlier as well (Saree #111)

Saree#140: A simple khadi silk

In the early days of my marriage, my husband had visited Varanasi on some official assignment. When he returned he brought back two silk sarees for me. Like only men can think, they were identical, except for the colour of the borders! Why? I don’t know! And in case you were expecting grand Benarsi sarees, you are mistaken. They were simple khadi silks. Because that is what our budget could afford then, when we had just joined as lecturers after completing our post-graduation. But I still love these sarees, for their simplicity and their elegance. They smell of love and apnapan. Something money cannot buy.

Catch up with my previous blogs on sarees if you haven’t done so already.

My saree stories: Part 1
My saree stories: Part 2
My saree stories: Part 3
My saree stories: Part 4
My saree stories: Part 5
My saree stories: Part 6
My saree stories: Part 7
My saree stories: Part 8
My saree stories: Part 9
My saree stories: Part 10
My saree stories: Part 11
My saree stories: Part 12
My saree stories: Part 13

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