What happens when you miss one of the most-sought after textile exhibitions? You order a richly illustrated book titled – ‘Baluchars- The Woven Narrative Silks of Bengal’ edited by Jasleen Dhamija and published by Niyogi Books.
Actually, early this year Darshan Shah of Weaver’s Studio Resource Centre had put together a Baluchar retrospective at the National Museum, New Delhi. It had taken nearly 10 years for her to showcase for the first time under one roof covetable personal and museum collections from V&A in London, Indian Musuem- Kolkata, TAPI collection in Surat-Gujrat, CSMCV- Mumbai, Musee Guimet – Paris, and Delhi’s very own National Museum and Crafts Museum.
In regard to that and the release of this book I met Jasleen, the ex-President of Jury for UNESCO’s Award for Creativity in Textiles and Chairperson of the Handloom Development Working Group of the Planning Commission (12th Plan) of Indian Textiles and Handicrafts. I felt like a little child eagerly listening to her elusive tales of the Baluchars, and their exoticism.
Bengal’s woven narrative silks
Recounting their story she began, “Textiles have always been a big part of our lives. The Baluchars too elucidate the history of the 18th and 19th century Bengal, in terms of their life-style, and influences of various cultures which came to India in search of textiles. These woven narrative silks point out and evoke an interest in us. Some believe that it was the foreigners who bought these as souvenirs while few think these were gifted to the highly sophisticated courtesans as favours, as those women always wanted to be a part of the aristocracy.”
Excerpt – Changing tastes of India’s elite and the impact of imported cloths threatened to destroy the skill needed to weave complex cloths of this sorts. A few commissions came from the enlightened British officials. The European content of the design reflected this new patronage. A European mounted on an elephant is reading a letter or report – symbols of traditional modern authority amusingly positioned, side by side. Here the European was the patron and the agent and these subtly woven pictorial motifs were intentional.
“The disappearance of Baluchars is a mystery. People presume it could be because Dubraj Das, a prominent master weaver, did not teach anyone his skill. But there were other skilled weavers who signed their original pieces, which meant they had a sense of pride for their own designs. On the other hand, many felt it could be due to loss of finances from their European patrons and the Nawab of Murshidabad – Murshid Quli Khan. Then again, there is a mystery about who really wore these saris??!!! ” narrating, she sketched a poignant picture.
The Ashavali connection
The other regional saris of Bengal do not use an elaborate pallu like the Baluchars. Their khada pallu is more appropriate for the Gujrati style. Even the local muslims would not wear it because they were figurative. At the time of its origin a large Jain Gujrati merchant community settled in Murshidabad district – Azimganj, Jiaganj and Lalgola, when Bengal’s capital was shifted from Dacca (Dhaka). Being highly influential by the virtue of being financiers and the jewellers to the Mughal Empire they had built a number of temples and turned the entire area into an important pilgrimage. These wealthy Marwari families had supposedly brought Gujrati weavers along with them, who worked with the local ones to initiate this weaving.
Building on her new findings the author said “In the beginning some people thought my assumption was too far-fetched, or incorrect, but later when Radhika Chirag Lalbhai – a textile revivalist, supported my summation of them being influenced by the Ashavalis of western India, then the prominent experts paid heed to it.”
The Baluchar speciality
Its elaborate pallu is distinctive. The framed pictorials relate to the miniatures of Murshidabad School of Paintings. Kalka in the center represents the presence of ‘Devi’- an Indian goddess. Woven on harness loom they are quite different from other well known Bengali weaving techniques. Having used only Murshidabad mulberry silk which was soft, buttery and lustrous, they draped well. And, the contrasting warp and weft gave it a ‘dhoop –chchaon” effect.
While, in the Bishnupur, Malla rulers’ Vaishanav culture of terracotta temples impacted their art and craft. Thus, the region’s Baluchars had a completely different pictorial style with scenes of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
A cognoscenti would surely notice the harmonious synchronization of hindu and muslim influences. ‘Namavalis’ are special fabrics with mantras repeated all over the body of the fabric. Created in different languages, but the ones in Bengali, Oriya, and Devanagri are the most popular.
Excerpts -This inscribed fabric perhaps started with the Muslim community, where the tradition of Tiraz textiles were very popular. These were mostly made of linen, wool, cotton or a fabric called mulham and were given as robes of honour to courtiers and ambassadors in the Khila ceremony, where they served an a symbol of an individual’s loyalty to the caliphate. In Mecca, finely woven fabrics embroidered with verses of Quran were used to drape the Kaba known as Kishwah. This practice of draping fine fabric over the tombs of Sufi saints spread to India too. The Indian weavers might have taken inscription from inscribed textiles of the Islamic world, but under the influence of the Bhakti movement, and interpreted them in their own style.
-They often include easily understood religious symbols associated with god being propitiated – trident or damru of God Shiva, footprints of Lord Vishnu, Om, conch shell, scared cow, Surya, the venerated Sun, etc. Devotees believe that adorned with mantras and symbols such chaddars work as a protective shield.
