Saris, Odhanis and More: Woven Tales from India

Case studies of 3 unique Indian weaving traditions: Baluchari, Patola and Brocades

Museum of Art & Photography

Museum of Art & Photography (MAP)

Brocade Thali Cover (1940s) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography


Textile traditions have had a long and distinguished history in India. The Museum of Art & Photography’s extensive textile collection includes several hundred pieces dated from the 16th to the 20th centuries and features a variety of techniques and designs with intricate needlework, rich imagery and complex compositions. This exhibit brings together select works from the MAP collection to loosely map three unique weaving traditions of India: the Benarsi silk brocades, the double ikat Patolas of Gujarat and the Baluchari saris of Bengal—attempting to unpack their woven tales.  

Baluchari Sari (Late 19th century to early 20th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography


The origins and growth of the Baluchari weaving tradition is fascinatingly shrouded in mystery and speckled with speculation – beginning with the town that gave it its name to issues of patronage and the reasons for its decline. Blauchari saris were first referenced by N. G. Mookerji, an official of the British Civil Service, who spent several years studying, documenting and trying to revive the textile industry in Murshidabad – classifying and comprehensively describing the various types of fabrics made in the district. Among them, the Baluchari saris were certainly unique: made from locally-grown mulberry silk, dyed in lustrious shades of red, crimson, dark blue and purple, and distinguished by their long and elaborate pallus or anchals.  

Jamdani sari Jamdani sari (20th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography

The high density of patterning, richly palpable sense of pattern relief and skilled balancing of colour that leaves a monochromatic impression despite the use of as many as four or five colours of pattern weft in a Baluchari sari make it stand out among silk weaving traditions. Although in the modern and contemporary period, nothing else in Bengal's hand-woven textiles may be easily compared to the Baluchari sari, an aesthetic parallel may be found in cotton jamdanis (seen here). First, the treatment of the material: a very thin, porous base fabric—gossamer-thin muslin for the jamdanis and a fragile, superfine mulberry silk for the Balucharis—which is then brocaded with heavy patterning yarns. Even while the cotton jamdanis are woven with the simplest looms, and the Balucharis with a sophisticated pre-industrial patterning loom, they may be seen as projecting a similar material sensibility, notes textile historian and designer, Rahul Jain. 

Baluchari Sari depicting Europeans in a wheeled compartment, Unknown Maker, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Scholarship on textiles has historically focused on the aesthetics, history, technique and trade. While this is of key importance, contemporary research also recognises a need for expanding critical perspectives to include social histories—issues of class, gender or local/national patriotisms—as reflected in textiles. In other words, visually constructing the social through textiles, and mapping it to explore lesser known histories.

A Quilted Kantha Panel Depicting Foreigners (Early 20th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography

Dr. Jyotindra Jain writes of the unique history of Bengal, for instance, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—its 'age of mechanical reproduction' and the immediate aftermath, where for the first time the common man had access to a range of images through postcards, calendars, product labels, advertisements, photographs, newspapers, etc. Kalighat painters, patua artists and the women embroidering kanthas assimilated these new visual vocabularies into their pictorial conceptualisations – as did Baluchari weavers. Dr. Jain observation that "unlike the embroideries of other regions of India, which remained repetitive and stagnant, the kantha, while adopting new images of the age of mechanical reproduction, rose to the level of an innovative art form reflecting the changing world of colonial Bengal", is reflected in work that showcased both European figures (as seen here), and contemporary society scandals.

Baluchari Sari depicting Europeans in a wheeled compartment (Early 20th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography

Similarly the pallus of Baluchari saris were characteristically woven with motifs offering a charming glimpse into a society undergoing radical political, economic and social transformation. Popular motifs included hookah smoking nawabs and courtesans playing musical instruments to Eurpoeans with canons or on horseback – and fascinating new technological advancements of the time, such as steamboats and trains (as seen here and in the fragment presented next).

Fragement of a Baluchari sari pallu/anchal, Unknown Maker, Late 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Baluchari SariMuseum of Art & Photography

Baluchari Sari Baluchari Sari, Unknown Maker, Late 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Balucharis are the only major sari tradition of late medieval South Asia to feature human figures as key motifs and so prominently. As Rahul Jain explains, human figures were otherwise consigned mostly to textiles produced for religious purposes such as narrative vishnav silks woven for assamese sattras, pichvais or the temple kalamkaris of South India. When appearing in other forms, it was only incidental and never a key motif.

