Paithani – A Poem in Silk and Gold Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:53:03
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We set out to unravel the mystique of the ancient craft Paithani which might have ended just as footnotes in history if the government of Maharashtra had not stepped in and set up 28 looms in Paithan as well as an educational centre in 1995 to revive the market for these traditional creations. Purchasing a new Paithani has become akin to investing in jewelry because it can be handed down from generation to generation and has virtually become a status symbol.
The Paithani has a long life expectancy – a bent old weaver displayed a rare one and juxtaposed it against the new one in which the design had been faithfully copied. “To make even a copy of the original can take as long as two years and can cost two lakh Rupees,” he said as he draped a couple of the vivid deep purples, blues and red confections on his arms, talking rapidly about the colour, texture, sheer and ultimately of the intricate handiwork. The technique uses multicolored silk weft threads to create intricate patterns on a gold background.
The overall effect is similar to that of a Meenakari, enameling on jewelry. The ancient weaving technique was used throughout the world, in the Coptic textiles of Egypt, in the pre-columbian textiles of Latin America, and in China’s intricate silk hangings ( ko’sseu ). Central Asian nomadic weavers created gelims with this technique on simple mobile looms from ancient times. The technique was possibly brought to India by migrations from central Asia in the ancient past.
Examples can be seen in the gelims of the North India, as well as the intricately woven Navalgund Jamkhans of the Karnataka in South india. It is possible that the technique was adapted for the weaving of intricate borders and cross borders of saris for royalty. Paithan today is a simple taluka town in Aurangabad District, and a quite religious place on the northern banks of the river Godavari in Maharashtra. Gone are the days of palaces and kings, of Sanskrit pundits who held forth on the Vedas, of preachers and their religious discourses.
Gone, too are the days when Paithan was a prosperous trade centre called Pratishthan and exported rich fabrics and precious stones to far off lands. Yet, a glimmer of the glorious past carries on – not handed down by kings and princess, or even by learned men – but by patient weavers working endlessly at their humble looms – an indelible heritage, a sari called Paithani, a poem in silk and gold. The town has grown considerably in the last few years following the construction of the Jayakwadi Dam and the boom in the tourism industry.
On the outskirts of the town, away from the din and bustle, in a cluster of the tin-roofed workshops which shelter a few families of the weavers who continue to keep alive a noble tradition – the weaving of the handsome Paithani – the only visual link between the glorious past of Paithan and the ravaged ruins that haunt the present town. There was a time when the Gods of Paithan found a home in a faraway Rome. There was flourishing trade between Paithan and many European cities. The place finds reference even in the Hindu Legends.
But as has been the fate of most great kingdoms, Paithan too suffered a downfall, causing a sudden and an inexplicable decline in the trade. The greatest jolt was felt by the weavers, who not only lost the patronage of the king and other royal families but also were unable to compete with the machine-made products. The Paithani represents the continuity of the tradition as we see in the verses composed by the poets through the centuries. True, the Paithani brings nostalgia, but it also instills a sense of pride and security.
It is a part of the ritualistic bonding of the whole community. Independent India sought to rediscover its lost traditions in several spheres of skilled endeavour. But Renaissance came late to Paithan. Meanwhile, the market was flooded with the textiles from Benaras, Calcutta and kanchipuram. Even Pochampalli and Tussar silk became well known in India and abroad. The weavers of paithan remained totally ignorant of the renewed interest in the handlooms. Besides, their infrastructure was pitiful. No loan facilities, long electricity cuts, and heavy taxation.
A high capital was required for production, but the returns came late and remained unpredictable. The Middlemen swindled them anyway. Naturally, the younger generation began to give up their priceless craft heritage in sheer frustration. The Paithani is not just as silk of gorgeous colors, intricate design and painstaking labor. It is part of a culture given more to thrift than flamboyance, but which also treasures elegance and beauty. It tells us of people who were willing to spend lavishly to clothe their womenfolk in nine yards of traditional silk and spun gold, crafted by indigenous weavers.
No Maharashtrian wedding trousseau was complete without the Paithani sari and Shela or stole, the best the family could afford. They then became treasured heirlooms which could be preserved and worn by three generations of women, fragrant with memories. They represent the continuity of the tradition, as we see in the Shanta Shelke’s poem. True, the Paithani brings nostalgia but it also instills a sense of pride and security. It is a part of the ritualistic bonding of the whole community. The Paithani saris are mostly woven in Paithan in Maharashtra.
