Tale of Enchanting Banarsi- A timeless weave

Tale of Enchanting Banarsi- A timeless weave

By Aparna Misra

The photo shoot at Bhoginandeshwara Temple
made me relive the  dream world inhabited by the brocade, tanchoi, jaal,
kamdani, woven on kora or a double silk or georgette … The woman whispering
into Nandi’s ears resplendent in her Banarsi brought out the timelessness of
the weave. Like Kashi the Shivnagari that has no aadi or anta it seems the
Banarsi too is timeless and eternal. It is Annapoorna to the nameless
weavers who have woven the tales from time unknown!

Banarsi to me has been a part of my growing
up. It brings up sweet memories like the soft warm hand of your baby on your
cheek before she nestles on yr shoulder and sleeps ! My world of Banarsis is
inahabited by mom, aunts, elder cousins, all resplendent in their vibrant 
coloured silks with zari borders, bootis, jaals  and  insanely rich
pallus which were all was clubbed as Banarsi ! It was only later while shopping
for my own wedding that i was to learn about the rich weaves of Banarsis.

So how do I spin this tale …where do I

Well from the very beginning !

   The Banarsi weave is as
old as the city:  Kasika a textile synonymous with a city - a
precursor to Kanjeevarm, Pochampali. Banaras has a unique place in Indian
history and culture. As far back as 4th century B.C., it was a rich,
flourishing city; renowned worldwide for its textile trade especially with Rome
causing it much economic distress!

     Hence scholars find it
safe to say that Banarsi weave had cotton origin .It might have been woven
with gold and silver threads later with silk when the Chinese silk was
introduced. But then we also know that there was indigenous silk cultivated
from wild….and what about Hiranya? The cloth of gold mentionedin the Rig Veda?
It may be the earliest equivalent of Kinkhabs.

   Who knows for sure about the
history and origin of this rich Banarasi weave except for the fact that it
synonymous with the city and that it has found mentions in secular and
religious literature?

    There were important factors that sustained the Banarsi; Royalty, Religion and trade. It was the regional capital under the Nandas, the Mauryas and the Sungas .The royal patronage sustained the rich weave of Hiranya. It was fabric meant for divinity; Hiranya which the gods in their resplendent grandeur wear it, as they drive in their stately chariots! The mortal remains of a renunciator like Buddha were wrapped in a Banaras fabric radiating with rays of yellow, red and blue! Thus we can safely ascribe to it its unbroken tradition of brocade weaving from time immemorial.

The Dhamek stupa carries patterns laid on
brick that were woven in silk and cotton! Patterns carved in relief on the Saranath
stupa were transferred from the textile designs of the Gupta period, A number
of such motifs appearing on the Dhamekh-Stupa at Sarnath (Banaras) presuppose
the transference of the textile designs on stone or a copy of some textiles,
which originally wrapped such stupas (such textiles were called the

 Murals at Ajanta wear patterns. Variegated patterns, the floral and vegetal designs  displayed in the Ajanta murals of the Gupta period are believed by some art historians to represent  brocade specimens.

Banarsi synonymous with Brocade is on a
surer historical footing with the coming of Mughals. The weaving industry
reached its peak during the mogul period due to the patronage of Akbar.
From this period onwards, we begin to get an uninterrupted account of the
zari work and brocades through the Mughal and Rajasthani painting. It is
significant to note that in the sixteenth century the old designs abruptly came
to an end; we find from the contemporary paintings that wholesale-personalized
motifs were introduced although modified to the Indian taste. More emphasis was
given to floral designs. For example, the ancient animal and bird motifs were
given up for good. There was an influx of Persian motifs due to the influence
and importance of Persian masters in the court of emperor Akbar; Ghias
Naqshaband being the greatest Persian master among them to the royal atelier of

Banarsi got a dynamic boost at the hands of weavers from Surat who were taught
by the Chinese.Silk weavers from Gujarat migrated to Kasi in 17th century after
a famine. A new environment for weavers gave a way to various innovations. 17th
century is the time for Banarsi Brocade as we know it today.

The Banarsi that came under the influence
of Persians and Chinese  still remained loyal to its lord. It was still
the Hiranya - the divine fabric of Lord of Kashi! Peter Mundy, traveller to
Banaras (1632 A. D.) records that in the Viswanath temple, he found a silk
canopy hanging over the Siva-lingam. Describing the Bindumadhava temple of
Banaras, Tavernier informs that over the holy platform he noticed brocades and
other silks.

     The wheel turns full
circle. Romans of yore who exported fine cotton weave now bought the divine
fabric! Manucci in his famous travel-book “Storia Do Mogor”records that Banaras
in the second half of seventeenth century exported to all over the world, its
gold or silver zari textiles, “of the best quality”!

It is this brocade that is eponymous with Banaras and has
made it world famous.

What is a Brocade?

   The Banarsi is woven on four
different kind of fabrics…Pure silk, Katan, Organza(kora) with silk and zari;
georgette and Shattir.   Brocade style of weaving is synonymous with
Banarsi. It is a characeristic weave in which the patterns are created by
thrusting the Zari threads between warp at calculated interval so as to evolve
the design line by line. But brocade
is not the only Banarsi weave.

 It has numerous off springs the most famous ones being Tanchoi. It requires only silk yarn as raw material.

Jamdani is another Banarsi innovation. It involves laying designs by hands without using any mechanism. It works around cotton only and is still executed on traditional pit looms.

Tanchoi, Jangala, Cutwork, Tissue and
Jamevar are other mind boggling variants!

