Heritage,  Sarees

My Saree Stories: Part 15

Welcome to yet another edition of my saree stories after a long break. This time there are legends and traditions and the history of unusual sarees. I’m sure you have heard of Baluchari, Chikankari and Ponduru khadi sarees. But have you heard of Nandana sarees, Gollabhama sarees, Bathukamma sarees and Dokhonas? And there is also a saree recreated from Mrs Indira Gandhi’s wardrobe. Read on.

Saree #141: A Baluchari silk with Meenakari work

This winter I really looked forward to attending weddings as I had sarees waiting for a chance to be aired. They just needed an occasion to be showcased. And one of these sarees is my prized possession from Bengal: my magenta Baluchari saree. These sarees are known for their woven panels which depict scenes from mythological stories.

The history of Baluchari sarees is intriguing. The art of weaving these exquisite sarees flourished in the small village of Baluchar in Murshidabad in Bengal in the middle of the 16th century. This craft of weaving ornamental silk was later patronized by the Nawab of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan. Earliest versions of the Baluchari depicted scenes from the royal court, harems, hunting scenes, horse carriages, etc. Since these silks were exported to Persia, their clients’ sensibilities were kept in mind. Later Mughal motifs also inspired some designs, as did geometric Rajasthani miniatures which are still seen at the edges.

Somewhere in history, a huge deluge in the Ganges, submerged the village of Baluchar, forcing the weavers to shift to Bishnupur in Bankura district. Another reason for the migration was the dwindling patronage from the Nawabs. Bishnupur was then ruled by the Malla dynasty, who were devotees of Lord Krishna. Bishnupur is famous for its terracotta temples dedicated to Krishna. Researchers who have studied the textile heritage of Bishnupur note that some of the weavers had surnames like Kharf or Keef, and probably came from Murshidabad after the 1757 Battle of Plassey. However at that time, the Malla king was already bankrupt from paying revenue to the East India Company, and he was in no position to patronize these weavers. Economics, market demands and lack of patronage by the colonial rulers affected the weavers badly and the art of weaving Baluchari sarees began to decay.

After independence, the director of the Indian Textile Design Centre (Calcutta region), Subho Thakur, and founder of the Craft Council of India, Mrs Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay tirelessly worked to revive the art of Baluchari weaving. They got master weavers like Akshay Kumar Das Patranga to learn the technique of using Jacquard looms. In 1957, Gorachand Diyashi a weaver wove the first Baluchari using the Jacquard loom.

In 1984, a master weaver, Gurudas Lakshman was requested to design a saree with a story from the epics. He drew the story of Sita Haran from the Ramayana in six panels and wove it on an exquisite Baluchari saree. The first row showed deer in Panchavati. The second depicted the trio of Ram, Laxman and Sita departing for the vanvaas. The third row showed Sita enamoured by the golden deer (who was Mareech in disguise). The fourth row showed Ram chasing and shooting the golden deer with his bow and arrow. The fifth row showed Laxman leaving the hut to rescue Ram on hearing his plea for help. The sixth and last row showed Sita being abducted by Ravan, and Jatayu fighting him. These rows were repeated in the inverse sequence another time. The popular actress Moon Moon Sen modelled for this saree, and suddenly Baluchari sarees were in demand.

These days, panels carved on the walls of the terracotta temples of Bishnupur are reproduced on the Baluchari sarees. Scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Krishna Leela adorn the pallus of these masterpieces. Popular themes include: Childhood of Krishna, Kaliya mardan, Raslila, Eklavya’s offering of his thumb to Drona, the battle between Ram and Ravan, the burning of Lanka by Hanuman, the chausar game between the Pandavas and Kauravas, the killing of Abhimanyu, Bhishma lying on a bed of arrows etc. A look at the Baluchari saree will show you how the craftsman has poured his bhakti into his work. The richness of the colours and the lines and forms reflect their dedication to their craft.

Broadly balucharis can be classified as: Resham balucharis where silk threads of a single colour are used to create patterns; Meenakari balucharis where threads in two or more colours highlight the patterns better; and Swarnacharis which are woven with gold or silver coloured threads, often with additional meenakari work.

This particular saree is a Meenakari Baluchari. The lady who sold it to me told me that this scene is from the Mahabharata with Arjuna woven into the pallu. But the more I look at it, the more convinced I am that this depicts a scene from the Ramayana. Notice the tall archer with a broken bow in his hand. This seems to be a scene from Sita’s swayamvar where Ram has broken the Shiv Dhanush. In the border there are two lads tying a horse, and it seems like a scene from the Ashwamedh Yagna with Luv and Kush. Enjoy a closer look at the woven panels.