Yeola, Pune, Nasik and Malegaon in Maharashtra are the other centres where weaving of the Paithani saris is undertaken. These saris were initially woven for the queens and other members of the royal family by the weavers in the palaces. However, with the passage of the time, these saris are now easily available both in India and abroad. The saris are made from pure silk, and the cost of an authentic Paithani sari can be as high as INR 95,000. In Maharashtrian weddings, the Paithani is a must-have part of the bridal trousseau. The art of weaving this sari is nearly 2000 years old.
The process of making a paithani sari begins by choosing the right raw silk. These silks are generally Mulberry silks brought from Bangalore. They are then dyed in vibrant colors such as yellow, red, magenta, blue and green etc. using vegetable dyes. Acid is used as a fixative for these colors and coconut oil is used to lend softness to the silk. Primarily, two types of silk threads are utilized – Charkha and Gatta, of which the former variety is inferior and cheaper. Master weavers still supervise the entire process of the authentic Paithanis, especially the process of laying the intricate borders.
The threads are placed on a loom and the ancient method of tapestry weaving is applied wherein warp and weft threads are weaved together in order to create a unique design on each and every sari. The artisan also makes use of an interlocking method when a change in color is to be introduced in the sari. Common motifs that are weaved onto the body of the sari are the lotus flower or kamal, the Bangadi mor meaning bangle peacock where bangle signifies the femininity and peacock lends beauty, Tota-Maina which signifies the union of male and female form and simple designs such as leaf bunches, stars, circles etc.
Today, the pallu of the sari is made of silver threads that are gold plated. A master weaver uses an interlocked weft technique and alternates between a silk and a Zari thread to create beautiful motifs such as peacocks and more popularly the plant and the paisley motifs. These types of Pallas are known as Narali Pallus. The end product is a beautiful Paithani sari that looks stunning and vibrant. The Paithani saris are available in various colors at several sari outlets. In traditional Maharashtrian weddings the brides are seen wearing typical color combinations such as red-green, lavender-blue, blue-green, violet-red and peach-pink etc.
Paithani is characterized by borders of an oblique square design, and a pallu with a peacock design. Plain as well as spotted designs are available. Among other varieties, single colored and kaleidoscope-colored designs are also available and popular. The kaleidoscope effect is achieved by using one color for weaving lengthwise and another for weaving widthwise. At one time Paithan was visited by Greek traders between 400 to 200 B. C during the Satavahana era for the Paithani weave. The exquisite silk from Paithani was exported to many countries and was traded for gold and precious stones.
This weaving tradition has survived over 2000 years and has been contemporaries to suit modern tastes. Paithani saris were worn by royalty, and were treated as heirlooms. These could take months to weave. Motifs of parrots and flowers are very popular and many of the motifs used on a Paithani sari are derived from the Ajanta caves. Saris from the end of the previous centuryand the beginning of this century, which are associated with Paithan and Hyderabad, are in a thick rich silk in royal colors like purple, maroonish, red and orange with a gold metal border of thread.
They usually had a gold pallu with a border pattern of curving leaves and flowers on all four sides often with a central buta of a stylized flowering shrub. A genuine hand-woven Paithani can take anything from two months to a year to produce. As with most of the traditional arts and crafts of India, Paithani too suffered a decline under the British Raj. Once there were over 500 families practicing this hereditary artwhich required high technical skill and aesthetic sense and tremendous discipline for the slow, painstaking work.
Their migrations began with Muslim aggressions. The khatri community of weavers got scattered in search of work and settled down to whatever they found. In the olden days Zari was drawn from pure gold. It had a classic grandeur sans garishness. Silver is the affordable substitute today. The Zari comes from Surat, the silk from Bangalore. The raw silk is cleansed with caustic soda, dyed in the requisite shades, the threads carefully separated. Today’s market also abounds in spurious material, cheap at Rs. 000, minus quality, texture and durability. The sari takes its own time to get woven, from two weeks to a year, depending on the intricacy of the pattern. The cost can be anything from Rs. 5000 to Rs. 50,000. Saris worth over a lakh of Rupees apiece are made to order. The finer work being extremely taxing prevents more than three hours of sitting at loom per day. The weaver’s son may take over the task in second shift. Women do not weave, though they help with other processes like washing and dyeing of what they are creating.
The arbitraries of style have elevated the paithani to the level of a collectible, but their creators, venerable old weavers who stoop over their looms that seem to goclacaty-clack like an ancient cryptic code, are largely unaware of the value of what they are creating. The gnarled old fingers display a remarkable fluidity as they pluck and pull, and in this process create a work of unimaginable beauty. Those with highly evolved tastes and desire for quality often plumb for a Paithani because the saris have a 2,000 year old tradition.
