The landmark Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 showcased the best resources and products from over 33 British dominions. Inaugurated by Queen Victoria it received over 5.5 million visitors – an unprecedented record for an exhibition. The comprehensive catalogue that accompanied the exhibition while describing the magnificent array displayed at the Indian pavilion contained these cryptic words “3 pieces of the Benaras Kinkhabs or cloth of gold brocades call for no special remarks….” Going on to say “…but (they) command attention as the most effective of all the fabrics shown.” Elaborating further they described the fabrics as “the gorgeous and beautiful Kinkhabs and gold brocades from the looms of the holy Banaras”
Kashi, Banaras, Varanasi – the many names of one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world whose textile links have been and remain an interinsic part of the city. From the c. 2nd century B.C when Patanjal, the great grammarian in his text Mahabhasya mentions kasika textiles as being more precious than others to references in ancient Buddhist and Jain literary sources that mention Kashi as an important weaving and trading centre, the glimpses continue through the ages. The principle history of Mahmud of Gazni, Tarikh –us –Subuktigin by Baihaqiin written in the 10th century listed the textiles of Banaras as one of the prized plunders of his raids. Kabir the great weaver-mystic poet lived and worked in Banaras in the 15th century. In his 16th century chronicle Ralph Fitch, merchant and trader wrote of the cloth is made there for the Mughal court. Though his visit to Banaras was brief Jean Baptiste Tavernier the French jeweler and merchant was struck by the wealth of Banaras that he credited to its textile industry. Accounts of weaving and the trade in the textiles of Banaras continued from the Storia Do Mogor by Nicolai Manucci, the Italian who wrote of the great trade of gold and silver fabrics from Banaras to other parts of India and overseas in his detailed account of the Mughal court in the late 17th century to writings on Banaras up to the present times the unchallengable links remain.
The textiles that writers and traders exclaimed about were not only the sumptuous silk brocades or the Tarbana with its silk warp and metallic gold weft that created the fine, tissue textiles and the fine cotton weaves that Banaras was known for since antiquity but the legendary Kinkhab the jewel like cloth of gold and silver literally meaning ‘little dreams’ in Urdu. With over a hundred thousand people engaged in both the weaving and the pre and postloom activity the economy of Banaras remains inextricable connected to the loom. Using techniques that include the Kadwa which uses several weft shuttles of differently coloured threads to create the patterns to the Urtu where different grounds are made possible in individual patterns. The Fekwa throw shuttle method results in surface patterning to the Katraua cutwork patterning. The Nal Pherwa three shuttle technique where two of the shuttles wove the contrast borders while the third is used for the base the textiles are woven using a variety of loom structures from the pit looms with throw shuttles to the Gathwa thread frame and Jacquard looms.
The continuing familial handloom traditions with weaves whose structures, techniques and physical quality remains related to the past can be seen in the 6th generation of the family that wove the cloth of gold that were displayed at the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition. Located in Pilli Kothi, the ancient stronghold of Banarasi weaving the family patriarch Badrudin Ansari of Kasim Silk Emporium strives to achieve a balance between the preservation of the established while innovating and adapting textures and patterns to the times and changing clientele.
While Kinkhwab with specially commissioned real gold and silver metalic yarns continue to be woven – taking two months to complete a bolt of four meters – the family is now equally known for the weaving of the Gyasar brocades for Buddhist monasteries across the globe. The densely patterned silk with auspicious Buddhist symbols and floral imagery is rich with gold and silver threads. Usually woven in widths of 24 inches in pit-looms using the discontinuous supplementary warp technique it is used as altar pieces, drapery for walls, canopies, door and window frames, robes for the Buddhist clergy, as hangings, as a backing for Thankha paintings. The latest addition being the use of the textiles in building authentic film sets for Hollywood movies like Kundan and Back to Tibet. For the laity the weaves are woven for special wear as robes for women , capes for men and as trims.The weaving of the Gyasar was introduced at the time of Badrudin Ansari’s father Haji Nooruddin. Since the 1970’s the weaves have been supplied for traditional dress to the Royal family of Bhutan, while their Kinkhab are used across the globe for both dress and furnishing in palaces and luxury homes.
The house of Kasim is also known for its Morpankhi, woven with peacock feathers combined with a silk warp. The textile shimmers in iridescent colors and Badrudin Ansari was awarded the Presidents National Award in 1987for his skill in weaving it. The feathers gathered in the monsoon when the peacock moults are painstaking woven in a time consuming process that allows for the completion of a 8 meter bolt taking about 2 months to complete with the furnishing fabric supplied to not only Rastrapati Bhavan but to the Kuwait Royal home.
Continuing to nurture their ties and trade links with the world outside they now have a customer base spread across the globe that includes international designers to their the weaving of sacerdotal fabrics for Greek Orthodox churches.
First published in the Sunday Herald.