Past-Continuous: Craft, Heritage & Community in India

Craft Revival Trust

A look at the Khes, Gyasar, Kotpad and Tussar traditions from India

Sustaining Traditions
Fragments of woven madder-dyed cotton excavated at the Harappan site dating to the third century BCE provide evidence of an advanced knowledge of weaving and dying technology on the sub-continent. Over the millennia the vast repertoire of Indian craftsmanship of spinning, dyeing, weaving, embroidering, painting, embellishing and block-printing on textiles served the ceremonial needs of courts and the requirements of the everyday. 
This technology, the skill and equipment is present today, kept alive and vibrant by the guru-shishya tradition of cross-generation mentoring, the knowledge transmitted orally and honed through apprenticeship.
The extraordinary skill of the Indian textile craftsperson’s and weavers is visible not only in museums and collections all over the world but in everyday life and practice in India. This brief introduction is but a small fraction of the vast repertoire of Indian craftsmanship that is marked by its diversity, immense regional differences that are based on textile usage, influenced by geographic factors, and weighted by historic influences and cultural underpinnings. 
The Woven Checkered Khes  
“The most important of the Punjab cotton manufactures are now the Khes…”, this high praise from B. H. Badden Powell, ICS officer in the Imperial administration in the late 19th century, further qualified the Khes as “beautiful”. 
Traditionally woven in both silk and cotton these geometric mixed-checkered double-weaves, with their obverse and reverse sides appearing differently were truly worthy of acclaim. The descriptive names were lyrically – from the simple or Sadaa Khes with its lines and checks woven straight across or down to the Khas or special Khes with its diagonal geometric patterning. 
The poetic Bulbul Chasam or the eye of the nightingale pattern with its diagonal diamond woven with a dotted-eye in the center, the Gulbadan or many-hued, the Charkhana or four-cornered check to the Shahi-khanis or royal squares that were interwoven with gold and silver metallic zari yarns they were comparable in cost and beauty to the Jamevar shawls of Kashmir were just some of the popular Khes weaves. With patterns and color choices often specific to economic status, communities and religious beliefs. 
Soon after the seismic partition of India weavers were resettled in the then small town of Panipat in Haryana. With all manner of cotton and woolen textiles being woven to Panipat soon came to be known as the "City of Weavers" and the "Textile City of India” The Khes weave too took root with new and innovative complex patterns that keeping with tradition were poetically named for instance Chandni Gulbahar or the moonlit rose-red, Laila-Majnoo named after the doomed lovers, Gol-Chakkar – the squared circle. These pioneering developments continue to take place and till the late 1980’s over two hundred and fifty looms were dedicated to the weaving of the Khes.
In the early 90’s the export boom in textiles led to an inexorable move towards power-loom, replacing the handloom, and leading to the steady decline of the complex time consuming Khes weave. Now this many centuries old tradition is practiced by a solitary 70 year old weaver - Khem Raj Sundariyal who  continues his lone battle to preserve the heritage and skill of the traditional Khes. 
The legendary Gyasar
Kashi, Banaras, Varanasi - the many names of one of the oldest inhabited  cities of the world whose textile links have been and remain an intrinsic part of the city.  From the c. 2nd century B.C when Patanjal, the great grammarian in his text Mahabhasya mentions kasika textiles as being more precious than others to references in ancient Buddhist and Jain literary sources that mention Kashi as an important weaving and trading centre, the glimpses continue through the ages and up to the present times the unchallengable links remain. 

With over a hundred thousand people engaged in both the weaving and the pre and postloom activity the economy of Banaras remains inextricable connected to the loom. The continuing familial handloom traditions with weaves whose structures, techniques and physical quality remains related to the past can be seen across the city and its surrounding villages. Where hereditary weavers strive to achieve a balance between the preservation of the established while innovating and adapting textures and patterns to the times and changing clientele.