Baluchari Sari Baluchari Sari (Late 19th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography

The figural imagery is largely formally arranged around a central iconic image of a paisley, or a band of intricate paisleys. The paisley, or kairi motif, is also significant in the Baluchari tradition with several beautiful and artistic renditions.

A Mughal repousse silver hukka, Unknown Maker, 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Tobacco was introduced to India in the closing years of the 16th century, through European traders in the west coast. Quickly spreading among the aristocracy, it became an integral part of everyday life. A wide array of devices designed for tobacco smoking, from simple earthen huqqas to lavishly designed metal and glass versions.

Kantha Coverlet, Unknown Maker, Circa 1880, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Numerous portraits from the 18th century onwards showcase Indian princes and nobles or English officials taking puffs from the huqqa, and the display of a huqqa on a stand was de rigueur in courtscapes. The imagery of the huqqa in the context of Bengal in the 18th and 19th centuries was a dominant motif, and may be seen everywhere—from kanthas (as seen here) to terracotta temples.

Baluchari SariMuseum of Art & Photography

Interestingly (and adding to the mystery), women smoking huqqas were almost always depicted seated, as opposed to men, who were also shown reclined on a bolster.

Baluchari Sari Baluchari Sari (Late 19th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography

Among other textile revival projects in post independent India, in 1956, a consolidated revival programme for the Baluchar silk brocade sari was launched in Benares, since naqsha weaving at Murshidabad and Bishnupur was a dying form. In more recent years, the Baluchari form received its Geographical Indicator – legally making only works from the Bankura district certifiable as genuine Baluchari. Whether in Bengal or Benares though, as jaquard looms have almost entirely replaced traditional jala looms, the classical style and grandeur of the Baluchari weave remains elusive.  It is significant however, to recall that much like Bengal at the time, ideas and images can cross-fertilise to produce and influence contemporary forms – and in this the Baluchari may always remain an inspiring note.    

Baluchari SariMuseum of Art & Photography

‏ ‏ (Circa 1840) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography


The term patola (plural, singular patolu) is used both to refer to the unique Indian double-ikat weaving technique and as a generic term for textiles produced using this technique, encompassing in textual sources both silk and non-silk (usually cotton) cloths. Patan in north Gujarat is the most famous centre for patola-weaving in India, where they are traditionally woven by the Salvi community. Alongside requiring much skill, producing patola is also a time consuming affair—taking anywhere from six months to a year to make one sari. 

Patola sari (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

An extremely difficult technical process in which both the warp and the weft are resist-dyed to prior to weaving, patola are very expensive. They were therefore, largely worn only by royalty, the aristocracy, the elite Brahmin caste, and Jain and Bohra merchants. In India, patola were favoured as traditional ceremonial saris, as in Gujarat, though they were adapted for other uses. For example, in Kerala, they assumed a role in temple worship, and were used to dress and decorate the deity. As extremely valuable trading commodities, specific patola designs were also produced for European and Indonesian markets in the 19th century, and they occupied a high position in the hierarchy of 'cloths as gifts worthy of rulers'.

A Patola (Popat Kunjar Phool Bhat) odhani (19th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography

When exported to Southeast Asia, patola took on a range of ceremonial, ritual and even magical functions quite unimagined by their Gujarati creators. Patola and patola inspired designs became the most prized of Indian trade cloths in Indonesia, though most of them were not of as good quality as produced for the domestic Indian market, notes John Guy. The Dutch, quick to realise the commercial potential of patola in the spice trade and by the middle of the 17th century had forcibly secured much of the patola trade, distributing them to local rulers in exchange for commercial concessions. 

A patola (Vagh Haathi Bhat) odhani Detail of a patola odhaniMuseum of Art & Photography

The presence and ceremonial use of Indian patola among the clan communities of Indonesia is thus well documented, and the right to wear it soon came to be a prerogative of nobility or the ruling class. In some contexts, this symbolism came full circle with the word patola absorbed into local nomenclature to denote members of the nobility. Three broad types of designs were produced for the Indonesian market: those featuring one or more caparisoned elepants, those in which the elephant alternates with a tiger (as seen here), and those with a range of geometric patterns based on flower motifs with varying degrees of abstraction. 