We arrived in the town of its birth one chilly morning and wove in and out of the narrow lanes in search of the craftsmen whose unbridled creativity is responsible for these exquisite creations. There are me-too imitations available in Yeola, near Shirdi where the price is between Rs. 5000 and Rs. 25,000. As these are affordable, they can be bought easily from sari shops in the major cities whose owners asset that the Yeola Paithanis too are genuine because they have been fashioned by artisans who migrated from Paithan.
However, here the Zari is not pure. Fake Paithnis made of synthetic silk are also available. Only with experience can one shift the chaff from the wheat and ascertain which one is genuine, and of superior quality. Weaving Technique The technique of weaving was simple, but the process painstaking, laborious, and complex. The main loom was a pit loom; the weave was a plain weave and was warp faced, so that the multiple weft threads would be dominant on the face of the fabric. When the borders were woven separately, the loom had no heddles.
The multiple were wound on the fine bamboo needles, which were inserted by hand and interlocked with the next thread, and the thread was then reversed. Hundreds of bobbins rested on the woven section, and the weavers created the pattern by following a graph design on paper. This process required great skill and only seasoned masters could weave the patterns. Woven cloth is normally much longer in one direction than the other. The lengthwise threads are called the warp, and the other threads, which are combined with the warp and lie widthwise, are called the weft ( synonyms are “filling”, “ woof” and “shoot” or “shute” ).
An individual thread from the warp, of indefinite length, is called an end; each individual length of weft, extending from one edge of the cloth to the other, is called a pick, or shot. Consecutive picks are usually consecutive lengths of one piece of weft yarn that is repeatedly folded back on itself. In all methods of weaving cloth (except the rudimentary form of darning ), before a length of weft is inserted in the warp, the warp is separated, over a short length extending from the cloth already formed, into two sheets. The process is called shedding and the space between the two sheets, the shed.
A pick of the weft is then laid between the two sheets of the warp, in the operation known as picking. A new shed is then formed in accordance with the desired weave structure, with some or all of the ends in each sheet moving over to the position previously occupied by the other sheet. In this way, the weft is clasped between two layers of warp. Since it is not possible to lay the weft close to the junction of the warp and the cloth already woven, a further operation called beating in, or beating up, is necessary to push the pick to the desired distance away from the last one inserted previously.
Although beating in usually takes place while the shed is changing, it is normally completed before the new shed is fully formed. The sequence of primary operation in one weaving cycle is thus shedding, picking, and beating in. at the end of the cycle the geometrical relation of the pick to the warp is the same as it would have been if the pick had been threaded through the spaces between the alternate ends, first from one side of the cloth and then from the other, as in darning. This is the reason the weaving process is considered an interlacing method.
Catering to Diverse Markets The colonial influences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s changed the demands of the royal houses. Women of the royal households began to wear imported chiffon and georgette saris, lowering demand for the heavy cotton and silk 9-yard saris. Most centers weaving in the paithani technique discontinued the practice. The only place where it survived was in Paithan. The Nazim of Hydrabad patronized the technique himself, setting up a centre for weaving saris, veils, turbans, and sashes at Paithan.
It was also mandatory for his courtiers to wear paithani turbans when presenting themselves at court. Paithani weavers also copied floral patterns painted inside the Buddhist caves of Ajanta. The curvilinear motifs of lotus flower and bird were well suited to the paithani technique and were woven into borders, which were stitched to georgette saris, creating a new fashion. European visitors to the Ajanta caves also were happy to buy the intricately woven panels as souvenirs. However, efforts are afoot to save the textiles from falling into oblivion.
While the government has done its bit to save the textiles, it is private entrepreneurs like Naina Jhaveri and Saroj Dhananjay who have devoted their entire life to the resuscitation and preservation of the art form. They have done so to ensure that the unrivalled beauty of the paithani continues to carry with it the soul of the almost extinct and ancient skill of unsurpassed beauty. The fabric is often described as “a hand-woven poem in silk and gold. ” Its magic is recognized the world over. ut few knows that the wizards who weave the magic of the gold-embroidered paithani saree from Aurangabad district struggle to manage two square meals a day. Realizing the weavers plight,the Aurangabad district collectorate has embarked on a concerted drive to preserve the fabled paithani which takes its name from the town of paithan. the drive also hopes to restore the high art to its past glory.
