Baluchari Art – Intricate Weaves and Visual Narratives

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Baluchari Art – Intricate Weaves and Visual Narratives


Comprising saris, shawls and handkerchiefs, this textile is probably the only woven narrative in India. Every piece holds an interesting story in its folds — the lavish lifestyles of Nawabs and European sahibs and bibis. Though much is not known about its origins and also why the tradition stopped, over the years an effort has been made to revisit and revive Baluchari. The Baluchari saree was one of the National Award winners among the main weaving styles in the years 2009 and 2010 presented by the then President of India. Through time, the visual language of textiles has offered up vital clues to the prevailing social contexts, to ideas of what was desirable and fashionable, to the economy and the body politic that was significant at their time of production and use. Examples abound from the late-16th-century woven Vrindavan Vastra with its images inspired from the Hindu text of the Bhagavata Purana, and on to today’s graphic t-shirts, this widespread means of communication continues to endure. The late-19th-century pictorial Baluchari weave can be viewed through this prism of history and context with its enduring continuum echoing its past.

Raspberry-Rose Sita Baluchari Sari from Bengal with Zari-Woven Episodes from Ramayana

The Baluchari sarees are known for their intricate designs and handwork on them. No other saree uses as many mythological designs as the Baluchari sarees. They are dominated by stories and characters from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. These characters give a royal look to the Baluchari sari. Saris depicting the story of Lord Krishna explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun is one of the most popular design of Baluchari Saree. The mythological designs make a Baluchari saree perfect for ceremonial and festive occasions which have a religious touch to it. They are distinguished for their elaborate borders and fabulous pallu. The borders are ornamental and surround Kalka motifs within it. A series of figures are designed in rows and motifs, which are woven diagonally. Mostly the motif designs are in four alternative colours on a shaded background.

Woven on the complex structured naqsha/draw-loom using natural-dyed high twist silk for the warp combined with untwisted silk-floss, the patterning was a combination of butis/small florals, geometric motifs and differently sized intricately patterned kalka/paisleys. But what made the saris unique was the patterning developments that took place during the cosmopolitan cultural efflorescence presided over by the ruler Murshid Quli Khan.

Boysenberry Baluchari Sari from Bengal with Woven Bootis and Mahabharta Episodes on Pallu

The soil from which the Baluchari emerged in Bengal had its roots in the social, political and commercial transformations being wrought in its environs. The Bengal of this time was a space of bustling mercantile activity with advances in surface transport that included the introduction of passenger trains that moved goods, people and ideas. This ecumenical blend of culturally diverse influences was cross-pollinated across the intellectual traditions of Bengal and found reflection across diverse creative fields. The ideas penetrating cultural milieus that cut through economic and social cross-sections of society to create an aesthetic that branched out from the confines of the mythological and religious to build creative practices that reflected these inspiring times.

The scroll-paintings of the itinerant Patuas that were unfurled before their rural audiences to the accompaniment of a story-song, portrayed not just religious narratives but contemporary themes, current mores of Bengal society alongside the colloquially termed angrez or sahib pat that depicted the goings-on of their English colonial masters. In parallel, the early years of the 19th century witnessed the development of the Kalighat pats sold to pilgrims visiting religious sites. While wood-cuts and metal-engraved prints led to mass-produced reproductions that were circulated widely, their images reflecting the same engagement with society and the polity. The quilted embroideries of the Nakshi Kanthas of the 19th to the mid-20th century juxtaposed traditional motifs with images from the world around are just some such examples. This imagery was akin in nature of the imaginings on the Baluchari weaves that were interpreted on the draw-loom by the great master Dubraj Das and his fellow weavers.