   I love the resilience of
Banarsi. It is one weave that has lived for more than a thousand of years.
It has done so by showing inventiveness and diversity in terms of adapting to
new patterns and motifs and technology.Banarsi has seen many changes in terms
of colours, patterns, motifs, borders and styles . In the pre Mughal period
floral patterns, animal and bird were woven with great delicacy.By medieval
times these weaves were defined by the Islamic sensibilities. Butidar
designs were in great demand and with the coming of Mughals a new efflorescence
in Banarsi weave was witnessed.

With the coming of Europeans there was an
introduction of chemical dyes, mechanization of looms, new motifs .
Consequently the looms used in Banaras for the purpose are pit looms, Jacquard
looms and power looms.

Soon in 19th century the weavers started
imitating Victorian style wall papers, geometrical patterns and softer shades
of pinks and lilacs!

    It is indeed
amazing that in a city that is as old as time, the weaving tradition has
kept abreast with changing tastes. It has seduced women of all generations
with its elegant craftsmanship. The credit must go to the nameless weaver who transforms
a six yard into a piece that embodies the spirit and culture of the
Shivanagari. Thus he embeds the sari so deep in the conscience of
women that they are left with no choice but to mark important occasions in her
life with a Banarsi!

  The wonder spinner works alone ; a
karigar on a single power loom or in the karkhana of a master
weaver. Madanpura and Alaipura are considered traditional weaving areas in
Benaras. Each group has its own distinctive style of weavingThe work of
Madanpura is traditional and known for its fine designs and colours and woven
light transparent materials. The weavers  of Alaipura  experiment with
new techniques and designs.The galis where the weavers go over the warp and
weft, the wooden rafters beating a music of its own makes you feel as if the
looms have not changes since the times when Gods rode out resplendent in

It is the naqshaband who gives life to the
various bootas and jaals, experiments, innovates and gives the dynamic pulse to
the Banarsi weave!

Behind the glitter of the Banarsi lies a tale of toil and unsung mundane work like dying of the yarn, spinning them into spools on spinning wheels, loading the fly shuttle carefully: rolling out the bana on cylindrical structure (nari barangay) and tana on the dharki (Shuttle) The jacquard cards are fixed to the machine. These are prepared by drawing the designs on graph sheets . This graph sheet becomes the reference to punch the cards. They are made to a set of cards that are tied together and loaded to the jacquard machine.

Now the magic begins .The loom is set up
with the threads and the process of weaving begins.The jacquard cards are  fixed to the jacquard machine and following
the cards the threads are pulled and the desired design is woven in colors and
zari as loaded on shuttle. It is while weaving that the weaver creates different
patterns by using different techniques. This he does with a comb
that controls the separation of the tana threads. Lo and behold! The different
patterns as jangla, jamdani, tanchoi, kharua, etc.are created.

This love of
craft on the part of the weavers sustained the Banarsi for thousands of years.
But it could not last for long. The sari that was the toast of the world
started losing its sheen. The loss of patronage, coming of powerlooms and
official apathy was something that the weaver could not battle. The weave
suffered and many looms were cut down to serve as firewood! Instead of the
jeweled tones and bright hue the saris lost their sparkle. If weavers in others
part of the country were committing suicide, the Banarsi weaver was selling his
blood to survive. But then as the poet says, “O wind, if winter comes, can
spring be far behind?”  The spring gently
breezed in with the efforts of Taj group of Hotels. They adopted Sarai
Mohanna.; a village that has a sizeable weaver population. Many of the weavers
who had given up weaving came back to their looms. Today these weavers have found
a purpose .They are living a life of dignity and are weaving the glorious
Banarsi once again with a vengeance. New sensitivity, designers and
organisarions like Dastakar are doing their best to bring the weaver in closer
contact with the buyer. Will he survive the GST? I hope and pray ardently that he does.

For Banarsi is one of the most eclectic weaves
that I have ever donned.  It stands for
the most beautiful representation of Ganga Jamuna Tezeeb , Only a Banarsi saree
can have the mangla kalash and the dome of a mosque in the same panel woven in
red and gold which is to be worn by a beaming bride!!

   Banarasi is a must in the
trousseau of every girl. In parts of UP and Bihar she is married in a yellow
Banarsi. She takes the seven steps with countless stars in her eyes in a
Banarsi that makes the grooms heart beat faster.

   Who can beat romance of
Kimkhab….stuff of dream and the sensuousness of Tanchoi…touching the tan ? The
romance of the Banarsi can never fade. It goes stronger every day.Tanchoi –
forget the Chinese. When the weaver shows his collection at the gaddi of the
wholesale dealer in the gaalis of Banaras he calls it tanchui meaning touching
the body a weave that promises you to be a dream of someone, a weave that
sensuously touches your form, a weave that was Hiranya thousands of years ago,
yesterday a kimkhab and today a ballad to Virukshaka's romance, even the
most cynical will go soft when the soft silk gossamer like silk of a kora jaal
grazes their not so hard skin.

    This is the weave from the
city of Kabir .The surreal sufism of the weave resonates deep. While weaving he
would sing Jhini jhini bini chadariya ….yes this chadariya ; the body as well
as the saree is ephemeral. Nothing is eternal. Why should I spend my time in
asking kahe ka taana kaahe ka baana ?

But if I was to pass on this love for the Banarsi chadariya to my daughter or daughter in law or my granddaughter, who knows the love affair with Banarsi may transcend time and may become eternal like the very Shivanagri, the nagari of the ultimate master weaver who spins the fabric of our life with the finest of yarns !

(The writer is a heritage enthusiast deeply touched by weaves as she belongs to the land of Kabir. )