The paithani is not just a silk sari of gorgeous colors,intricate designs,and painstaking labour-it is a part of a culture given more to thrift than flamboyance- a culture that also treasured the elegance and beauty of a paithani. he history as well as legends and lore tell us stories of a people who were willing to spend lavishly to clothe their womenfolk in nine yards of the traditional silk and spun gold especially on festive occasions. No Maharashtrian wedding trousseau was ever complete without the paithani sari and shela or stole,the best the family could afford. they then became treasured heirlooms that could be preserved and worn by at least three generations of women. The heirlooms were fragrant with memories- of happiness,joys,and oneness.
They represent the continuity of a tradition. true, the paithani brings nostalgia, but it also instills a sense of pride and security. It is a part of the ritualistic bonding of a whole community. just speak about the paithani and the maharashtrians eyes will light up. she will assure you that the art is 2000 years old, developed in the then splendid city of pratishthan ruled by the legendary shalivahana kings( now paithan by the side of river Godavari in marathwada some 50 km from Aurangabad). Stylistic Variations
The paithani saris were woven in heavy silk with borders carrying extra warp patterns; only the cross border was worked in gold using the paithani technique of multiple weft silks, in interlocking tapestry. The design of the cross border had a rich gold surface, enclosed by borders woven in the tapestry technique; sometimes the central section had extra weft silk patterns of mange or shrub motifs. Paithani textiles were later patronized by the Golconda Court and by the ruling house of Hyderabad. These used a heavier silk and were renowned for the excellent quality of their kalabattu, or gold thread.
Old examples of paithani saris and patkas have gold threads that still shine like a mirror. Other centers were the paithani technique was used were Yeola in Maharashtra and Godwal in Andhra Pradesh. Yeola saris were woven in silk, but they were not as complex in their patterning as those in Hyderabad. The Gadwal saris were woven in cotton often with intricate check patterns with a silk border having extra warp gold thread patterns; the cross borders were in some cases woven in the paithani technique. During the Bhakti period, Paithan developed into a renowned dharampeth or religious centre.
It was here that the father of saint Gnaneswar came to perform a penance, to be free from the sin of having fathered children by returning to married life, after taking the vows of renunciation. The village boasts of a temple to saint Eknath which attracts pilgrims. Literature, both classical and folk, testifies to the existence of Paithani silk, even before the Mughal age, through the last munificent patrons were the Peshwa rulers. History tells us that the Peshwas had a great fascination for Paithani textiles. There are a number of letters in the Peshwa Daftar to give evidence of this.
In one such letter dated 7. 12. 1768 Madhavrao Peshwa asked for the supply of Paithani saris of pomegranate and pink colours. The men wore the stole over their dhoti and kurta while their women were resplendent in paithani saris at weddings, festivals, and religious ceremonies. Niloufer, the daughter-in-law of the late Nizam of Hyderabad, was one of the last of erstwhile royals to be enraptured by the paithani magic. As with most of the traditional arts and crafts of India, the paithani too suffered a decline under the British Raj.
Once there were over 500 families practising this hereditary art which required a high level of technical skill and aesthetic sense. The weaver needed tremendous discipline to do the slow, meticulous, and tedious work. The migrations actually began with Muslim aggressions. The khatri community of weavers got scattered in search of work and settled down wherever they found work. What is Paithani? It is a fabric woven entirely on handlooms the paithani weaver strongly disapproves the use of even the jacquard or jala.
In special dhoop-chaar (light and shade) effect is achieved by bringing two different colored silk threads together in the process of a simple tabby weave. It has an ornamental zari border, and pallav,and buttis9little designs) of tara (star), mor (peacock), popat (parrot), kuyri (mango), rui phool (flower), paisa (coins) pankha (fan), kalas pakli (petal),kamal (lotus), chandrakar (moon), narli (coconut) and so on. many of these designs are found on the border and pallu in different sizes and patterns. He designs show the influence of the beauteous panels of Ajanta close by.
The dominant traditional colors of vegetable dyes include negligent (blue),pasila (red and green), gujri (black and white), mirani (black and red), motiva (pink), kusumbi (purplish red) and pophali (yellow). The red white version called panetar is the most cherished sari for a new bride. The local name of colors are interesting, kali chandrakala (black), uddani (a lighter black), pophali (yellow), neeligungi (blue), pasila (red pink green), mirani/9black red), pheroze (white red pale green), sampras (green red), kusumbi (purple red), motia (pale pink) and shirodkar (white). In olden days zari was drawn from pure gold. t had a classic grangeur sans garishness. silver is the affordable substitute today. The zari comes from surat, the resham (silk) from Bangalore.
