Situated deep into Shakardara outskirts of Nagpur, I discovered a wonderland. An old rusted gate led to a meandering road with grasslands on both sides and no civilization in sight – and I wondered where Indrayani, the Maharashtra Handlooms Corporation H.O. would be in such a desolate area? Then I spotted a small squat building that seemed to be an office complex.
” Not here. Madam will meet you at the godown at the back” I was told by Mr. Nimje who was arranging my meeting with Ms. Richa Bagla (IAS) , Director, Textiles GOM. ‘Meeting in a godown?’ Sounded like a strange proposition. We, my photographer and I, trouped out and went to literally a huge long godown at the back. I entered its precincts and halted -stunned out of my wits. Arrayed in piles and also hanging artistically at one end of the hall, were the most amazing and beautiful sarees I have ever seen under one roof. They were not very in-your-face colourful but rather a medley of soft pastel earthy colours that blended into each other as if they were separate entities but also a cohesive pleasing whole. I stood mesmerized. Watching my reactions, the small team of Ms. Bagla, Mr. Bawane and Mr. Nimje a team of three – four persons that have achieved this revival of traditional art and craft of Vidarbha, our heirloom, handloom fabric were pleased as proud parents ought to be.
Then began my journey into the intricacies of the design. “This is ‘karvat kathi’ – see the zig zag pattern? In fact it is a combination of leheri, jeali and karvat, three traditional weaving patterns. The weavers used three shuttles instead of a single to hand weave this saree. It is a tedious, time consuming effort but it makes the saree not just beautifully patterned but strong and sturdy too. This silk saree may look delicate and soft but it will last for generations. It can be a precious asset handed down from mother to daughter to grand daughter too”. Explained Richa. Elaborating further on the uniqueness of the sarees she said unlike powerloom or polyester sarees where with the smallest defect the saree is counted into “seconds” and price marked down imperfections in the handloom process add to the beauty of the saree. “Human hands, not machines are weaving these sarees with loving care but they cannot get the uniformity of machines. But that is what makes each saree different and unique”. Even the weather when the weaving is taking place makes a difference in the outcome!
When we speak of silks, there are two kinds : Mulberry silk and tussar or wild silk. Mulberry can be called ‘man made’ because the silk worms are bred and cultivated for the silk that is harvested from them. Chemicals need to be used just as in farming. But in the case of tussar the silk thread is obtained from the wild , naturally found silk worms. As wikipedia tells us :”These silkworms live in the wild forest in trees belonging to Terminalia species and Shorea robusta as well as other food plants like Asan, Arjun, Jamun and Oak found in South Asia, eating off the leaves of the trees they live on.Tussar is valued for its rich texture and natural deep gold colour.”
Since Vidarbha has rich forrests, tussar silk is naturally available here since almost centuries. There are many villages/ towns in Nagpur and Bhandara districts where entire communities have been weavers for generations together.
The Vidarbha weavers were not only hand weaving cotton sarees – from the cotton yarn available in plenty since Vidarbha is also a cotton growing area but also collecting ‘silk’ from the rich jungles of Central India and making silk sarees, dhotis, shawls etc. When the art started finding few takers due to the influx of cheap polyester and ‘artificial silk’ sarees, the weavers, known as Savjis, turned to the food business. So all the Saoji food we relish and that Nagpur has become synonymous with is actually made by traditional ‘weavers’. Saoji means “Master weaver”.
Not just the Saojis, there was the Ansari community among the Muslims where were into coarser fabric weaving like in dhurries.
Some years ago, the Maharashtra Government took a serious decision to revive this dying art that has so many benefits. Glorious traditions are kept alive. Artisans can earn livelihood with their traditional art and since the silk is obtained from forrests, they are preserved as people living in them can profit from jungle produce so they have the incentive to preserve the forrests. It is a win-win situation all around.
There was a five lakh community of weavers in Nagpur alone – thousands have been rehabilitated into their tradtional art and craft by Indrayani so far.
Thus the handloom corporation that comes under the Textile division began work of locating the weavers, giving them incentives to go back to their traditional occupation and then enhancing and modernizing the finished products through input from designers too. Anjum Modi is one such designer providing designs that do not take away from the traditional but rather adds to it. Now the Handloom board is also involving weavers and artisans from other states to give more of exquisite choice to connoisseurs. I was amused to hear Bagla and her colleagues refer to sarees as “Is this Dagu or Bagdu?” These are names of villages in Rajasthan where a particular design comes from. Other states/ cities where design comes from is Benaras, Kutch and West Bengal. The Bengal designs and colours are in vogue now but they are nowhere like the ‘Bengali sarees’ one is accustomed to seeing in shops or at exhibitions.
While incorporating design of other states the Handloom board hasn’t neglected Vidarbha art at all. “We liked one design we saw in an old fabric found in local museums (in artefects from Bhonsle kingdom) and asked our weavers to re weave it. Such sarees can be rather expensive at times but people who appreciate the art, are encouraging our enterprise. Patrons are giving us orders to make personalized sarees / dhotis for distributing as gifts in marriages etc.” One such order was from the Buty family of Nagpur whose daughter got married recently. The Indrayani brand textiles carry certification for not just pure silk but also the ‘Handloom mark’ for authenticity.
Not just sarees are being made though. Looking to modern trends stoles, scarves and dupattas are being made too, which sell as hot cakes. In cotton, towels, napkins and home furnishing material is available too.
Now the Handloom corporation is making its ware available not just through more outlets in the city and participation in exhibitions but also has made a quantum leap by taking marketing of Indrayani products online too. One can find the products at –
www.indrayanihandlooms.com. This website was unveiled recently at the hands of the Maharashtra C.M. and in a short while has already got thousands of hits. The ‘handloom experts’ have got the software and the logistics technologies so perfected too that NRIs can also order and get Indrayani products delivered to their homes abroad. Truly a marriage of tradition with Modern.