Saree #142: A Nandana block printed saree from Madhya Pradesh

The sun is shining down mercilessly. It is too hot to wear a saree. But I am feeling low with this “new normal” where smiles are replaced by masks. Wondering if I have to spend the rest of my life adapting to these masked visages. I know I desperately need to wear a saree to feel better. So I reach out for a soft mul cotton. This pine green saree is a Nandana saree.

Nandana sarees are known for their block prints. This tradition goes back to over 700 years, but there are very few families left who are still engaged in this art form. They are exclusively made in Tarapur in the Neemuch district of Madhya Pradesh by the Chippa community (also written sometimes as Chhipa).

The Chippas originally belong to Rajasthan and you can see how they capture some of the desert motifs like red chillies on these sarees. It is believed that they were originally from the warrior class with hunting as their main profession.

Sometimes legends and stories add to the spice. So here are a few tales about why this community came to be called Chippa. The oldest tale goes that when Lord Parashuram went on a rampage killing all kshatriyas as a revenge for the murder of his mother, two brothers of this community hid behind the statue of the deity in the Devi Hinlaj Mata temple. The act of hiding (chhipna in Hindi) gave them their name Chippa. It is believed that the Devi herself gave them the first block and told them “chhapai ka kaam karo”. Which is another version of why chhapai turned into Chippa.

A third version says that the words Chippa come from two Nepali words. Chi means “to dye” and Pa means “to place something in the sun”. A manuscript called Balwa Pothi in Gujarati claims that these dyers and printers were originally Rajputs from the Nagaur district of Rajasthan. They took up this new trade on migrating to Gujarat.

A version which I find more logical is that these men fled from Rajasthan to escape the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur or Taimur. This group was perhaps led by Saint Namdeo and reached Madhya Pradesh. They picked up this profession and came to be called the Namdeo Chippa community. They are mostly settled in villages on both sides of the Gambhiri river in Tarapur and Umedpura. The mineral content in the water of the river helps in producing the rich colours on coarse cotton.

Coming back to the Nandana sarees. Producing them is a tedious process which is why there are few takers and the number of artisans is dwindling. Nandana block prints are unique as not much modifications have been made to the four or five original motifs made on the blocks. These were originally used to design ghaghras of the Chippa women and constitute a part of the clothes gifted on Raksha Bandhan or Teej.

The motifs carry meanings. The Amba (mango) motif is usually linked to fertility and is gifted on marriages and to pregnant ladies. Champakali (magnolia buds) were commonly worn by unmarried girls. Then there are other motifs such as mirchi (red chillies) and jalam buta (creepers). When a pair of flowers is used they are called dhola maru. Notice the mirchi and champakali motifs on my saree.

What I liked about these was the comfort level in this summer, but also that they could easily be thrown into the washing machine without a care.

Saree #143: A silk Gollabhama saree from Siddipet

Siddipet is a sleepy district in Telangana. The district has recently been carved out of Medak district. If you do a Wikipedia search, it will sound as a bland place, as nothing of importance is written on that half page description. Disheartened, I look at the government website. It talks of some temples and a reservoir, but nothing more. But in this sleepy district some quiet weavers are at work on their looms, creating masterpieces called Gollabhama sarees. I turn to Wikipedia again to learn about these Gollabhama sarees. It has a three-line description. And it merely mentions that these sarees have a Geographical Indication status. This when the GI tag was received in March 2012. Monumental neglect, if I may say so!

So what exactly are the Gollabhama sarees? These are sarees which were originally woven with cotton with 60s-80s yarn both in the warp and weft. These sarees are woven on the pit loom and frame loom. The extra weft work on the border, body and pallu is what makes these distinctive. These sarees are adorned with the woven motifs of maidens carrying pots of milk on their head and hands. This is the classic Gollabhama motif which is made using the traditional jala technique of weaving. The motifs of these lehenga choli clad maidens are usually woven in white against the bright colour of the saree.

The motif is heavily influenced by the folklore of Telangana. The term Golla refers to the cattle rearing community. These milk maids are the mythical gopis who carried milk, curds and butter for the dairy loving Lord Krishna.

