By Ishaa Srivastva
Textiles in India are symbolic of a magnificent craft that has endured for thousands of years evolving out of a myriad of cultures and tastes. The pages of history will boast of how the Indian subcontinent traded with countries like Greece, Rome and Indonesia in textiles hundreds of years ago.
Around the world, our fabrics have been discovered at excavation sites. For instance, a block printed fabric, which originated in the state of Gujrat, was found in the tombs of Fostat, in Egypt, which points to our trade with the glorious Nile civilisation in Medieval times as well. There is evidence that people of the Harappan civilisation too, utilised homespun cotton for weaving their garments. The weaving tradition in India is dominated primarily by silk and cotton.
So why turn to banal and run-of-the-mill articles of ethnic wear, when we live in a country that is home to textiles which hold everlasting charm?
Phulkari: a Shroud of Flowers
This refers to a form of handmade embroidery where intricate designs are created on fabric using colourful threads. Phulkari or ‘flower work‘ embroidery employs very simple and symmetrical designs but the colour combination and the fashion in which they aligned, make it look spectacular.
The origin of Phulkari can be traced back to the 15th century, and the pioneers of this craft hail from the state of Punjab (North West India and Pakistan). It is an indispensable part their culture. Phulkari garments are especially worn at important moments of everyday life like religious functions, weddings, and births and deaths.
The flower work is usually practised on the odini (head scarf), dupatta and shawls, while for the longer garments, like the whole surface of a shroud or khaddar, another variation called Bagh (literally meaning ‘garden’) is used. This variation of Phulkari entirely covers the base cloth and requires tremendous talent, time, and patience.
Gujrati Patola: The Queen of Silks
Patola textile form dates back to the 11th century. This Double Ikat (technique of dying both the wasp and weft before weaving) technique is practised in Patan, Gujrat. In Rajkot however, only the weft is dyed, thus making the garments more affordable. The saree is characterised by vibrant hues, geometrical patterns and folk motifs.
What is unique about the Patola saree is that it are reversible, as both the surfaces are designed in the same manner. It is said that a real Patola design will endure for years, even though the fabric might wither.
Owning a Patola Saree has become a sign of social prestige. Patola has a creative, yet labour intensive process and preparing a single saree can require months. Each thread is dyed before it reaches the weaving process. Therefore, the prices can be astronomical.
Kalamkari: Organic Hand Painting
It is an ancient art comprising both block printing and hand painting techniques. ‘Kalam’ is the Persian word for pen. Under this technique, craftsmen use two pens, one is a bamboo or date palm stick for the outlines, and the other is round and flat nib for filling the colours. What is unique in this technique is that it employs only organic ingredients; the fabric is washed in cow’s milk, and the dyes are prepared with flowers and vegetables. The art form is arduous and time consuming.
The Britishers had a reinvigorated interest in this art form and gave the process their own name, Chintz. In post independent India, the technique has been used in paintings and employs chemical processes as well, but the reason why you should buy it is because there is a charm, and certain nostalgia in wearing a soft Kalamkari fabric.
Muga Silk: The Pride of Assam
Muga silk is symbolic of the traditional attire of the Assam region. In Assamese, muga means yellow. This silk is one of its kind and considered superior to its counterpart, the white silk. Due to low porosity of the threads, the silk cannot be dyed or bleached. It is however, popular for the natural golden colour, glossy texture and durability. Unlike, other silks, Muga silk can and should be hand washed; they say that the lustre of Muga only increases with every wash.
Muga is considered the most sophisticated textile in Assam, and is a premium product used in making garments like Mekhala Chador (the traditional dress of Assam), sarees, handkerchiefs etcetera. It takes two months to weave a saree, and a thousand cocoons to yield 125 gms of silk, making the Muga Silk exorbitant. The other varieties of silk in Assam include endi and pala.
Saulkuchi, the silk village of Assam, has a weaving history that dates back to the 11th century. Situated 35 kgs from Guhawati, in the Kamrup district, it is a popular destination for obtaining silk and other indigenous fabrics.
With deft fingers and a vivid cultural lineage, our craftsmen weave magic into the garments that epitomize our cultural multitude. Young people have woken up to realize the importance of preserving tradition and opt for ethnic textiles specially during festivals. Our traditional robes have even inspired country’s contemporary fashion designers.
It’s time to look into the variety that our own country has to offer and support our craftsmen in perpetuating our cultural dynamism.