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  Life   Art  01 Dec 2016  Baluchari, Bengal and beyond

Baluchari, Bengal and beyond

Published : Dec 1, 2016, 1:16 am IST
Updated : Dec 1, 2016, 6:37 am IST

The great doyenne of textiles, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, had initiated a project reviving the Baluchari many decades ago. What happened?

An exhibition featuring Baluchari sarees at Kolkata’s Birla Academy
 An exhibition featuring Baluchari sarees at Kolkata’s Birla Academy

In Kolkata’s Birla Academy of Arts & Culture, Darshan Shah & Weavers Studio is holding its grand textile show dedicated to celebrating the Baluchari, fittingly titled: “Baluchari, Bengal and Beyond”. The exhibition examines the history of the weave that was recognised for its quintessentially figurative style and often documented the history of its time. The historical context is especially fascinating given that its silken folds often narrated the story of bibis and nawabs, or the then European sahibs and bibis and their lavish lifestyles and pursuits. An old Baluchari (the term refers to Baluchar, Murshidabad, where it originated from) was woven in silk and usually had a contrasting border and a striking pallu that was elaborately designed. In shades of purple, magenta, red or russet, the sarees sometimes had vignettes of the colonial times. The nawabs with falcons or smoking a hookah, European sahibs and bibis posed against elephants or horses, hunting scenes, steam boats and lovely nautch girls with their musical instruments were some of the whimsical patterns woven by the skilled Naqshabands, who composed the designs before the weavers transferred the motifs on complex Baluchari drawlooms. The woven designs were mirrored on the walls of the terracotta temples and it was difficult to figure out which came first.

In the exhibition, which goes on till December 4, the context and history of Baluchari is examined through the prism of textiles woven by its first master weaver Dubraj Das and others who followed, texts, visuals and a documentary. The attempt is to trace it to its early times and then touch upon its journey to Berhampur, Bishnupur and Benaras in the last few decades. In the past year, I have had opportunities to visit the present master weaver Naseem Ahmed in Benaras as well as the other weavers in Bishnupur and interact with the collectors who have lent their sarees for the show.

Here, now, are excerpts of my conversation with Darshan Shah, who has worked tirelessly towards the project.

INA PURI (IP): Darshan, what drew your attention to the Baluchari? Your own interest has been contemporary textiles, yet you have been devoting all your waking hours to the study of Baluchari in the past few years.

DARSHAN SHAH (DS): It all began about two-three years ago when I was collecting my daughter’s wedding trousseau. Having spent my life in Bengal, it was a given that I wanted a few beautiful sarees from the state, wedding sarees that would enhance Radhika’s trousseau. To my disappointment, the one saree I had set my heart upon, the Baluchari, was nowhere to be found! My memory of the rich weaves with their gorgeous textures and patterns that I had seen in museums and collections did not exist any more. What was available was a travesty of the past textile, the gaudy and garish motifs on shiny silk a far cry from the original weaves. Bishnupur and Murshidabad, erstwhile centres for Baluchari silk, yielded nothing. The weavers showed me what they sold as Baluchari and I came away deeply disappointed. Referring to my archival collections and books on textiles of India, I discovered that in the olden days it was the untwisted yarn of Malda and Murshidabad that was commonly used. Could we revive the ancient textile, I asked myself, and that was how the project began.

IP: Namavali shawls were woven by the master weaver Dubraj Das but the tradition of weaving ‘religious symbols or texts in brick-red over a yellow or golden-coloured soft korah (unbleached) silk’ (Watt) was discontinued. Share some of your discoveries as you journeyed on the trail of Baluchari.

DS: On a chance visit to Bombay’s Prince of Wales Museum, I had the good fortune of seeing the brilliant Tapi Collection of Balucharis, the rarest of weaves collected passionately by Shilpa and Praful Shah. I was absolutely delighted! I acquired the exhibition catalogue and found that the original district of Baluchar had disintegrated, after the master-weaver Dubraj’s death in 1903. Unfortunately, Dubraj did not train other weavers and his skills at the loom died with him. The patronage of the zamindar, business classes and the British rulers had reduced remarkably and the technique of the jala (naqshabandi) was no longer seen anywhere in Bengal. The colony of weavers who resided in Bishnupur in order to survive had begun weaving on Jacquard loom for mass markets. Post-Independence, the weavers began to price the Balucharias as they would price a Benarasi and that was how the downfall started. Bengal’s magnificent silk brocade Baluchari lost its glory. It was replaced by cheaper quality silk with chemical colour dyes and its intricate palla/anchal was now replete with popular scenes from Mahabharata, Ramayana and Shakuntala. When I compared the gorgeous designs with nawabs, bibis and sahibs or the patterns inspired by the Terracotta temples to the coarsely woven designs, I could have wept. What a loss!

