Magic of Bengal Handlooms

Story on some of the most celebrated handloom traditions of West Bengal.

Saree (2019)Banglanatak

Handloom heritage

Handloom locally called tant in Bengal is one of the richest hand weaving traditions of textiles. The quintessential attire of Bengal is the sari, which is typically a six yard tant used by women to drape themselves. 

Working on a Loom (2016)Banglanatak

Handloom weaving

Handloom weaving is a simple, scientific technique of weaving fabric by hand on a manually-operated loom. A loom is an equipment made out of wooden frame with specific parts that facilitate the weaving process.

Warping -combining the yarns (2016)Banglanatak

Handloom weaving technique

Essentially weaving is interlacing of two sets of yarns, called the warp and the weft, placed perpendicular to one another on the loom. The earliest record of sari weaving in Bengal can be traced back to 15th century in Shantipur of Nadia district.

Artists weaving their products (2018)Banglanatak

Handloom tradition in daily living

Handloom weaving, a traditional livelihood of men and women for centuries, is a process that relies on the body, rhythm, and skill of the weavers depicting their lives' narratives. 

Working on a Loom (2016)Banglanatak

The legendary finesse of handloom textiles derived from the specialised traditional knowledge and skills of the rural weavers, have generated awe across the world for centuries. It is an elaborate and entirely hand made process that make such textiles precious and exquisite.

Pit Loom (2016)Banglanatak

Various steps of handloom weaving

Handloom weaving of textiles includes a series of steps that are performed by the different members of the practitioner communities and their households. The tradition of weaving is intrinsically linked to the weavers' lifestyles. They weave as spontaneously as they live.

Spinning wheel or Charka (2016)Banglanatak

Pre loom preparation

Before yarns are fitted in looms for weaving there is an elaborate pre-processing of yarns which is done mostly by the women of the weavers' households. It often starts with spinning thread or yarn from fibres with a hand driven device called charkha or spinning wheel. 

Preparing bobbins

To transform the yarn into a linear form that is suitable for weaving, yarns are wound around bobbins with the help of charkhas.

Setting up the loom (2016)Banglanatak

Warping or drumming

Drumming or drum warping is a technique involving a large wooden spool structure with necessary fittings, etc for winding warp yarns before fixing on the loom. 

The warp is a set of threads attached to the loom lengthwise before weaving begins. Warping is the process of creating the base yarn that runs along the length of fabric.

Preparing the thread for warping (2018)Banglanatak

Final yarn processing stage before weaving

After drumming the warp yarns are made ready for fixing on the loom. The warps are stretched out on two beams and natural adhesives are applied to add strength to the yarn to withstand the rigours of weaving. 

Dying the threads (2019)Banglanatak

Dyeing of yarns

To create colourful handlooms, either the yarns are dyed before fixing on the loom or the fabric is dyed after weaving. This is based on the varied weaving traditions in different parts of the country.

Post dying, drying (2019)Banglanatak

Dyeing is done in and around handloom clusters by specialised communities of dyers who have the technical knowledge of dyes, shades, chemicals and natural ingredients. It is a sub-industry of textiles.

Working on a Loom (2016)Banglanatak

Warp in weaving

The warp is a set of threads attached to the loom lengthwise before weaving begins. Warping is the process of creating the base yarn that runs along the length of fabric through which the “weft” yarns are filled in to make the fabric. 

Preperation of the loomBanglanatak

Weft in weaving

Hank yarns for weft are wound on a prin or bobbin and then inserted into a shuttle. The weft yarns are pulled and inserted perpendicularly to the warp yarns across the width of the fabric to create designs, motifs, and colours.

Loom (2016)Banglanatak

Shuttle in weaving

The eye of the shuttle is the prin / bobbin carrying the weft yarns.

Baluchari Saree (2016)Banglanatak

Baluchari weaves

The level of artistry found in handloom fabrics are unparalleled in terms of their intricacies and luxurious features. Baluchari, the most popular amongst Bengal handlooms has been prominent since the Mughal era. 

Baluchari enjoys Geographical Indication tag making it special!

Baluchari Saree (2016)Banglanatak

It derives the name 'Baluchari' from its traditional weaving centre - Baluchar in Murshidabad district. Today the weavers are settled mostly in Bankura district and have evolved their designs inspired from  Bishnupur terracotta temple work. 

Baluchari Saree (2016)Banglanatak

Baluchari weave has been synonymous with 'aristocracy' for ages for its gorgeous and elaborate Brocade work. It is typically woven in silk depicting mythological stories, animal and bird motifs, floral and paisley decorations...