A patola (Vagh Haathi Bhat) odhani A patola (Vagh Haathi Bhat) odhani, Unknown Maker, 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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A patola sari Detail of a patola sariMuseum of Art & Photography

The most spectacular of the trade patolas produced for the Indonesian market are those of the elephant design. They are the largest, and of the highest quality, as measured by the density of weave and complexity and accuracy of dyeing. The classic design has two pairs of confronting elephants with richly decorated canopied howdahs. The howdah has a mahout positioned above the elephant's head and two princely figures, holding fans, seated behind. A chariot, standard bearer, footman and soldiers on horse and camel provide escort. The landscape is further populated with peacocks and ducks, and the presence of deer and tiger suggests that the scene is a royal hunt.

A patola sari A patola sari, Unknown Maker, 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Patola (Vagh Haathi Bhat) sari (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

The second major patola design made exclusively for export to Indonesia, the elephant and tiger design, was probably a later development, notes John guy, and dominated trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The history of patola textiles in the trade markets of both Southeast Asia and Europe, showcase their lasting impact on design organisation and on the repertoire of motifs employed in local textiles, highlighting the influence of textiles beyond the geographical locales of their production. 

Detail, Ungathered brocade skirt (20th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography


Brocades are a class of richly decorative shuttle woven fabrics, often made in coloured silks and with or without gold and silver threads. Typically woven on a drawloom, they are produced with a supplementary weft technique that gives the appearance that the weave was actually embroidered on. Although other forms of brocades are found in India, the Banarasi weave is one of the most famous and sought after, among luxury textiles. Banaras (now known as Varanasi) is one of the richest weaving craft centres of India, and is particularly famous for its brocade saris, that are considered an essential component of the wedding trousseau and festival wear. 

Brocade sari (Early to mid-20th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography

A brocade skirt (Early 20th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography

In the Indian tradition, as exemplified by the luxury weaves from Banaras (or Varanasi) in the north and other examples from Gujarat and the Deccan, gold or gilt-silver, or base metal plated with silver and drawn out into unimaginably fine strands were used to stupendous effect. First flattened, and then wrapped around a silk core—yellow silk for gold or gilt-silver and white silk for silver or silver-plate—the still-fragile but highly flexible precious metal wrapped thread is then woven into intricate silk brocades.

A Brocade SkirtMuseum of Art & Photography

As instances of textiles that provide valuable reflections of the socio-political currents and values of the time, some of the Benarasi brocades in the MAP collection hold immense value. We are familiar with the grand narratives of the histories of India’s independence movement – swadeshi, the indigo farmers’ struggle, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Gandhi’s Dandi March, his satyagrahas and the khadi movement. Besides these well recorded and well-known histories, there were lesser known and unsung histories of ordinary people’s engagement with India’s nationalist fervour and struggle for independence. These grass-root level expressions did not originate from political parties or ideological organisations, but were directly related to the aspirations of the collective folk, the populace at large. 

A Brocade SkirtMuseum of Art & Photography

Unknown traditional weavers of India, sitting in remote corners of the country toiling away on their looms, wove fabrics that reflected their urge to be a part of the freedom movement. This skirt, for instance, features a band woven with the repeated motif of the Indian flag (seen in detail here), at its lower end.

A Brocade Skirt, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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While this skirt depicts the map of undivided India from the pre-independence era bound within a sunflower motif (seen in detail on the right).

A Brocade Skirt, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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A brocade skirt (20th century) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Art & Photography

The Banarasi brocade weavers have historically had a rich repertoire, producing not only saris, but also skirts, patkas, turbans and ornate costumes and furnishings since the 17th century for the Mughal court (the details of which are recorded in miniature paintings from that period as well as in the travel records of visiting Europeans). Aside from such domestic consumption, Banarasi brocades were also produced for export to the northeast, Tibet and beyond. However, the most tangible details of the production and trade of Banarasi brocade textiles emerge in the 19th century, with descriptions in travelogues, display at large-scale national and international exhibitions and notes from district gazetteers of the period. Post independence onward, several Banarasi weavers switched from the jala to the jacquard loom, and in more recent times have added to their repertoire a diverse range of products from scarves and stoles to curtains and tablecloths, to fulfill changing consumer expectations. 

Credits: Story

Google Exhibit | Curation & Content: Shilpa Vijayakrishnan

References & Further Reading:

Multiple authors. "Baluchari: Bengal & Beyond", Accompanying publication from the seminar and exhibition of the same name, Weavers Studio Resource Centre, 2016.

John Guy. "Woven Cargoes: Indian Textiles in the East", Thames & Hudson, 1998.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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