For generations women in villages of northern Indian have woven durries, flat tapestry, as part of the trousseau they take to their future home. Imaginative in design, bold in their use of colour, the durries are treasured items that are laid over the rough string webbing of the charpoi, the traditional Indian bed which is the central item of furniture in a village house. As women are reluctant to part with their durries, these are largely unknown outside the area in which they have been woven.
This richly illustrated book by ann Shankar and Jenny Housego breaks new ground in exploring the background to this fascinating village tradition. The two authors have visited numerous villages to talk to the women who weave durries and to study those that lie in their homes. They show how the designs and motifs still in use are part of a continuous illustrative language that goes back to the ancient civilizations of the region, from the painted pottery fragments of the early Indus culture to the still vigorous weaving of farm communities of the Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where the links remain strong.
Ann Shankar studied Chinese in Hong Kong. For several years she was a member of the Far Eastern Department of the Royal Ontario Museum, and then at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, U.S.A. She lives in India, and is currently engaged in research on the architecture of Punjab. At the same time she is reviving the use of natural dyes in durrie weaving in the State.
Jenny Housego also lives in India. She is a textile historian who was formerly in the Textile Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and is the author of several publications, including a book on tribal rugs of Iran. She is now actively involved in textile crafts through an export company that she has established with her husband.
The Indian durrie, a flat-woven cotton rug, varies in size from a 1 m x 1m asan, seat, on which a person sits cross-legged to a 4m x 6m farshi, for a large room or tent. Durries are woven by men and women for personal or commercial use all over the subcontinent. The bridal durries are however strictly personal. Woven by women and carried to their new homes as part of their dowry. These have a standard size, roughly 1m x 2m and are placed on the charpoi, he traditional Indian bed, never on the floor.
This study was initially begun for a short article on the durries of Punjab, which soon expanded into this book. Since this was the first systematic study of these bridal durries almost everything about them was a discovery. The great variety of their designs came as a surprise, as well as the fact that they were woven not only in Punjab but throughout Haryana, the lower parts of Himachal Pradesh, northern Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, approximately the region comprising the earlier state of Punjab before its division into three states in 1966. A study of durrie designs is of interest for two reasons. Firstly, a picture of contemporary rural life emerges from the names and stories attached to the durries by the weavers and, secondly, they record an ancient tradition common to the entire area. It is thus possible to draw comparisons with motifs found in very early times in India, and trace some of them over several millennia up to the present day. Here we may perhaps best recall the thoughts of Heinrich Zimmer, who says:
“The life strength of symbols and symbolic figures is inexhaustible, especially when carried forward by a highly conservative traditional civilization such as that of India…. The vista of duration that they open….suggests spiritual continuities persisting through immense reaches of time.”
Comparisons are also made in this study with designs found on material from ancient sites in West and Central Asia, to show the remote ancestry of these motifs and to point out parallels from cultures with which India had ancient links.
The survey began in November, 1988 and continued until February, 1991, with occasional trips as late as 1992. It is as thorough as circumstances and opportunities would allow. Every bridal durrie is a prized personal possession; our visits had to be through personal introductions and, as we were guests in busy households, there were limit to the demands that could be made on families. Most weavers could spare an hour at the most for exploring dowry chests and answering questions. Ninety-four villages of the bridal durrie region were visited and 1365 durries, woven in 249 villages belonging to 32 disctricts, were recorded. A total survey would mean visiting every village house-clearly an impossibility. The scale of the task may be gauged from the flgures for the village of Khuda Ali Sher where the highest number of durries were seen. In this village of about 500 families, almost all of whose members sleep on charpoi covered with handwoven durries, 102 durries woven by 19 women in 10 households were examined. In the text the names of the durrie designs have been used in the original Hindi and Punjabi.
We were fortunate in being able to visit jails in Punjab to see in addition the durrie weaving done by prisoners. Though related by technique to the village weaving, jail durries proved to be distinct in function, size and design, warranting an independent study. We were not in a position to undertake this but have included a short section on the jail weaving and have used it for comparison in several cases.
Pakistani Punjab could not be included. A study of bridal durrie weaving there would take several years and might be more easily undertaken by people living in that area.
In the study durrie weaving is seen both in its village as well as in its historical context. The technicalities of the process of manufacture are also described in order to give as complete a picture as possible of this ancient yet vigorous craft.
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