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What exactly is a Baluchar? If I had been asked the question in my youthful days, my ignorant answer would be “some textile”. Today I would describe the craft as “pictorial silk woven sarees, one of the finest textile traditions in the country that originated from Bengal in the 18th century.”
The origin story of this fascinating textile is unique and while the art fell into disarray at some point, its revival story is equally important in the context of Indian art and textiles. This all-encompassing collaborative book (Niyogi Books and Weavers Studio Research Centre) edited by renowned art historian Jasleen Dhamija, is a treasure trove for textile lovers. The book delves into great depth and detail to bring forth the rise and revival of Baluchar over the centuries from its namesake village in the Murshidabad circle, Bishnupur and Varanasi; its designs and motifs, its socio-cultural and political context; and also its ever-evolving contemporary fashion to bring the art to the masses. This book painstakingly uses historical data, academic research and personal experiences to give the reader an overall view of this art form.
Wars, trade and commerce has such a far-reaching impact on art and the Baluchar is the perfect example of it. It is believed the twill weave pattern used were influenced by immigrants and traders from Gujarat while the figurative connotations on the pallu are said to be derived from the outlines of miniatures created by the artists from the Murshidabad School of Painting who sought refuge in the area after Delhi’s sacking by Nadir Shah in 1739. The sarees that have survived also speak of technological advancements such as steamboats plying down the river, or the European influence in the country with pictorial representations of European men with hookahs. The motifs of a more religious nature are said to be influenced by the terracotta temples of Bishnupur. And today, the Baluchar designs can be seen on modern forms of clothing ensuring the survival of this weave and style.
‘What is Indian art?’ is a rather grey question. Would you associate Indian textiles in the purview of Indian arts? Or would a deep-rooted bias that distinguishes the ‘major’ arts of architecture, sculptures and paintings and the ‘minor’ arts of textiles and woodwork among others, rear its ugly head? Decolonizing Indian art is no easy matter and with this book, it is a way forward of acknowledging the unfair past of neglecting certain ‘minor’ genres.
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