My childhood recollections of Kolkata are wrapped up in memories of the saris that my mother, various aunts, and grandmothers wore every day. When we left Kolkata for Delhi, my mother was the only link I had to the world of the Bengal taant (handloom). On our holidays, Ma would take me to her favourite stores to stock up on Bengal handloom saris; and the biggest stack in her wardrobe would be of the Dhaniakhali.
“Ektu durey kata gulo dekhan (could you show the saris with stripes),” she would ask the guy behind the plywood counter, and he would dutifully take them out - elegant saris with fine woven stripes with a stiff paar (borders) and geometric patterns. The word "durey" (stripe) was thus imprinted in my mind. When I returned to Kolkata many years later, my Durga Pujo shopping would always include a couple of durey kata Dhaniakhalis. The shopkeepers would try to push the Tangails (which were ethereal), but I would always gravitate towards the smaller shelves stacked with Dhaniakhalis. Some of these saris still remain, wrapped in cotton bags in Ma's almari. Others have been misplaced, or lost. The saris are a part of a time in our lives that has long gone, of stories intrinsically woven into the threads of memories. Of summer holidays in Kolkata, my grandmother in a Dhaniakhali supervising the daily tea ritual at 4pm, the mellow sun’s rays casting dappled light on tea cosies, and plates of ledikeni (a Bengali sweet), ginger biscuits, and Himsagar mangoes.
I have visited this city over the years to check on family, and more recently, settled here to look after my folks. Over the past few years, our Pujo shopping has been bereft of Dhaniakhalis. A good Dhaniakhali is hard to find. “I bought my last one four to five years back. It was a lucky find—most saris available in the market are gaudy and overdone,” noted art historian, author, and critic Ella Datta tells me when I ask her about the low visibility. “There used to be so many varieties of Dhaniakhali stripes to choose from—dal-khichuri (multicoloured fine stripes), payera chokho (a black stripe in the middle, with two red stripes on both sides), alta paati (wide, red stripe).” Datta rues that along with the sari, such “descriptive, beautiful words” may also disappear.
Despite its waning popularity, the Dhaniakhali sari, which received a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag in 2011, has a staunch fan following. Even the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee favours the weave (she prefers, and is often photographed in, a simple white Dhaniakhali with thin borders).
My quest continued for the perfect Dhaniakhali on a walk along the Rashbehari-Gariahat area which has some of the best Bengal sari showrooms. At the Dakshina Kali sari showroom near Triangular Park on Rashbehari Avenue, I met Sanjay Shah, whose father started the sari shop in the 1960s. “You don’t get the same quality dyes or threads any more," he said, explaining why the quality had gone down. "Neither will you get the 100-by-100 thread count either; forget the 120 count that the earlier saris were woven in."
I point to a sari displayed in their window showcase - it has the typical fish stripe motif, yet looks and feels very different. It is made on a power loom—a ‘soft Dhaniakhali’ which his customers like. Plus it is cheaper than the handwoven ones.
"I know what you are looking for—those saris had intricately worked borders, each layer in red, black and white combinations. Some years back, I could have shown you that quality. Even the paar (border) had a rich variety—matha paar, rokom paar. But the weavers who could make those saris are gone. Today, even if we ask for a khorkey durey (a particularly fine-striped sari), they will not be able to make it. Shilpi kothaye (where are the craftspersons)?”
Suparna is another sari shop in Gariahat that’s been operating since the 1980s. The proprietor Piyush Kanti Saha laughs when I ask for a khorkey dureyi. “Apni toh ekta impossible guptodhoner shondhaney (You are on an impossible treasure hunt),” he said.
Saha urges me to visit Dhaniakhali, Hooghly’s Chinsurah subdivision, the home of the distinctive sari. “Perhaps you will better understand what’s happening to the sari and the weavers.”
A Journey To Dhaniakali Village
As we get off the Durgapur Expressway and approach Dhaniakhali, the landscape of intermittent fields we have encountered so far changes. The road is flanked on both sides by multi-floor shops and offices—several are computer an tech related (like the 2M Computer Shot and Cyber Cafe). We pass assorted beauty parlours and jewellery stores, a bank ATM, and even a shop selling wallpaper. A big, glass-fronted structure displays a sign—“Shops For Rent.”
The handloom hub in Dhaniakhali dates back to 1938. In 1946, the Somaspur Union Co-operative Weavers Society Limited and Dhaniakhali Union Tant Shilpi Samabay were formed. The cooperatives supervise the area's small-scale taant industry—from providing yarn to weavers to giving designs, paying their costs, and looking after the sales and marketing aspect.
The narrow lanes here are dotted with small houses, interspersed with green fields of paddy. I can hear the sound of looms from almost every house. One door has an A4- size simple printout signage—“ekhaney taanter sari paoa jaye” (handloom saris are available here). Inside, to the right by an open window, is a wooden loom with a half-finished blue and white sari. As I wonder if I should knock, a man dressed in a bright yellow t-shirt and lungi walks in. He ushered me in warmly, no questions asked (it is perhaps a given that a someone from the city with a cameraman would be here for saris) and started working on the loom.
