History’s brocaded canvas

Payel Majumdar | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on March 18, 2016
Organic art: The exhibition aims to establish that the Banarsi sari is not a
hallowed piece of history but a continuously evolving art

Organic art: The exhibition aims to establish that the Banarsi sari is not ahallowed piece of history but a continuously evolving art   -  Payel Majumdar

The naqsha system of banarsi weave came from Persia.

The naqsha system of banarsi weave came from Persia.

Unbroken Thread: Banarsi Brocade, an exhibition at the National Museum Delhi, chronicles the journey of the fabric from couture to prêt, noting how its curious narrative runs parallel to Indian history

Banarsi saris are khaandani. I remember my otherwise indulgent grandmother admonishing me for the first time when I slipped and tore her red-and-silver banarsi, a relic of her wedding days from the 50s. Banarsis are not meant to be worn by eight-year-olds. Made only for royalty during the Mughal period, banarsi silk was once a novelty, discussed at length with the couturier, made from imported silk from China, and designed by Noor Jehan herself. It involved an intimate relationship with one’s couturier, from thread to garment. Not so now, as brocading or banarsi techniques have inspired pencil pouches, bags, wallets, stoles, artificial cloth garments, even cheap-ish kitsch in tourist towns, with elephant insignia for foreign tourists.

Banarsi brocade is a fabric whose history runs parallel to socio-cultural transitions in this country. These transitions are reflected in terms of designs and fabrics. The brocade travelled to adorn the turbans of Maratha kings as well as the girdles of the Kodava community of Coorg, Karnataka.

Brocading, or silk weaving, didn’t begin in Benaras until the 17th century.

Before that, Benares was renowned as a cotton weaving centre. Brocade weavers and patterns had arrived from Persia (modern-day Iran) via Gujrat, and weavers kept arriving from Surat and Ahmedabad and settling in Benaras, displaced by natural calamities and the demise of royal workshops.

All of this history is brought together and told through weaves and garments at the ongoing exhibition Banarsi Brocade: Unbroken Thread, at the National Museum in Delhi. On since February 24, the exhibition traces the ways in which brocading evolved, for instance from the naqsha embroidery from Persia, and inspired the traditional Shikargarh brocading pattern, depicting animals and human forms at a hunting scene. Also on display are the varieties in sari brocading techniques and patterns. By the time you take in all of the exhibits, you begin to understand phenomena like the establishment of the red-and-silver Banarsi sari as the symbol of an Indian bride, or the repurposing of old Banarsi brocading into contemporary garments. The exhibition has also borrowed from personal collections to identify further trends of evolution.

A big turning point in Banarsi loom history came when weavers shifted from manually operated pit looms to the modern jacquard, invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard. Designs are now traced onto a graph paper and then onto punching cards. Brocading is also referred to as embroidering on the loom, where extra threads are woven into the base structure to make patterns. While with the pit looms, weavers would make designs on the fabric out of memory, the jacquard introduced punching cards, making the task for weavers relatively simple and reducing the time taken to complete a weave.

Brocading is not a prerogative of the Banarsi, as the exhibition notes; there are other prominent families of brocades such as the fine cotton weaving of Jamdani from Bengal, the muga silk mekhalas from Assam, the heavy silk saris of Kanchipuram and the woollen shawls of Kutch. The sophisticated Baluchari is silk-on-silk brocade with motifs of aristocrats engaged in leisurely activities. While all these techniques of brocading have incorporated Persian, Central Asian and Chinese influences, they are distinguished by their characteristics and identities.

In the naqsha tradition of designing Banarsi saris, each sari is conceived as a naqsha (a single image). It is then drawn on graph paper and rendered by the weaver on the loom. The gethwa loom of Banarsi saris is the most sophisticated of the naqsha designs, and can be characterised by its diagonal creeper designs. Most designs can be traced to a certain period of the Banarsi sari. For instance, the butidar sari, with the patka pallu became prominent in the 19th century.

The exhibition at the National Museum aims to establish that the Banarsi sari is not a hallowed piece of history but a continuously evolving art. There are examples of when varied styles have converged, and materials have changed from the ancient imported Chinese silk to various silks from the south of India, to synthetic materials in the 20th century. Weavers have also been unorthodox when it comes to patterns. A resplendent classic onion-pink kanjeevaram sari had contemporary gramophone motifs.

Banarsi brocade is one of our most visible cultural exhibits abroad, right from the 1861 India exhibition in London. The form has flourished, evolved and spread to the distant corners and the credit goes to Benaras’ community of weavers: their expertise as well as their unorthodox approach to their craft.

Unbroken Thread is a result of a year-long fellowship supported by the Indian Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, under their Museum and Archival Fellowship. The exhibition is on till April 25 at the National Museum, Delhi.

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Published on March 18, 2016
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