One such family is located in Pilli Kothi, the ancient stronghold of Banarasi weaving. Here the 6th generation  of a family of weavers, now headed by the Badrudin Ansari who was awarded the Presidents National Award in 1987 for his skill in weaving. 
Besides their traditional work the family is now also well known for the weaving of the Gyasar brocades – densely patterned silk with auspicious Buddhist symbols and floral imagery in gold and silver threads for Buddhist monasteries across the globe. The weaving of the Gyasar was introduced at the time of Badrudin Ansari’s father Haji Nooruddin.
Since the 1970’s these weaves have been exported across the globe to clients ranging from the Royal family of Bhutan to Buddhist monasteries. Continuing to nurture their ties and trade links with the world outside they now have a world-wide customer base that includes international designers to the weaving of sacerdotal fabrics for Greek Orthodox churches.
Pata cotton handloom weaving in Kotpad
The Pata weave is among one of the many such distinctive handloom traditions in India. Its weavers based in the remote village of Kotpad, located on the border of the eastern state of Odisha. 
Woven by members of the Panika community, the Pata weave is the conventional wear of the Dhruva and Muria tribes of the region. The heavy, thick, handspun cotton is characterized by its patterning in natural-dyed shades that range from the deep-reds to the dark-browns. 
The unstitched and uncut Patas are woven in differing sizes to suit the customary sartorial needs of their tribal clientele. This includes the lugada - the sari-like drape for women, the tuvaals and angocchas – the men’s shoulder and head cloth,  the dhotis – the unstitched men’s lower garment and the phenta or turban. 
The women of the Panika community are the master dyers. Extracting the dye from the root of the aaal plant (Indian mulberry morinda tinctoria) and getting the dye-pot ready takes at least a fortnight. Both the aaal dyed and unbleached yarn are then set on the throw-shuttle treadle pit loom for weaving. The minimalistic motifs range from figurative representations of animistic beliefs and the natural world, to everyday objects of desire and human forms. 

With cheaper synthetic clothing available, the patronage of the Dhruva and Muria tribes is now limited to celebratory times. In an effort to stem the decline Jagabandhu Samrath and Purushattom Samrath and the eighteen remaining weaving households in Kotpad have successfully explored new markets and expanded their repertoire.

Tussar – The Wild silk weaving of Bhagalpur, Bihar 
The use of silk for weaving in India can be traced back to the third millennia BCE. While the domesticated variety of silk – the mulberry, was introduced into India at a much later date, it was the wild silk varieties– tussar, muga and eri—that were being woven in ancient times. These varieties of wild silk remain indigenous to the East and North-East of the country.
India is the largest producer of tussar in the world. The silkworm Antheraea Mylitta Paphia is reared in wild forests and Bhagalpur is the tussar weaving capital of the world. This town, the second largest in Bihar is located alongside the Ganges and is known to be home to over 30,000 spinners, dyers and handloom weavers.
Woven on pit-looms, the silk also known as kosa is valued for its natural heavy uneven textures and the luminous hues and dimensions created when dyed onto its flat coppery yarn. Woven tassar is made up into saris, stoles, home furnishing and piece goods for the domestic and overseas markets.
In this huge hive of spinning, dyeing, weaving and trading special mention is due to the work of the Berozgar Mahila Kalyan Sanstha led by Niranjan Poddar. Set up in 1985 with seed funding and years of investment in design, natural dye training, capacity building and market exposure by Dastkar, an NGO working with craftspeople, its luminous coloured tussar saris and fabrics were introduced to urban audiences. 
The heavy drapes that fell so smoothly to form a silken sheath were immediately appreciated and the organization grew, with several hundreds of weavers under its umbrella, depending on them for their sustainable livelihood. Other organizations, weaver cooperatives, private entrepreneurs continue to enlarge the market, which is now reputed to have crossed the Rs.100 crore annual mark, the experimentation with Ahimsa silk yarns – the non-violent silk where the silk is reeled without killing the silkworm that creates it- is now leading to a new route for further expansion.
Craft Revival Trust
Credits: Story

Ritu Sethi

Mehak Saini

Craft Revival Trust

Credits: All media
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