Probably no other single category of product expresses India’s unity in diversity as exquisitely as Indian handlooms. From the Khandua of Odisha to Muga Silk of Assam, from Phulia cotton of West Bengal to Kota Doria of Rajasthan, from Chanderi of Madhya Pradesh to Pochampally of Telangana, the list is endless. Traditional dresses from the north eastern states, such as the ‘mekhela chador’ of Assam or the ‘phanek mayek naibi’ of Manipur speak volumes about the beauty of Indian handlooms.
Indian handlooms, often representative in nature, are distinguished by their weaving methods, use of symbols and other imagery, colour, etc.
Sambalpur in Odisha, one of the key centres of ‘ikat’ handloom, is also known for its ‘bapta’ weaves, an indigenous method that combine silk and cotton. In fact, Odisha is a shopper’s delight when it comes to handlooms, with several protected under Geographical Indication (GI) tags.
Weavers from Maniabandha and Nuapatna are skilled in weaving the ‘khandua’, predominantly red or orange in colour and known for their glossy finish.
The Pasapali from Bargarh draws inspirations from the ‘pasa’ (an Indian board game which played a leading role in the Indian epic Mahabharata) while the tribal belt of Kalahandi is known for its Habaspuri, adorned with natural motifs such as flowers and fish. Who can resist from trying on a Bomkai or Sonepuri?
While the basic texture of the Mangalgiri handloom from Andhra Pradesh is derived from fine cotton yarn, it is the extra warp in the border that gives it a distinct look. Or take the gossamer fine Chanderi of Madhya Pradesh, where you will find an interplay of silk, cotton and zari threads. Compare it with Kanchipuram (Kanjeevaram) silk from the eponymous temple town of Tamil Nadu, a saree of choice for brides across southern India.
It is almost customary for a Bengali bride to don a Banarasi (Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh) silk saree on her wedding day.
Patan in Gujarat is home to Patola silk, known for its elaborate design which incorporates motifs ranging from geometric to flora and fauna.
The silk Baluchari of Bishnupur town in West Bengal is distinguished by its story-telling scenes woven on the borders.
Many Indian handlooms are even custodians of regional history. It is said that Paithani in Maharashtra has been a centre of handloom weaving since 200 BC. Apparently, the exquisite silk fabrics were traded by merchants of yore in exchange for gold and precious stones.
Patronised by Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, the Maheshwari handloom benefited when she invited master weavers from other regions to settle in her capital city and develop a unique style.
Weavers in Kannur, Kerala, use the sturdy wooden ‘Malabar frame’ loom, which is believed to have been introduced to the region by a German weaver who was deputed to the region by the Basel Mission 160 years ago.
Although the bulk of Indian handlooms consist of sarees, weavers also make dress material, shawls and dupattas, furnishings, towels, etc. Despite weaving being one of the key occupations of rural India with the finished products often attracting a high price in urban markets, the weavers are a much neglected sector. On one hand they lack training in adapting their traditional patterns into attractive designs to suit modern tastes and on the other, escalating costs of yarn, labour, etc. eat into their profits. Although there have been efforts undertaken by the government and private enterprises and there has been some improvement, a lot more needs to be done.
To draw attention to India’s handloom products and improve the condition of the weavers, in 2015, the Union government declared August 7 as the National Handloom Day. The significance of August 7 being it was on this day the Swadeshi Movement was launched in Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1905, at the city’s Town Hall, as a mark of protest against the Partition of Bengal by the British rulers. (The partition ultimately happened – India retained West Bengal; East Bengal became East Pakistan and then emerged as the independent nation of Bangladesh.
This year, the national day, acquires extra significance as the already beleaguered sector has been dealt a crippling blow by the pandemic situation. So even if you may not be travelling yet, you can always visit the various state government run emporiums in your city to buy a handloom product and celebrate the living legacy of Indian handlooms.