The West Bengal Textile trail

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The British Museum website has a document from 1730 listing the range of textiles or the “piece goods” purchased in Bengal by the Company. During the 18th Century, Indian textiles comprised 60 per cent of the total value of the Company’s sales in London. Purchases included fine muslins, printed chintz, cotton and silk ginghams and embroidered quilts.

That textile tradition has continued to thrive. Even today, handloom clusters in Bengal are known for their unique designs and techniques. Which is why we set out on a sari trail (organised by Co-optex) to explore the handloom tradition of Bengal. Such a trail is akin to a combined treat of mishti doi and sondesh!

A weaving trail is quite an experience for a sari lover — you get to understand the tough conditions of handloom weavers and weaving societies, the technical expertise of weavers, the exquisiteness of the weaves, the success stories of clusters, and, best of all, you get to shop directly from the societies.

Jamdani has been declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The excellence in weaving has its base in the social, religious and natural environment, and it is translated through a particular technique and weavers’ skill. We witnessed this first-hand when we visited the well-known clusters of Begampur, Shantipur, Fulia and Kalna.

Today, the Begampur sari has bewitched wearers with its bright colours and tribal embroidery on the pallu, rendered entirely by hand. But, it was revived only in 2010, thanks to the measures taken by the Weavers’ Service Centre (WSC), Kolkata. The Centre found that though the cluster had skilled weavers from Dhaniakhali, the traditional ‘Matha Par’ saris were not in demand. It took them three years to enthuse the demoralised weavers. Today, the average monthly income of a weaver has gone up by about Rs. 7,000 to Rs. 10,000, because of focus on design development, weaving techniques, dyeing and printing interventions, and WSC’s branding and marketing advice. And, all this was possible with a Government sanction of just Rs. 50 lakh. Today, the Begampur cluster is a registered handloom brand. They also crossed the Rs.1 crore revenue mark within three years.

Shantipur in Nadia has been renowned for its handlooms from 1409 CE. Santipuri saris were the first-ever from West Bengal to receive a Geographical Indication. They use a “Do-Rookha” technique to weave a double-sided design — the sari looks the same on either side. The skilled weavers now also weave jamdani to boost their income, and were named ‘Model Cluster of India’ last year at the National Handloom Day celebrations in Chennai.

The flowy drapes of cottons and linens from Fulia, neighbouring Shantipur, have taken the market by storm. They are famous for Tangail saris, and Fulia weavers have developed their own version of the Daccai (tangail jamdani) on the pallu. Most weavers in Fulia are from the Basak community, and are supposed to be descendants of the famous muslin weavers of Dhaka, who migrated during Partition.

The highlight of our trip was a visit to the village of Kalna, a famous muslin weaving centre, in Burdwan district. We crossed the River Hooghly to meet Rajib Debnath, a sixth-generation muslin weaver. His father Jyotish Debnath is a National Award-winning master weaver. Rajib, who initially took up a job in Hyderabad, returned to his roots to produce the finest of jamdani muslins. It’s inspiring to see how he applies educated decisions in his business — to suit both the Indian and western markets.

The father and son specialise in muslin jamdani — they use the long-stapled cotton grown in the region, and skilled women weavers across pockets of Bengal spin hand-spun yarn from this cotton. The use of hand-spun yarn, lightweight translucent muslin and hand interlacing of the weft by jamdani without any loom attachments is the unique weaving feature. Rajib explains: “While khadi is simply hand-spun, hand-woven cloth, muslin is woven from very fine high-count khadi yarn.”

Sadly, there are only two people around who can weave 500-count fine muslin. Finally, Rajib performs the ultimate test of muslin — a 600-count muslin stole glides through a finger ring. There could have been no better way to conclude a textile trail than by witnessing tangible proof of fine craftsmanship.

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