The extraordinary skill of the Indian textile craftsperson’s and weavers is visible not only in museums and collections all over the world but in everyday life and practice in India. Whether it be an elegant indigo and white woven handloom length, a complex, mathematically precise double tie-dye Patola ikat, a brocaded tapestry destined for couture houses in Europe , a floral woven sari of gold, an embroidered rumal used to wrap a gift for a visiting head of State, a hand printed textile created with multiple inter-connected wooden blocks to be sold in the high streets of Europe or a painted textile temple hanging revered and worshiped, they represent but a small fraction of the vast repertoire of Indian craftsmanship of creating and embellishing textiles through spinning, dyeing, weaving, tying, embroidering, painting, embellishing and block-printing.
Using material as varied as wild silk to cotton, hemp, jute, banana fibre, wool, pashm and tree bark the textile tradition represents everything that it great about Indian craftsmanship- originality, versatility, design and technical virtuosity and adaptability to contemporary modes. A lineage stretching back over five millennia, excavations at ancient sites of the Indus Valley have unearthed needles, spinning implements and a fragment of madder dyed cotton, revealing evidence of an already highly developed textile tradition. Further evidence through literary references, paintings, sculpture, all reveal a vibrant and evolving textile culture. While Vedic sources of the Samhitas, Brahmanas, the great epics of the Ramayan and Mahabharat, the Buddhist Jataka legends reveal details on dress and clothing and their making. Further on in time the murals painted in the Ajanta caves, dated to the 5th century A.D., depict a culture evolved in every aspect including textile.
These legendary textiles were exported to the known world, both East and West as is revealed from the accounts of travellers from Megasthenese, the Greek Ambassador at the Mauryan court to Pliny writing in Egypt. While from the latter half of the first century A.D. we have an unknown Greek traders log book the Peripilus of Erythrrea listing textile exports from India and their ports of exit. Better documented are of course the developments as recorded in the Mughal period, when luxurious and extravagant textiles for the courts of the great Moguls received an enormous boost. Followed by the Dutch, the British East India Company and French and Portuguese interest and trade in Indian textiles.
This technology, the skill and the equipment is present today sustained, kept alive and vibrant by the guru-shishya parampara tradition of the passing of inter-generational knowledge transmitted from one generation to the next, orally and through daily diligent practice. The art of textiles – the weaving and embellishment continues to be practised across the whole of India, distinguished by its directory of motifs, its vocabulary of form, the immense regional differences, based on customs and practices of textile usage that continue to be influenced by geographic factors and predisposed by historic influences and cultural and ritual underpinning.
The unstitched garments of India – an unbroken lineage of the saris, dhotis, dupattas, angochas, turbans representing directories of design colours and technique. Textile skills across India are deeply embedded linked as they are to their community and cultural rootings that have been nurtured and kept alive by Indias highly skilled craftspeople who constitute a living repository of this historic legacy. Textile usage continues to be alive and vibrant, distinguished by distinct textile traditions each with its own unique history and regional influences, playing critical roles in local ceremonial and ritual life, signifying rank and community belonging, and on occasion, also representing the transmission of influences from other cultures.
With the largest extant number of handlooms in the World that is supported by a technically skilled pool of craftsperson’s and weavers India continues its fabled textile journey. Creating complex lengths of fabric on indigenously designed and maintained looms from the ergonomic back-strap, loin loom used by women across the North-Eastern States to weave once all daily chores are completed to the complex Gathua looms used in Varanasi. From tribal belt of Korapur in Orissa where heavy cotton woven with auspicious motifs in colours obtained from the roots of the al tree is woven to the light as air muslins of Bengal. The gold and silver brocades of Banaras, a must have in every North Indian wedding, to the brocaded jewel like colours of the Paithani of Maharashtra enamelled in luminescent colours. The pristine white cotton bordered with elegant gold Kasava of Kerela unique among textiles to the indigenous raw tussar silk weavers of Bhagalpur in Bihar; the much desired tapestry woven shawls of Kashmir spun out of the finest of Pashmina to the Gyasar brocades, ritually woven within the iconographic and iconometric rules laid down in the Buddhist scriptures by weavers in Banaras for Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan and other places around the globe.Kanchipuram the place for silk temple saris with contrasting borders, the thick Chettinad cotton saris with earthy colours, Mysore silks and Balrampuram saris. No travel in India can be complete without a vist to a textile centre to watch in the home of the craftsperson the making of these textiles; and no possession of a textile is more special than that which is direct of the loom and bought from the maker.