In 2016, two articles wrote about how these sarees were fading out. One of these was an article by R Avadhani in The Hindu. He wrote how it took three days to weave a saree, and how the master weaver got a measly Rs 350 for each saree he wove. Not surprisingly the system collapsed and most weavers chose to drift away. They found newer sources of income from other occupations. From around 2000 expert weavers, their number dwindled to a dozen or so.

These articles helped in creating awareness, as did saree groups. Suddenly the demand from saree aficionados grew and everyone wanted to own a piece of heritage. Now the demand is high while the trained hands are few. As the weavers adept in this craft are few. They usually weave sarees based on orders. There are also attempts at experimenting with newer colour palettes.

The Gollabhama motif

During the lockdown, I read an appeal from a Siddipet weaver telling us about the financial upheavals due to lack of orders. I contacted him and ordered two sarees. This is my first one, a silk Gollabhama in purple and green. It didn’t drape too well and the silk was thin. But I guess the hard work that goes into weaving these tiny motifs made it worthwhile to own one of these.

Saree #144: A cotton Bathukamma saree from Siddipet

This is another saree bought from the Siddipet cluster of weavers, although this is a cotton one. Although this was called a Gollabhama saree, you will notice that the motifs woven into this saree are not milk maids carrying pots on their heads. Instead the motifs depict ladies carrying mounds of flowers. These are Bathukamma and technically, this should be called a Bathukamma saree.

So what exactly is Bathukamma?

Bathukamma is a nine-day festival celebrated in Telangana and some parts of Andhra Pradesh. It coincides with Navratri. It starts from the day of Mahalaya and goes up to Ashtami day. It indicates the beginning of sharad-ritu or winter. In Telugu, bathuku means life. And bathukamma means “the Mother Goddess has come alive” and this festival celebrates Maha Gauri or Parvati.

What is the story behind this festival?

These celebrations go back almost a thousand years. The Rajarajeswara temple in Vemulavaada (present Karimnagar) was under the reign of the Rashtrakutas. However the Chola king, Sundara Chola was an ardent devotee of this Shiva temple, and even named his son Raja Raja. During Raja Raja Chola’s reign, his son Rajendra Chola attacked the Rashtrakutas. To please his father, he plundered the Rajarajeswara temple and took its huge (bruhat) Shivlinga called the Brihadeswara to Thanjavur. The Shivlinga was installed in Thanjavur’s Brihadeswara temple. It is said that Parvati (or Bruhadamma) was left alone in Vemulavaada without her consort and couldn’t be comforted. The people of Vemulavaada try to console Parvati during the nine day festival dedicated to her.

There are other legends around this tradition as well. One story goes that once Maha Gauri had killed Mahishasura she was fatigued with the battle and went to sleep. The devotees pray asking her to wake up, and she does so on Dashmi.

Another story says that Bathukamma was the daughter of Chola king Dharmangada and Satyavati. A hundred sons of the royal couple were killed in battle, and the couple prayed to Goddess Lakshmi to be born as their daughter. She agrees and is born as their daughter. At her birth, several sages bless her with immortality saying ‘Bathukamma’ or ‘live forever’.

How is the festival celebrated?

A mound of flowers shaped like a gopuram or the Meru mountain is arranged on plates called thambalam. These flowers and leaves are beautifully arranged in seven concentric layers. Several of them are seasonal flowers with medicinal value and are gathered from the wild plains. On top of the mound, a symbolic idol of Gauri is made out of turmeric. This floral structure is worshipped as the Goddess Bathukamma. If you look at the Bathukamma saree motif, it shows women carrying these plates of flowers arranged in mounds on their heads.

Women dancing during the Bathukamma festival.
PC: Dr Padmaja Raju Nishant

The nine days have different significance. The festival is celebrated by women and young girls, and is cause for dressing up, song and dance. Each day a different naivedyam or prasad is prepared. Different cereals and food items such as sesame, rice flour, boiled lentils, jaggery, flattened rice, corn etc. are used to prepare different offerings. On the ninth day, five types of rice dishes are prepared: curd rice, tamarind rice, lemon rice, coconut rice and sesame rice. The courtyards are smeared with cow dung, and muggu patterns or rangolis are made with rice flour. The idols of Bathukamma are prepared of cow dung on the first five days. Songs are sung where Parvati is invoked. Each year people thank Gauri for a good harvest and seek her blessings for the next year’s crop.

