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The Lost Tartan Khes of India

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

The Lost Tartan Khes of India

Sethi, Ritu

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“The most important of the Punjab cotton manufactures are now the Khes….” This high praise from B. H. Badden Powell, ICS officer in the Imperial administration in the late 19th century, further qualified the Khes as “rare and beautiful”.  Now not to be found either in museums or in any well known collection this many centuries old tradition is practiced by a solitary 70 year old weaver in Panipat.

While a wide variety of Khes was woven in both silk and cotton, in either plain or patterned weave combined with color threaded borders or interwoven with gold yarn, it was the geometric mixed-checkered double-weave patterns very similar to the damask Tartan of Scotland, with the obverse and reverse sides appearing differently that were acclaimed.

  1. Lockwood Kipling – the father of Rudyard when writing about the Khes stated “… the cloth is prized for winter wraps…” adding that it was “suitable for some European uses… (as) these cloths are something like the ginghams and checks of England.” The Khes was usable on both sides and Kipling attested to its hardiness as it was “…proof against water, and will stand any amount of washing and knocking up by the washerman.”

The names given to the weaves were lyrical in their description – from the simple or Sadaa Khes that had lines and checks that were woven straight across or down the cloth to the the Khas  or special Khes with its patterning weft yarn interlaced alternately with the warp to create diagonal geometrics. The poetic Bulbul Chasam or the eye of the nightingale pattern with its diagonal diamond pattern with a dotted-eye in the center; the gulbadan or many-coloured that was constructed by combing a single colored warp with multi-hued weft threads to produce a combination of stripes and W-Shaped patterns to the Charkhana or four-cornered check. The Khes patterns and color choices were determined, as in the Tartan, with different communities and religious beliefs. From the expressly woven Jat-ka-Khes or the Khes of the Jat community to the special colors woven for the Hindu and Muslim communities, what remained evident was its wide clientele and their individual weaving preferences. For the cognoscenti the appeal of the Khes was replicated in silk and made more precious with the metallic gold and silver zari yarns interwoven into the floss silk. Called the shahi-khanis or royal squares they were comparable in cost and beauty to the Jamevar shawls of Kashmir. High praise indeed

The Khes was traditionally woven in a pit loom that was built wider than the norm and equipped with four to eight or more peddles depending on the skill of the weaver and the complexity of the patterning involved. These reversible patterned damask Tartans were created using the clever and unusual diagonal weaving technique that used a twin warp thread that was interlaced with the shuttle to create the two-sided look. The appeal of the Khes also lay in its many uses and sizes, from being donned as a men’s shawl to being a base for beddings and as a counterpane.

Soon after the seismic partition of India and the displacement of huge numbers of people the newly formed government, encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi, actively worked towards a scheme to resettle the displaced weavers in the then small town of Panipat in Haryana. Efforts were made to provide the weavers housing, work-sheds, looms and other facilities that would smooth the progress of their work. Within a short time span the industry and endeavor of these erstwhile refugees led to Panipat being known as the “City of Weavers” and the “Textile City of India” where all manner of cotton and woolen textiles were being woven. The Khes weave too took root under the direction and leadership of two master weavers Shree Narayan Kaul and Shree Govindlalji who introduced new and innovative complex patterns that were poetically named Chandni Gulbahar or the moonlit rose-red, Laila-Majnoo named after the doomed lovers, Gol-Chakkar – the squared circle, and other equally evocative labels. These pioneering developments continue to take place and till the late 1980’s over two hundred and fifty looms were dedicated  to the weaving of the Panipat Khes that was celebrated across the country.

However with the start of the export boom in textiles Panipat became the go-to-place for home furnishing with its resultant emphasis on quick deliveries, deadlines, price-points linked to international designs and deliverables. This led to the inexorable move towards power-loom, replacing the handloom and the slow and steady decline of the complex time consuming Khes weave. Now only Shree Khem Raj Sundariyal, master weaver, continues his lone battle to preserve the heritage, skill and history of the traditional Khes. While continuing to train young weavers, adapting his craft to produce more contemporary products he faces an uphill climb though his efforts have won him many accolades including the prestigious Sant Kabir award he fights a lonely battle to keep the legacy of the Panipat Tartan alive.

First published in the Sunday Herald.

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