IP: While there were very few examples of the traditional Baluchari available in Bengal, MuseeGuimet, Paris, had marvellous pieces with the naqsha so unique to its pattern. One would expect that textile so ancient and traditional to Bengal would find a place in Indian museums. What was your experience?

DS: Very true, Ina. I found the Baluchari sarees at the Ashutosh Museum at Calcutta University and Crafts Museum (Delhi) poorly displayed with scant regard to its importance in the textile history of India. Issues related to research, restoration and conservation, which would have found a mention in catalogues in any international museum, were missing! The Indian Museum collection in Kolkata is well displayed but there isn’t much curatorial matter available in the public domain. Belonging to Kolkata, I was initially very keen to showcase the Tapi Collection along with Ranu Mookherjee’s collection at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, but despite our efforts there was no response from the management or the curators.

IP: The great doyenne of textiles, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, had initiated a project reviving the Baluchari many decades ago. What happened?

DS: When the Vishwakarma festival was planned, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay visited Bishnupur and tried to revive the Baluchari, but the venture was doomed. As Ruby Palchoudhury pointed out, the cost was coming to approximately Rs 10,000 per piece (in the late 1950s) and this was much too expensive for commercial production. Subsequently, the exquisite designs were taken to Benaras and offered to Kaloo Hafiz, a master weaver and recipient of the President’s Gold Medal, who was respected as one of the greatest naqshaband weavers of his times. It was Kaloo Hafiz who skilfully recreated the Baluchari sari in Benaras on the Jala loom, at a more reasonable price. That was how the Baluchari came to be woven in Benaras! Several questions bothered me in my quest for the Baluchari. I wondered why they did not invest in documenting and archiving the designs and publishing those in museums and private collections from the 18th and 19th centuries and why they didn’t invest in upgrading the skills of weavers in Bishnupur or even bring in technology to help with designing and card punching? Why wasn’t the idea of restarting the Jala loom considered? Given their scholarship and experience, why didn’t the textile historians urge the ministry to revisit the Malda silk industry and set up a yarn bank in Bishnupur?

IP: Thanks to your research, we now have access to the many collections that focused on Baluchari down the years. For the first time, the lay person can see the exquisite patterns and motifs on the saree inspired by the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, the tale of Shakuntala and so much more. We can also feel the fine texture of the weave and get a sense of its history.

DS: Tantuja and Weavers Service Centre collaborated and met with collectors who were happy to bring out their precious sarees and get them catalogued for our study. I am pleased to say that today, after having completed the survey, we have been able to make graphs and punching cards of 12 of the old designs and these will soon be transferred to sarees being woven in Bishnupur. Presently, at Birla Academy, we are exhibiting a curated selection of Baluchari sarees that come in a range of patterns and colours. The fantastic Tapi collection occupies an entire section and has viewers transfixed! The show also endeavours to share with the viewer the Weavers Studio Resource Centre’s collection and the historical data we have accumulated, apart from showing a Jala loom demonstration alongside a documentary on Baluchari made by Sanjeet Chowdhury and Kunal Basu. From the first level, with its sarees and textiles and weavers working at looms demonstrating the art of weaving to the audience/guests, we move to the second level. Here, the history is traced with moving visuals and text. An interesting dimension we have added is to include 12 contemporary fashion designers who use the Baluchari in their own creations. So, you have Kallol Datta or Pero, for instance, making dresses or blouses and scarves with the beautiful Indian silk brocade, completely reinventing the old with the new. Tantuja is soon to open an exclusive Baluchari shop in Kolkata and we hope that from the current 12 looms we can make it 200 looms within the next two years.

Tags: art, textiles woven, birla academy, baluchari