The raw silk is cleansed with caustic soda, dyed in the requisite shades, and the threads are carefully separated. Today, the market abounds in spurious versions which are quite cheap at rs. 2000but in reality are minus the exquisite quality, texture, and durability. Researchers have traced paithani weaving to the technique of tapestry weaving that originated in central asia- thus, their existence can be traced back to more than 2000 years.
Greek records glorify the gorgeous paithani of Pratishthan, now known as Paithan. The art of weaving paithanis flourished in 200 BCE, and this exquisite fabric was exported to many countries and traded in return for gold and precious stone. A paithani sari can take anywhere between one month to two years to finish and has a very high yarn count in its warp and weft. The three-ply fine filature weft silk and 20/22 warp is typical of an original and traditional paithani. The normal zari count is 1,200 yards, which may increase to 3,000 yards in the case of the traditional coconut design border.
So fine in the weave in some antique paithanis that it is practically impossible to distinguish between the positive and negative sides of the fabric. An Indian bride looks forward to having the most exquisite of saris in her trousscau. And, if she is a Maharashtrian bride, a paithani would be the high point of her bridal finery. But not everyone can afford the gold and silver threads interwoven with silk that go into the making of an exclusive paithani sari. More affordable are paithanis woven with just silk threads.
But even these saris are cheap only by comparison, for they start at Rs. 8,900! No wonder they are so much in demand. The paithani is woven in the basic tabby weave, but the speciality lies in the fact that no mechanical means like the jacquard or jala are used to produce the design. Before wrap for each part of a design and interlock the silk or gold yarn using tiny clothespins or tallies. Even a two and a half-inch border might need 15-20 separate tillies and when the entire pallu is to be covered, there could be over 400 tillies arranged across the warp.
Not surprising that the progress is extremely slow and sometimes only half an inch can be woven in a 12 hour working day. Recently, in order to speed up the process, the modern jacquard has been incorporated. Multiple spindles are used to produce the linear design. The best paithanis are made out of extremely high quality silk and pure gold zari. But more economically viable saris may also be woven by substituting silver for gold and cotton for silk. The silk used for manufacturing paithani is originally found in red, yellow, blue, white and black colours.
To impart a glaze and add lustre the artisans dye it with other colours made from particular vegetables. Such vegetables dyes have no adverse effect on the softness of the silk. In the past, silk used to be processed in Paithan itself. But following spectacular developments in textile technology, Paithan depends on Bangalore for the raw material. The oldest of the traditional paithani designs are the asavali (flowering vine) and the akruti (squish flower) forms. Some other traditional designs include the narli (coconut), pankha (fan), rui ful (flower), and the kalas pakli (a petal form).
Storks and swans became popular during the Shalivahana era while the golden lotus belongs to yadava times. The Mughal period inspired flowers, plants, and birds, the peacock motif being a popular example. The Buddhist influence is seen in motifs like the Ajanta lotus, the triple bird, and the seated Buddha. Some other designs and motifs used in the paithani are the kuyvi vol (vine and mange), annar vel (vine and pomegranate), draksha vel (vine and grapes), tota-maina (parrot) and beheshti parinda (the bird of paradise). The border and the “reversible” pallu are the defining features of an original paithani sari.
The unique fact about the pallu is that is “reversible” with the same design seen on both sides. It was at Yeola village that young Kiran Dattatreya Sonawane informed us of the Buddhist influence on the designing of the paithani saris. “pallu ke design tab Ajanta caves painting se mili hai (The pallu design comes from the Ajanta paintings)” he said. The Buddha motif is perhaps the only human motif used in the pallu of the paithani sari and its use is surprising as the paithani saris were first used for the decoration of Hindu gods and then taken up by the Hindu women.
Right on top of the quality scale is the sari with an asavali border (6 inches wide). On par are the sankhla mor (chain of peacocks) and the Ajanta lotus border measuring 6 inches each. These are followed by the munya border (1. 5 inches), and the cheapest in the sari with the narli border as it is the easiest to weave. Diversification and experimentation have been necessary to incorporate this 2,000-year-old craft into contemporary lifestyles. Consequently, the weavers are now also crafting wall hanging, throws, shawls, stoles, separate sari borders, as well as pallas using the basic paithani techniques.
The colours have also become subtler and fresh interests have been generated by weaving thin, hairline stripes or candy stripes in tone or tone or in soft contrast. The paithani is as durable as it is beautiful. It is usually handed down through several generations as a cherished heirloom. And even when the silk finally starts showing signs of wear, the border and pallu of a true paithani may be burned to extract solid gold from the zari – a parting gift from gracious fabric.

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