Varanasi/Banaras is a high-quality weaving centre known for its wide variety of techniques and styles and its famous silks, with zari. The figured silk brocades of Banaras have densely patterned motifs in gold thread (zari) or in silk, which creates a three-dimensional impression. Banaras fabrics, according to Lynton’s The Sari, find mention in ‘several early first millennium Buddhist texts’, leading to the conclusion that ‘Varanasi seems to have been a centre of fine textile weaving for at least two millennia, although it is unclear as to whether these textiles were of silk or cotton.’
Traditionally, the weaving was done with naksha drawlooms; now jacquard equipment is used. The weavers or julahas at Banaras are Muslims known as Ansaris. Some of them trace their history back to AD 990, which ‘is about the period that the naksha drawloom is supposed to have been introduced into India’ (Lynton: p. 54).
TECHNIQUE & EQUIPMENT
Traditionally, the weaving was done with naksha drawlooms; now jacquard equipment is used. Before proceeding with weaving, the design is drawn out, on paper by a special category of craftspersons called naqshaband. This design is then woven on a small wooden frame.
Though the zari figured silks of Banaras are called brocades, ‘technically, they can be classified as both brocades (fabrics with discontinuous supplementary weft patterning) and lampas, figured silks (figured silks with at least two warps and/or two wefts) (Lynton: p. 54). Supplementary thread designs, including dense border patterns, are almost always woven as discontinuous supplementary-weft with the highly decorated end-piece usually ending abruptly in a piece of unembellished cloth, (15 to 50 cm).
Traditional Banaras brocades can be broadly classified as follows:
ZARI BROCADES: In which the patterning is in zari or gold/silver thread.
The kincab/kinkhwab is a heavy gilt brocade, in which more zari work than underlying silk visible. The zari comprises more than 50 per cent of the surface. Often used as yardage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these are popular wedding saris nowadays.
The bafta/ pot-than / baft-hana are lighter in gilt brocades than the kincab, and more of the underlying silk is visible. The zari comprises less than 50 per cent of the surface.
AMRU BROCADES: In these brocades, the supplementary weft patterning is in silk and not in zari. A traditional Amru brocade is the tanchoi. The tanchoi ‘is a …densely patterned, heavy fabric…with no floats on the reverse – the “unused” threads are woven into the “foundation” at the back. Traditionally, the face of the fabric has a satin weave ground (warp threads) with small patterns made by the weft threads repeated over the entire surface’ (Lynton: p. 56).
It is believed that in the last half of the nineteenth century, three Parsi brothers by the name of Chhoi learnt the technique of weaving these brocades in China and introduced it in Surat (Gujarat in western India). A descendant of the brothers continued to makes tanchhois in Bombay till the 1950s but was forced out of business by the less expensive versions of the Varanasi weavers. [tan = three; tan Chhoi = three Chhois]
ABRAWANS: Muslin Silk/Organza Base: In the third variety, the ground material is a transparent muslin silk or organza, with a zari and/or silk thread patterning. So this can be a zari brocade or an amru. The amount of zari visible can also vary, and can cover more or less than 50 per cent of the base material.
A sub-category is the ‘cut-work brocade‘ in which the ‘transparent silk fabric has supplementary-weft patterning woven in heavier, thicker fibres than the ground. Each motif is not separately woven in by hand as a discontinuous weft; instead the ‘threads extend the entire width of the fabric, leaving floats at the back that are cut away by hand after weaving’ (Lynton: p. 56).
Another sub-category is the tarbana (woven water) in which the weft threads of the ground are zari, not silk, thus creating a metallic sheen. ‘Several other weights and shades of supplementary-weft zari are used to create the patterning,’ creating an extremely rich textile.
Some of the very exquisite weaves are accomplished with only gold threads, and without using silk. Designs are created with gold embellishments on a silver background. Such a style of using gold and silver threads together is locally called ganga-jamuna (after the two most sacred rivers in India, the Ganga and the Yamuna). The famous tissue sari of Varanasi is unbelievably delicate, combining the use of gold and silver metallic threads.
MOTIFS & DESIGNS
Like other decorative arts the textile industry in Banaras was influenced by Mughal artists. Strong Mughal designs are visible in the motifs, especially intertwining floral and foliate motifs; a characteristic motif of the Banaras brocade is a string of upright leaves along inner and outer edges (jhallar). This is a particular characteristic of the Banaras brocades. Jewellery designs, stylised birds, animals, flowers, creepers, and almond and paisley motifs formed the main repertoire of designs. Hindu religious motifs also influenced the brocade designs, specially for the pichwais and calligraphy textiles. The common motifs are beldar or scroll patterns, and the butidar designs which usually have stars and spangles all over the body of the sari.