The ever-smiling Anup Bhor is descended from a long line of taantis(weavers). His father taught him weaving techniques when he was a child of ten, techniques that stretch back more than centuries. The saris he weaves are on 100-and-80-count threads, and are 5.5 metres long with a width of 48 to 50 inches. "In order to understand how a Dhaniakhali is created, you will have to spend much more time here," he says but proceeds to give a crash course in the the process.
The words he uses to describe the many designs and motifs are lyrical, much like poetry.
Originally woven in natural kora (grey), Dhaniakhalis had plain broad dobby borders known as maatha paar or beluari paar, Bhor explains. He holds up a bamboo reed (known as saar). Crucial in the weaving process, it is used to control and direct the threads, thus helping the weave attain the required texture. He points to a woven V-like repeat pattern at the end of the sari. This distinctive motif is a signature of the Dhaniakhali, he says. Known as the khejur chari (date branch) or dhaner sheesh (paddy stalk), this is an arrangement of special weft threads of twisted cotton yarns in two colours. Weavers from other areas, and of of other saris, have also started using this motif now, he rues. It's a kind of copyright issue.
Threads Of Memory
At the back of Bhor's house is a small enclosure with a mud floor and asbestos roof where his wife, Mitra, sits spinning yarn on a charkha. Thick spools of beige thread are soaking in water in one corner. Some are hanging over coal embers in a small clay pit dug into the mud floor. “We boil our rice on this pit, and it also doubles as a drying zone for the thread,” she says.
While men traditionally do the weaving, the women of the household prepare the thread. The process involves soaking it in water, treating with a mix of khoi (popped rice), saboo (sago) powder and wheat starch; then drying and spinning the thread on a hand-driven spinning wheel to transform it into a form suitable for weaving.
“I have to prepare enough thread to make 60 pieces,” she says. “That’s the number of saris we make with each batch of thread.”
The number of weaver families who remain here, deftly weaving patterns that trace ancestral knowledge and memories, has sharply declined in the last decade. Many have moved on to better paying jobs like construction and real estate.
Arup takes me to a nearby house—a family of four brothers who are all taantis. Inside is a large courtyard with a granary in the centre. On the left is a large room with a mud floor where the brothers sit weaving— Rabindranath, Somnath, Tapan and Tarun Kumar Bhor. One of the looms has a white sari with a stunning red border. The others are making Dhaniakhali dhotis in tussar thread.
“Our ancestors were all taantis,” says Tarun. The brothers picked up skills by observing the generation before them. “Earlier, elderly hands guided young ones through the creation process,” says Rabindranath. “But this generation is not interested in carrying on this legacy. Everyone wants instant gratification nowadays.”
Outside, sitting on the beautiful red oxide floor spinning thread is their aunt, Punnoshoshi Bhor. There is an intense grace to this 85-year-old who narrates her story in a low, sing-song tone. Her husband, who passed away recently, was a taanti, she says. Her whole life has been about the loom and the shuttle. “This isn’t just a sari for us, it is part of our culture and past. People say change is good, but I feel sad thinking that the knowledge about this may become obsolete. I will continue doing this as long as I can. Once we are gone, perhaps the Dhaniakhali too will fade into oblivion.”
A WEAVER'S LEGACY
In Kolkata, one of the places where the legacy of the Dhaniakhali sari is being kept alive is at the Byloom store under the award-winning Bailou label. Textile artist, social entrepreneur, partner and designer at Bailou, Bappaditya Biswas, spoke about his encounter with master weaver Jibonkrishnno Sen, whose strikingly innovative Dhaniakhali designs have been recreated on some of their saris.
“While working with handlooms, I had the privilege of being introduced to one of the finest Dhaniakhali weavers— Jibonkrishnno Sen. I first saw a sari created by him on my mother-in-law. My father-in-law was the marketing manager of Tantuja, the Bengal government’s handloom undertaking. He used to procure saris from weavers like Jibonda.
Dhaniakhali saris are made on dobby looms. Dobby weaves have small, geometric, textured, frequently-repeated woven-in designs. Hence, you will see shukhho (finely detailed) graphic designs on the saris. For instance, the fish motif you see on a Dhaniakhali is very graphic; it does not have curves. Jibonda would take the traditional Dhaniakhali motifs and innovate. He would do a sari with multiple varieties of stripes. Or introduce muga silk in the stripes. He could create a variety of durey in one sari.
Jibonda was also known for his wonderful execution of a paaka ghor border—it would be packed with thread, making it dense and thick. Only a highly skilled taanti can execute a paaka ghor so well, because it needs immense skill to balance the thin weft with the thick warp threads.
I worked closely with Jibonda till he was alive. He received a Sutra Sammelan award from the Delhi Crafts Council before he passed away.
I had once told him that I would always keep his legacy alive. And we have done that. We honour his memory by recreating his work. One of our most popular products—the carpet saree—reflects his design, one of the most beautiful Dhaniakhali motifs I have ever seen."