The Ikat technique wherein the cotton or silk yarn for the warp or weft or both are tied and dyed in such a mathematically precise manner that when woven the pattern emerges almost magically in the woven textile is a technique perfected in different centres of excellence across India. This technique in its most complicated form is practised in Patan, Gujarat by a single family of weavers who weave the double ikat famed Patola in Gujarat. Woven exclusively by the Salvi family the red, black, yellow, white geometric and floral patterns are
still woven with a waiting list for saris extending up to 3 years. The technique also includes the double and single Bandha of Orissa with its elegant and sophisticated feathery finished patterned motifs that emerge in the tying and dying. The Telia Rumal, so named as woven squares were earlier exported to the African and Arab coast for use as lungi’s and head and shoulder cloth with the use of oil in the preparatory process reflected in the naming. Over the last few decades the weaving of the Telia has been extended to cotton and silk saris, textile lengths for clothes and a flourishing home furnishing market that is supplied by weavers working in Hyderabad, Pochampally, Chirala and Puthupaka in Andhra.
Bandhini in Rajasthan, Bandhej in Gujarat, the Sungadi of Andhra all use the technique of tying multiple and intricate dots on to the textile to create intricate, colourful and detailed patterns. With multiple ties and repeated dying those areas that are tied reserving their colours to create colourful sari’s, stoles, wraps, turbans and textile lengths craftsperson’s in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Bikaner in Rajasthan and in Jamnagar and Bhuj in Gujarat continue to ply their trade.
The Leheriya, literally the wave patterning on fabrics unique to Rajasthan, where cloth is diagonally rolled and resisted by binding with threads, dyed in myriad hues and resisted again to create multi coloured lines and chequered patterns is popularly used for turbans, sari’s and wraps.
Another form of textile patterning present almost across the country with unique regional and cultural differences is hand block printing. Using intricately carved wooden or metal blocks, with a built-in ingenious system of air vents block printers of the Chippa community pattern textile lengths. The technique is datable to at least as far back as to the 13th Century with the archaeological finds of printed cotton fragments at a site in Fostat near Cairo believed to have been imported from India. It can safely be assumed that block printed fabrics were being produced and exported from some time before these datable remnants. A still vibrant tradition the Chippas, literally printers, continue to create textiles for contemporary usage with traditional techniques. Plying their trade at centres famous for their particular techniques, with a still vibrant tradition creating textiles for contemporary usage with traditional techniques. With an enormous motif directory and a finely tuned and variegated colour palate a range of block printing techniques is used by the craftsperson including resist printing on textiles with wax, mud, lac and mern to mordant dyeing and printing to discharge techniques The craftsperson manipulate the block within a hairs breadth of the other with deft dexterity to create an explosion of prints and colours for clothes of all variety and for home furnishings for domestic and overseas trade. An expert block printer could use up to 14 blocks for a motif, gradual layering up to create a completed fabric that could go through 21 process stages and take over two months to produce. Distinct traditions continue till today in centres from Ahmedabad, Surat, Baroda, Deesa, Rajkot, Bhuj, Dhamadka, Ajrakhpur, Jamnagar, Bhawnagar, Jetpur, Mundra in Gujarat; Jaipur, Sanganer, Barmer, Balotra, Pipad, Bagru, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Udaipur, in Rajasthan; Bagh, Indore, Mandsore, Jawad in Madhya Pradesh. Machlipatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
No chapter on textiles can be complete without reference to Khadi – hand spun, hand-woven and a potent symbol of the Swadeshi movement of the Mahatma. This was a unique protest an indigenous standing up against the might of the British Empire, an emotional rallying point in the fight for India’s independence.
The method of teaching and learning remains the same over the millennia –apprenticeship system the Guru-shishya parampara, most often hereditary passed on from one generation to the next.
Traditions through alive are under threat, as is the livelihood of textile weavers and textile embellishers. It will require a concerted and sustained effort from all of us to ensure that this essential part of our cultural fabric and these keepers of our tradition are nurtured for the next millennia. So next time you travel anywhere in India remember that a weaver, block printer, a dyer, an embroiderer is somewhere waiting to be discovered – be a part of the textile journey.