Moonlite Mauve Baluchari Sari with Hand-Woven Dancing Apsaras on Aanchal

The paisleys and floral motifs were mingled with a vocabulary of images from trains, European officers on horse-back, women puffing the huqqa/smoking pipes, the double-decker steamboats peopled with passengers and crew, processions, court scenes, the royal hunt, amorous couples to zamindars in repose and Europeans — men and women in horse-drawn coaches.  Further Dubraj's signature, woven into the pallu/end-piece of the sari, was itself a rare, if not a unique conceit — something that we rarely see even today. This mark of creativity and virtuoso craftsmanship has continued to distinguish and identify his creations for times to come. These remarkable images were woven onto textiles that were meant to be draped by women as a personal statement of style. However, this hybridised nature of the Baluchari patterning perhaps made it more difficult to appreciate. The fickle nature of fashion was apparent even in the late 19th century when arbiters of taste in this period of time critiqued the patterning, and in N G Mukerji's writings on the silk fabrics of Bengal he stated: "The figured saris etc of Baluchar were at one time very fashionable, but now they are rather despised as being ugly and unsuitable for personal wear....".

More than a century after Dubraj Das's passing his influence, directly or otherwise, and the power of his iconic textiles continues its hold on current textile aesthetics. In Bengal, the patterning of the Baluchari continues to respond to contemporary narratives while paradoxically having moved further afield, both literally and figuratively, from its historic forbearers. Working now on the jacquard unlike the draw-looms of the past, the weavers themselves are now located mainly in Bishnupur and no longer in the Murshidabad district where the Baluchari was woven in the past.

Black-Beauty Baluchari Handloom Sari from Bengal with Hand-woven Courtly Apsaras and Ramayana Episodes on Pallu

Shubho Thakur, a noted artist and the then director of the Regional Design Centre, Calcutta (Kolkata) worked towards the revival of the weaving tradition as early as the first half of the 20th century CE. He introduced Akshay Kumar Das, a master weaver from Bishnupur to the technique of the Jacquard weaving machine. However, the Bengal famine of 1943 proved to be a major setback for the silk industry and the weavers.Major steps are being taken today to revive the once lost tradition of Baluchari sari weaving around West Bengal and a big thrust is on making this a high fashion fabric relevant to younger generations.

On offer are the two-shaded Minakari, the kaleidoscopic-hued varieties and the Swarnachari — literally the golden Baluchari that is suffused with gold and silver metallic zari yarn. Unlike the mulberry silk weaves of the past that had no element of zari, the Swarnachari is giving stiff competition to the brocaded Banarasi sari as a must-have in the trousseau of a Bengali bride. This use of zari seems to be an almost intuitive response by the weavers as N G Mukerji's 1903 analysis of the reasons for the declining sales graph of Baluchari sari where he stated " one time very highly prized by the upper-middle-class people of Bengal. Now the ladies of that class go for the more costly fabrics of Banaras," elaborating "...the competition with the Banaras gold embroidered saris, shawls etc is too strong even for Dubraj's goods."

Dazzling-Blue Baluchari Sari from Bengal with Hand-Woven Apsaras on Anchal

Other changes include the wide and vivid colour palette with catchy shade names like Victorian wisp, truffle talk, toffee tease, tinker-bell, Swiss coffee, scarlet whisper, ginger pop and more, all appealing to current consumption patterns. Though increasingly characterised by a capricious contemporary, the issues and influences of our age are expressed in myriad ways from simple figuration to the composite and complex with borrowings from both popular and contemporary art, the folk and tribal to those from digital media. The vitality of expressions in the Baluchari continues to respond and thrive to be taken forward from its historical versions as the influence of its visual language continues to endure.

Making a single Baluchari is a time-consuming process and requires extremely good craftsmanship. It takes around a week to weave one saree using the purest of yarns depending on the material. Originally, Baluchari was woven only using the purest of silk threads. However, these days cotton fabric is also used. The colors are bright and cheerful. A lot of environment-friendly items such as banana plant stems, bamboo trees and natural products like flower dye, fruits dye, neem leaves, turmeric leaves and dried twigs are used in the weaving process.

There are sarees, there are beautiful sarees, and then there are sarees that tell a story. These pieces are not just garments, but an artwork. Baluchari Sarees, unfortunately, never got the status of a Benarasi piece, but have enough potential to excel even a world-famous Dhakai Muslin. Wearing a Baluchari saree is a sure bet to turn heads as its intricate design and weave is truly unique, that many have never seen before. References


‘The Woven Narrative Silks of Bengal’, edited by Jasleen Dhamija. Niyogi Publications.


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