Signed Butidar Baluchars
In one chapter Eva Maria Rakob, who has studied the Baluchar Butidaar for her PhD, mentioned analysing more than 400 textiles to find only thirty-two saris with a signature woven in the Bengali script by master craftsmen – Dubraj Das, Yajneshwar Kar, Goshna Karikor or Khudiram Biswas which makes them very rare and valuable.
Highlighting her research too, Jasleen added “For the first time, someone has spoken explicitly about Dubraj Das, an illustrious master weaver. He was originally a Chamar (a widespread caste in northern India whose hereditary occupation is tanning leather), who used to make drums. After that he became a part of a company for which he sang and danced. That led him to meet a wandering sufi who taught him the making of ‘Jala’ or naqsha drawing. This could be an important connect as ‘naqshaa-makers’ were part of the sufi tradition which originated in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.” She had arrived at this after exploring and working in both Benaras and Central Asia (from where the ‘naqshabandis’ originate).
About the patterning, she touched upon “The Kalighat painters of the Murshidabad School of Painting miniatures could have drawn the naqshas for these saris as they were adept at capturing daily life uptil early twentieth century.
So, there are wheels within wheels that tell you the whole history of the region. The Gujratis and the Islamic tradition, aesthetics brought in by the Central Asians, Armenians, Middle Easterns, and the Europeans who came to the Indian subcontinent for trade, left an imprint on the society.”
For All India Handicrafts Board, on behest of Subho Tagore and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Jasleen visited Benaras armed with authentic Baluchars made on the traditional ‘jala loom’. So, as an authority she believes that the true quality after Murshidabad is woven only in Benaras (after 1955-56). Its revival here can be credited to Late Ali Hasan alias Kalloo Hafiz (whose lineage is traced back to Hazrat Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshaband Bokhara Rahmatulla Alia), an expert naqsha-maker, imaginative pattern drawer, and a highly accomplished weaver. His son, Jaffar Ali (who is also no more) reproduced a number of traditional patterns and now the grandsons are carrying forward the legacy that even connoisseurs like Rai Krishan Das ji of Bharat Kala Bhawan find difficult to differentiate, between the original and the replica.
Significance of Nazarbattu, Kalkas and Colour
On the originals, not so conspicuous yet extremely important were their ‘Nazarbattus’. This ritual was traditionally followed when textiles were designed by master weavers themselves. It was incorporated to seek protection for both the wearer and weavers from negativity. An intentional flaw was introduced with either a different colour or pattern signifying that only god could create something so perfect. Since the Baluchars of Bengal were original expressions of the master weavers, only a few saris had it. It is noted that the revived ones in Banaras make no such mistake as they are purposefully commissioned to copy.
Its Kalka motif found in the center of the sari’s elaborate pallu is an authentic Tree of Life representing the imprint of Mother Goddess’s feet. Complaining, Jasleen pointed out to our loose usage of the word Paisley for the same, which she feels is belittling the Kalka. Connecting the dots she informed me about Paisley – the small town in Central Lowlands of Scotland, where it was fabricated on a jacquard loom from our cashmere shawl.
Such textiles have always being a part of our rites of passage with significant auspicious motifs and hues. For example, a widow earlier was not allowed to eat any spice, any ‘rasa’, or wear a colour which brought joy to her. Akin to it, Baluchars come in a wide range of colours other than dark blue or black.
Bishnupur’s GI discord
More than a century ago its original technique died in Murshidabad. But, because Bishnupur, within the state, had a lot of silk and silk weavers Weavers Design Centre and Subho Tagore joined hands in re-initiating the weave. Sadly, their texture is not the same and nor are their designs even though they are called Baluchar. Jasleen, the veteran historian on Indian textiles, strongly believes they might have been given the GI but are not anything like the original Baluchar. Bearing the brunt of the ACT are Banaras’ replications which are of far superior quality. Infact, the Bishnupur ones are made on jacquard looms with thin silk which devoids them of their embossed pictorial nature. Even their low pricing has become a deterrent in comparison to what they were worth initially.
The Evolving Contemporary
Moving with times in the coffee-table book Ritu Sethi – the Chairperson of the Craft Revival Trust talked about its contemporized version – the two-shade Minakari, or the Swarnchari with gold and silver metallic yarn giving stiff competition to the brocaded Banarasi sari as a ‘must-have’ in a Bengali bride’s trousseau. Beyond Bengal the Bishnupur Baluchar has been given a tribute by DKNY for Vogue Magazine under an ambitious Project Renaissance curated by Bandana Tewari. And did we know, the most expensive sari entered in the Guinness Book of World Record is a Baluchar with Raja Ravi Verma’s painting woven on it’s pallu?!
For a history and textile enthusiast these 244 pages dissect the conditions, inspirations, materials, techniques and aesthetic qualities of this weaving tradition. The book outlines the evolution of Baluchars from those woven in the Murshidabad district to those created and reproduced in Bishnupur and Banaras.
*Like in the folklores, Baluchar – the place disappeared from the face of Bengal, yet its weave fought back to become legendary.
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