Textiles of West Bengal

Jamdani was primarily a dress material for women and men but in contemporary lifestyle we find them in the form of saris with a great variety of patterns donned with geometrical motifs designed on simple frame or pit looms. During the weaving process a paper pattern is kept beneath which acts as a trace to set up the design onto the sari. Generally two weavers weave the jamdani sari.

Jamdanis are mostly woven in lightly dyed backgrounds with designs in white, maroon, black, green, gold, silver and in muga silk of a golden colour. There is a key difference in the weaving technique of extra weft designing between jamdanis and tangails; the embroidery thread in jamdani is inserted after every ground pick whereas in tangails the embroidery thread is inserted after two ground picks. The main characteristic of tangails is the extra weft butis, tiny motifs repeated all over the ground. Traditionally jamdanis are woven in white with designs in bleached white. Traditional jamdani saris with geometrical designs and cotton tangails are very popular and continue to be woven by weavers originally from Bangladesh. Being light they are excellent for everyday wear in a tropical country like India.

Shantipur, Dhaniakhal, Begampur, and Farasdanga are the main cotton weaving centres which are involved in the weaving of fine-textured saris and dhotis. Coarser saris and dhotis, used for everyday wear, are found in Atpur in Hooghly district while fine textured saris with a uniform weave of 100-112 counts in the warp and the weft are done at Shantipur. When the decorations look the same on both sides of the cloth they are called do-rookha or double sided designs.

The borders on the saris of Shantipur could be either dyed cotton-silk or art-silk or viscose yarns or gold and silver zaris. The background of the saris has fine and delicate checks, stripes, or a texture created by coloured threads or a combination of fine and thicker yarn. The anchala or pallava or pallu of the sari which hangs from the shoulder has butis or jamdani designs beautifully arranged along with stripes of different widths. Some tie and dye designs are also being used for the anchalas of Shantipur saris.

The well known Nilamabari sari is of a deep navy-blue colour like the sky on a new moon night with borders of silver zari-like the stars while the pallu is decorated with stripes of different thickness, called sajanshoi, in colours complementing the border. Bengal has a rich tradition of weaving richly patterned cotton saris with heavy borders that contrasts with a finely textured body.

Dhaniakhali in Hooghly district which was once famous for superfine dhotis has switched over to saris in pastel shades due to failing demand, In contrast to the Dhaniakhali saris, the saris of Begumpur have deep and bright colours. Farasdanga in the same district continues to make fine dhotis, perhaps the finest in Bengal while Begampur also in Hooghly district specialises in loosely woven, light-weight and translucent saris.

There is a rich tradition of weaving handloom cotton textiles among the tribal and semi-tribal people n the districts of West Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Maldah, and Cooch Behar in North Bengal. Rajbanshis weave saris with very attractive designs of checks and stripes on simple pit-looms. The sarongs of the Polia are made by joining together two very dense strips woven on simple primitive looms made of short pieces of bamboo stick and a narrow strip of wood about 3 cm wide and 60 cm long. Beautifully patterned, multicoloured, narrow jute carpets on similar looms are made by the tribals of West Dinajpur. These dhokras are joined together and used as sleeping mats or blankets.

The Arthashastra has mentioned that Silk weaving in Bengal has existed from the ancient times. The cultivation of mulberry silk and its weaving is carried out in the plains of West Bengal. The other districts where silk yarn is made are Murshidabad, Birbhum, Bankura, Maldha and Purulia districts. The district of Maldah on the north bank of the Ganga is today the most important centre for silk rearing in West Bengal.

Tapestry material was made from Baluchar silks which were originally used by nawabs and Muslim aristocrats of the Murshidabad district as; however Hindu noblemen used the raw silk. Baluchar silk was woven into saris in which the ground scheme of decoration is a very wide pallu with a panel of mango or paisley motifs at the centre surrounded by smaller rectangles depicting different scenes. The sari borders were narrow with floral and foliage motifs and the fall of the sari was covered with small paisley and other floral designs in undemonstrated but bright colour schemes. Another familiar motif for the body of the sari was diagonal butis. Even today similar saris which have smaller anchalas are being woven at Murshidabad and Varanasi to match contemporary tastes. The traditional jala technique is used for this.

The unique feature of Baluchar saris was the combination of animal and bird motifs incorporated in floral and paisley decorations while other motifs included hunters on horses, elephants, and scenes from the nawab's court. The silk yarn used for Baluchar saris was not twisted and so had a soft and heavy texture. Limited ground colours were used which were permanent in nature and retain their freshness even after so many years.

Murshidabad is famous for its cowdial saris made of fine mulberry silk with flat, deep- red or maroon borders made with three shuttles. The borders are laced with fine serrated design in gold zari. The fine gold lines are supposed to represent the fine trail left on its path by a live cowrie mollusk, thus giving the name, cowdial. Murshidabad silks are further popular for hand-printed designs and other materials which are also printed with wooden blocks. Calcutta and Srirampur in the Hooghly district are the main textile hand-printing centres in West Bengal.

Traditional silk sari weaving is also done at Vishnupur in Bankura district which bear a lot of similarity with the kataki designs of Orissa. In the districts of Bankura, Birbhum, Purulia, Murshidabad, and Maldah the weavers make plain silk fabrics in rich and varied textures using Tussar and mulberry silk

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