Baluchari Saree (2016)Banglanatak

...hunters on horses, elephants, and scenes from the royal courts.

Jaquard CardsBanglanatak

Jacquard loom in Baluchari weaving

Baluchari is woven on a Jacquard loom. Jacquard  is a device attached to the loom that enables weaving of complex patterns.

The punched cards seen here are used in the Jacquard mechanism that carry the designs.

Punched cards

Once the design is drawn on a graph paper and coloured, it is punched into cards by a specialised community. The punched cards are then sewed in order and fixed in the Jacquard machine for the weaver to start weaving.

Jaquard loomBanglanatak

One Baluchari sari with its intricate motifs can have thousands of punched cards for weaving the design. The Jacquard loom which is a later invention (replacing jala tradition from the mid 18th century) makes the process of weaving faster and a sari can be completed in a week.

Working on a Loom (2016)Banglanatak

Tangail weaves

The other gorgeous handloom tradition is of Tangail which originated in a place called Tangail in Bangladesh. The heritage is over thousand years old. Many weavers had migrated to West Bengal during partition. Its major centre in Bengal is in Kalna in Purba Bardhaman. 

Motifs of Kalna Tant (2016)Banglanatak

Historically Tangail weaves have been renowned worldwide for the skills involved and exclusive designs. They are famous for their extra warp designs on the borders to create a decorative and colourful pattern on top of the ground cloth. 

Seen here is a Tangail weave of Kalna. 

Saree made out of Tant (2016)Banglanatak

In addition to the gorgeous borders, Tangails have extra-weft butis, small repeated motifs in the body, interlaced on the ground of the sari. Extremely fine yarns used to weave Tangail makes the ground almost transparent and the fabric soft, delicate and comfortable. 

In earlier times Tangail was called Begum Bahar interlaced with a silk warp and cotton weft. Presently, with design interventions the weavers have diversified.

Artist with work (2016)Banglanatak

Shantipur weaves

Other than the more luxurious weaves, indigenous communities create simple handlooms for daily wear for the common folk. These cotton fabrics are soft and extremely well suited for tropical weather. Across Bengal, communities weave these cotton handlooms, the most famous centre being Shantipur.

Working on a Loom (2016)Banglanatak

Shantipur tant is the oldest variety of Bengal cotton textile. The weavers deftly weave the cotton with use of two shuttles. Distinguished by its lightness, transparency, and fine textures, its aesthetics of motifs and colours are simple and elegant.

Saree made out of Tant (2016)Banglanatak

Phulia weaves

Nearby Shantipur is another famous handloom centre Phulia. Some weavers from Tangail had settled here and combined Shantipur tant with their tradition to create their unique style. These tants are soft and fine textured, come in vibrant colours and intricately woven motifs. 

Honeycombed hand towels (2019)Banglanatak

Kenjakura weaves

In addition to saris, there are clusters who weave cotton fabric for other daily household products. Kenjakura in Bankura, a traditional weaving centre, is best known for making gamchha or towels. 

Seen here is a typical honeycombed pattern unique to this cluster.

Loom used for weaving Madur (2019)Banglanatak

There are more than 330 families associated with weaving at Kenjakura and 45% of the weavers are women. 

Weaving in a loom (2019)Banglanatak

Their weaves stand out for their traditional patterns of cheques, stripes, flowers, honeycomb, etc. 

Seen here is a chequered weave on loom.

Artists flaunting their weaves (2018)Banglanatak

Kenjakura patterns have been readily picked up by the fashion industry in recent times. They are being innovated into apparel and home furnishing with an exclusive design vocabulary. Here one can see the women weavers flaunting their weaves.

Dupatta (2019)Banglanatak

Some of the most sought after Kenjakura products include dupattas and stoles...

Saree (2019)Banglanatak

...saris...

Cushion Cover (2019)Banglanatak

...cushion covers.

Warping - combining the yarns (2016)Banglanatak

Legacy of Bengal handlooms

Indian handlooms not only embody the high artistic values and excellence in craftsmanship, but also carry the golden legacy of textile trading from India, across the world, since ancient times. Bengal handloom is referred to in one of the most ancient Indian texts, Arthashastra.

The loom expressing the ways of living of the weavers, their social practices, and having a rhythm of its own, also finds its place as poetic imagery in ancient Indian texts like the Atharvaveda.

It mentions that day and night weave a mesh of light and darkness over the earth, just as the weavers throw a shuttle over the loom to weave a pattern!

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