Bejeweled and Bedecked

The joyous Durga Puja is not only a season of festivities and celebration but also a time of spiritual and physical rejuvenation, bringing peace and hope in the heart of every Bengali. This exhilaration isreflected in the splendid attires and adornments,in which the ethnic sari takes the prime place as a symbol of culture and artistry.

India’s saris evolved out of manifold physical, historical, and cultural influences differing in regions and communities, managing to survive the onslaught of colonialism and industrialization, and have remained the quintessential Indian female garment.

Domestication of the cotton plant and ability to dye it was a significant legacy of the Indus Valley civilization and cotton seeds have been found at a Neolithic site in Mehrgarh, northern Baluchistanand dyed cotton cloth has been excavated at Mohenjo-daro- dated around 2000 BC.Sari-like drapescovering the entire bodyis seen in Indian terra cotta statues from as early as 200-50 BC. Garments in a body hugging kachcha style,is seen in temple stone carvings with pleats and folds carved in minute details.The murals of Ajanta show women in wrap around fabric.In ancient times it was customary in everyday lifeto tie a piece of cloth or antariya around the waist and a separate piece of cloth or uttariyoover the head or upper torso.These fused over time to form the sari.

In Bengal,a sari of shorter length was worn without a blouse or petticoat,many may remember their grandmothers clad in this. The end of the sari,flung over the shoulder was tied in aknot, from which various keys of household would hang – denotingthe supreme control of the “Grihini” over her domain.

Jnanadanandini Devi,sister in law of Rabindranath Tagore was the first amongBengali women to defy the purdah system and travel to Bombay to live with her husband who was posted as the first Indian member of the Civil Services. She developed a new manner of combining sari with ablouse and petticoat to enable women to move out of the ‘antarmahal’. She fused the Parsi style she saw in Bombay with the Bengali style of not using pleatsand wearing the pallu over left shoulder. Puff sleeved or long- sleeved blouses like jackets showed some British influence.This style was adopted by Brahmo Samaj women. The modern style is the Navistyle of Andhra Pradesh popularized by royal patronage from various princely states and ofcourse the cinema.

Traditional Bengali sarees prevalent in Eastern India and present Bangladesh are the Jamdani, Balucheri, Tant, Kantha, Garad, Korial, Tussar and Benarasiwith many variationsspecific to the weavers or regions.

Jamdani– the name is aPersian derivative meaning a flower vase.These areglorious works of artpreviously made for royalty.These were woven on fine cotton or muslin. Making a Jamdani is a time consuming,multi- weaver endeavor, perfected by Muslimweavers in Dhaka.The fabric of fine cotton is woven with zari or thicker thread with interrupted wefts–(transverse thread in aloom) having paisley motifs,butis (hazarbuti) or smallflowers, (panna hazar)

The diaphanous Dhaka muslin is the finest of muslins. Theyhave not been made since late 18th century following decline of Mughal empire. The transparency is described in poetic terms as abrawn or running water, shabnam or dewdrop, bafta bana– cloud. In 16th centurymuslins,considered priceless, were part of diplomatic exchanges as well as royal clothing – so fine and weightless that the yardage would pass through alady’s finger ring.

Baluchari silk saris are a cherished possession, brought into West Bengal by Nawab Murshid Kuli Khanfrom Dhaka and started in the village of Baluchar on the banks of Bhagirathi river. Due to frequent floods this was moved to Bishnupur. The Baluchari sari depicts scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata and at times a unique pictorial history of modern inventions such as the carriage and railroad.The embroidery is usuallydone in contrast color to the main body- or with colorful threads (meenakari) or with silver zariand goldresham( swarnakari). These are regarded as heirloom pieces- recurrent award winners in trade fairs.

Tant saris are crisp cotton lightweight saris with starch incorporated in the yarn during weaving. It is said that the water,soil, and moist weather of the region impart special qualities to the silk and cotton. Tant is very suitable for daily wear,an indispensable staple and never goes out of style.

Garad and Korial are similar-undyed traditional silk, usually with a deep red borderfor the young married woman-especially during the Durga puja. Korial is pure white with red border, Garaad silk being the version for the mature woman is off white with different color borders in resham thread, consideredthe ultimate in understated charm and sophistication.

Kanthasarees are madewith intricate threadwork embroideryfrom Shantiniketan and Bolpur regions.Kantha stich was used to recycle old material into quiltswhich wereimported by the Portuguese. Kantha saris areembroideredby rural womeninspired by nature and folkloreusually on cream colored tussarsilk.

Tussarsilk woven from silkworms in the wild have a raw texture but golden sheen.Ahimsa silk is name given to silk obtained after larvae have left the silkworm cocoons.Jute silkis vegan silkprocessed from jute fibre. Other silks are Murshidabad silk, lightweight, often batik printed with beautiful drape. Murshidabad was the seat of power of Nawabs of Bengal with fertile soil conducive to growth of mulberry trees.

Benarasi brocadeespecially the red sari with Zari borderbelongs to the trousseau of every Bengali bride- Benares being the center of silk industry today-made by a team of weavers on complex jacquard looms. This art was almost obsolete but revived by modern designers.Weavers from the Julekhaor Ansari community tracing their ancestry to 990AD, showMughal influence with intertwining botanical arabesque designs in subtle colors with or without zari.

Many places such as Donegal, Shantipur, Begumpur,Phulia, Bishnupur, Tangail (Bangladesh) make eponymous saris in their own unique style. These are in the border region where displaced Hindu weavers have migrated from Bangladesh.

Bengali saris are a part of our richtextile heritage; the weaving industry was decimated during the British rule by impositionof heavy taxes and forcing weavers to sell their goods at lesser prices, banning local cottonand silkand flooding the markets with their cheapimports.Partition had the effect of displacing the workers- and even post independence the focus was on industrialization and synthetic mass made mill saris.Designers like Sabyasachi have made a concerted effort to bring the handloom into vogue.There is a realization of the need to improve the condition of the weavers who are adying breed.Introduction of prestitched saris and interesting blouse patterns and novel ways of draping the sari make it appealing to the modern fashionista.We allhope that the craft survives and the Bengali sari is not relegated to dusty museum displays.

Udita Mukhuty Jahagirdar

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