The last day of the festival is called Saddula Bathukamma which coincides with Durgashtami. The Bathukamma is immersed in a visarjan ceremony. Before that, all married women smear their mangalsutras with the turmeric paste which had formed the idol of Gauri. The young girls pray for good husbands, while the married ones pray for the health and prosperity of their families.

I found this thin soft onion-pink cotton saree comfortable and ideal for a sweaty humid day. There are other sarees, which are thicker and look like Narayanpet sarees with the Gollabhama motifs. But I think this one is the original, woven with 60s – 80s yarn both in the warp and weft. Hope you enjoyed reading about the origins of this unique motif.

Saree #145: A saree revived from Mrs Indira Gandhi’s wardrobe

One of the best advertisements for the saree was former Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi. Perhaps due to her close association with Mrs Pupul Jaykar, she had a deep understanding of Indian handlooms and weaves. Her collection had traditional sarees from almost all states of the country. Her taste was eclectic and her personal style has been an inspiration whenever the saree is used for power dressing. I have always admired Mrs Gandhi’s sartorial choices.

On the occasion of her centenary in 2017, one of the many ways to commemorate her birth anniversary was an attempt to recreate her sarees. A textile designer from Bengaluru, Pavithra Muddaya, got a chance to examine 14 of Mrs Gandhi’s sarees. And she recreated these lost weaves in different colour palettes.

The saree which I am wearing is one of the 14 sarees which Pavithra has revived. This is called the pooja saree, and seems to be one of Indira Gandhi’s favourites. When she was cremated after her assassination she was draped in a rust coloured pooja saree. I tried to find a photo online with her wearing this kind of saree and I have posted it.

This is a saree with a chequered pattern and a Manipuri style pallu. The saree is woven with a pure silk warp and a cotton weft. It drapes rather elegantly for a silk-cotton blend. When the designer tried to recreate the original, the weaver said he couldn’t weave the border or recreate the ikat dots on the saree. So Pavithra Muddaya changed the border to get the ikat dot effect. She also made the weaver weave a dotted line right through the weft. The Manipuri motifs on the pallu remain true to the original.

Didn’t mind the grey streaks in my hair today for obvious reasons. And paired it with a silver dragonfly pendant that Subodh bought for me.

Saree #146: A Ponduru Khadi saree from Andhra Pradesh

This saree that I’m wearing in a Ponduru Khadi saree. Ponduru (pronounced पोंदूरु) is a town in the Srikakulam district of north Andhra Pradesh. Ponduru khadi is one of the finest khadis produced in the country and has its own GI tag. It is said that when Acharya Vinoba Bhave visited Ponduru he was gifted a khadi dhoti which was three metres long. It was so fine that it could be packed into a matchbox!

What makes Ponduru khadi so interesting is the painstaking procedure of weaving it. It is produced from indigenous organic cotton of a very short staple length. Two types of cotton are used to make Ponduru khadi: the red or Punasa cotton, and the white or hill cotton. While the red cotton gives a metric count of 44-65, the white count gives finer khadi with a metric count of 71-100.

There are eight steps which go into preparing this fabric. First, the cotton is cleaned in a unique manner. The serrated jawbone of the Valuga fish which is found in the fresh waters of the Godavari river is used to remove impurities from the cotton. Step two is where the seeds are removed from the cotton by rolling a thin wooden stick over it. The third step is called paralleling. It involves removal of more impurities from the cotton using a thin broomstick. The fourth step called slivering, involves further deep cleaning of the cotton using a nylon thread and bow. This cotton is then spun in the next step and placed in dried banana stems. This process of fine spinning is different for the red cotton and white cotton, and yields different metric counts. The next step involves making this thread into sutgundis. These threads are then coloured and painstakingly woven into khadi fabric using the single wheel charkha.

Have a look at this video to grasp the hard work that goes into making an inch of khadi:

Saree #147: A Dokhona with Aronai patterns from Assam

This is a Dokhona saree which is a weave from Assam. This is woven by the Bodo tribes of Assam. These are thick but soft cotton sarees with distinct designs.

The lady who sold it to me said it was an Aronai saree. I didn’t understand then but came and found out the aronai is a scarf which can be tied around your waist or head. Much like the Assamese gamosa. So these are probably traditional Bodo weaves used on those scarves which are now replicated on sarees.The dominant feature here is the emphasis on geometric and linear patterns.

The Dokhona drape is very different from a Nivi style drape and was traditionally wrapped around the bust without a blouse. But these days Bodo women have begun wearing blouses. Bodo women wrap these sarees starting from the chest and reaching up to their ankles, with a knot on the left side.

