To most people, Maharashtra is like an open book. Everybody is familiar with its many attractions, its famous film industry and its position as the home to India’s financial capital and a business hub. But hidden among its folds are an array of traditional weaves and crafts that you will love to get your hands on.
While browsing through the saree shops in any of Maharashtra’s big cities, do not forget to ask about the state’s traditional weaves, such as Paithani and Narayan Peth. According to historians, the exquisite and colourful Paithani saree was a commodity of exchange during the Roman trade in the second century BC. Originally from Paithan, a town near Aurangabad, the Paithani silk saree with borders in gold and silver zari, is now protected by a geographical indication (GI) mark. The weave on the saree looks the same on both sides of the cloth. The sari ‘pallu’ usually has floral motifs. The Narayan Peth saree too has an interesting history.
It is said that while the 17th century Maratha ruler, Chhatrapati Shivaji, was travelling through the Narayanpet region (now in Telangana), a few weavers from his team settled down here and continued with their trade. These weavers gave an interesting twist to the Marathi weave and it soon acquired a special status. In Maharashtra, the Narayan Peth (also Narayan Pethi) saree, in both silk and cotton, is woven mostly in and around Solapur town. Traditionally, the body consists of fine checks while the borders have a row of triangular (temple) motifs.
A fabric woven in and around Aurangabad (the gateway to the famous caves of Ajanta and Elora), the Himroo, owes its origin to an event which by itself has gone down as a failure in Indian history – the shifting of the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad in the 14th century by Mohammad bin Tughlaq. It is said that some of the weavers never went back to Delhi. They settled down in the Deccan and began weaving a special textile that was similar to the ‘kinkhwab’ (a textile bearing Persian designs and made of gold and silver thread, and worn by royalty). Himroo weaving got a boost from the time when Mughal emperor Aurangzeb made Aurangabad the capital of the Deccan. Traditionally, the cotton thread is used as the warp and silk as the weft. Zari and wool may also be used. The rich fabric is now used to make sarees, shawls and dupattas, bedcovers, purses, etc.
Kolhapur, a former royal kingdom in southwest Maharashtra, is famous for a lot of things, including temples, fort and cuisine. But it is the handmade leather footwear that catapulted this town to global fame. Usually made of buffalo hide and tanned with vegetables dyes, these open-toe slippers are available both as regular and designer wears. According to the manufacturers, if well taken care of, these slippers can last for a long time. The footwear got the GI tag in 2019.
Even though the handmade colourful wooden toys of Sawantwadi, a town on the border of Maharashtra and Goa, have found a place of honour in museums abroad, the craft is languishing in its own country. Take a walk down the Chitar Ali quarters in town to find an amazing range of lacquer finished toys on sale. However, with stiff competition from modern toys and lack of availability of the special wood to make these toys, the toy makers are facing an uncertain future. Apart from dolls and toys for children, the artisans also make decorative items, bowls containing fruits, low tables, figures of gods and eminent people, etc.
Interestingly, Sawantwadi is also known for its painted Ganjifa cards. Once used as playing cards, these are being mostly produced as souvenirs and show pieces. Thanks to the efforts of the former royal family, initiated by the late queen Sattwashila Devi, a select group of young artists are being trained by the few surviving master craftsmen, which has prevented this traditional art from disappearing altogether.