Dokhona sarees can be either plain (called Matha Dokhona) or with designs (called Agor gwnang). The Bodo term for design is Agor.

Among the sarees with design, you can have designs all over the body of the saree (called mwdwm gongse agor), designs only in the border (called jing jing aaolo agor lanai) or small designs in both body and border (called gejwraobw ese agor erdernai). So my saree has a mwdwm gongse agor!

There are several designs which are popular among the Bodi weaves. The Hajw Agor (mountain design) and Pareo Megon (pigeon’s eye) are two commonly used designs on both Aronais or sarees. The other most commonly used designs to decorate attire of Bodo women are: Bandhuram Agor (design first crafted by Bandhuram Kachari), Daorai Mwkhreb (peacock), Phul Mwbla (varieties of blooming flowers), Dingkhia Mohor (fern leaf), Bwigri Bibar (flowers of plum), Muphur Apha (footprint of bear), Agor Gidir (diamond shape) and Gorkha Gongbrwi Agor (twill design).

I think you can spot the fern leaf like motifs in my saree. I just adored the vibrant fuschia patterns which stood out.

Saree #148: A lavender saree with a sona rupa border

A few weeks ago I was rummaging through my trousseau collection which has been stored separately. My best sarees have been stolen. But that is a story for another day. Snuggled between some gaudy Benarsis and Kanjeevarams which I find too heavy to wear, was this crisp lavender saree. Perhaps a gift from someone in the extended family. Wonder why I never wore it before. Maybe I found the sona roopa border too dhinchak for my taste.

But on closer inspection, the peacock motifs in white were quaint and unusual. So I wore it, and realized two decades later, that I could carry off dhinchak sarees as well!

Saree #149: A georgette saree with chikankari embroidery with Bakhiya work

I watched Gulabo Sitabo last night. Keeping in with the Lucknawi theme of the film I decided to wear a saree with the shaan of Lucknow: Chikankari embroidery.

The delicate embroidery done in white all over this lime green saree was irresistible. If you look closely there are some stitches which you can identify. The first is Bakhiya or shadow work. This is a flat straight stitch where the shape is filled on the wrong side and the shadow effect is seen on the front. These designs are bounded by running stitches called Rahet or Dohra Bakhiya. These are double lines of running stitches which give a neat outline to the shadow work. The third stitch which is prominent in this Chikankari saree is called Murri which is a raised stitch in the form of a small knot. To make this grain like shape, diagonal stitches are worked several times to form a knot on a basic tepchi stitch. Tepchi refers to long darning stitches.

Lucknawi chikankari embroidery is so subtle that it is best adorned with simple pearls for that elegant look, and those were what I reached out for this morning.

Saree # 150: A simple kota saree with Phulkari embroidery

This saree is from Punjab, the land of five rivers. This saree is adorned with Phulkari embroidery. I picked up this saree on my last trip to Chandigarh.

Phulkari embroidery uses darning stitch on the wrong side of coarse cotton cloth. Brightly colored silk threads are used to create geometric designs. The designs are not drawn but made by counting the threads on the yarn.

Traditionally, this embroidery was done on coarse khaddar fabric as it made it easy to count the yarn. ‘Phul’ means flower and ‘kari’ means work. Phulkari finds a mention in 7th century chronicles like Bana Bhatt’s Harshcharitra. Why, even Waris Shah’s version of Heer Ranjha from the 18th century talks of phulkari embroidery being part of Heer’s trousseau. In Punjab, phulkari embroidery can be seen on embroidered dupattas for everyday use. Here the embroidery may be sparsely made on the edges or centre of the cloth. However for ceremonial occasions like weddings this embroidery covers the entire cloth, such that the base cloth is not visible. These pieces are called Baghs. I did pick up a few of these fully embroidered pieces as gifts. They are expensive but a nice addition to your collection.

Phulkari embroidery is a painstaking and time-consuming art that strains the eyes. The biggest challenge to hand-embroidered Phulkaris today is that the market is flooded with relatively inexpensive machine-made Phulkaris manufactured in factories in Amritsar and Ludhiana. Consumers have become less discerning. Relatively low remunerations have made hand made phulkari embroidery an economically unviable option for many young women, who do not want to take it up as a means of livelihood.

Catch up with my previous saree stories, 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
My saree stories: Part 14

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