By Malavika Shivaprasad
Published on: Feb 2, 2023
A sense of wonder and awe is never amiss when a Chanderi fabric is on display. But if you happen to take one step ahead and dig into the story behind such a beautiful fabric, you will soon get caught up with the rich history, heritage, craftsmanship and the process of weaving, all intertwined to find expression in the saree. A Chanderi saree refuses to just be a piece of exquisite clothing and invites one to indulge in the interesting stories behind it.
Sari with the ‘mehendi racha haath’ design.
With changing times, Chanderi is now better recognized for the popular fabric that the town has been weaving for years, while originally it was the other way around. With the rising sun that reflects its warm rays on at least half a dozen lakes distributed resourcefully across town, one of the numerous signs of prevailed prosperity, the sight of milking of cows that graze the lush hills surrounding Chanderi from which many women procure firewood on a daily basis to provide meals for their families cannot be missed. On one hand, everyday trips to the jungle have become a permanent part of the routine of house makers, and on the other hand, the farmers choose to go over people to collect chemical fertilisers from occasional distributions instead of going to the jungle where natural fertilisers are in abundance. Overlooking this irony are the various historical symbols that have taken different forms of stories among the residents over the years. Heaps of old clothes are seen on new moon nights with people shaving their heads at a much visited Shani temple, Digambaras are seen frequently walking out of the Jain temples, masjids dating between 11th century to present are commonly noticed and the beautiful stone carved royal establishments originating under the patronage of over seven ruling dynasties are a treat for the eyes which has continued to inspire designers of Chanderi who have borrowed around two hundred patterns so far into their fabric.
Sari design on the walls of Jama Masjid.
If one begins to be overwhelmed by the rich history offered by every street of Chanderi, the oral narration of it is keenly bestowed upon by the local guide Muzaffar Ansari, popularly known and referred to by the name “Kalle Bhai”. His interests spanning from coin collection, prehistoric tool collection and calligraphy of twelve scripts, never fail to enthral the visitors about Chanderi and his own life stories. Apart from being well versed with the historical aspects of the town, his alertness throughout his guided tours on the current state of affairs sparked by occasional debates with the locals, allows deeper insights into the lives of the residents. A weaver himself, Kalle bhai has gotten used to hearing deep sighs from the curious observers as he introduces the nitty-gritties that envelope the twelve step long process of making a sari which quite elegantly sits on the shelves of the designers and at times, rightfully under the GI tag of “Chanderiyaan”.
The tale of tana and bana, warp and weft that forms the core of the Chanderi weaving, started with catering to the needs of royal families who donned these saris adorned with gold and silver threads woven along with the silk on special occasions. In a transition to be able to reach common households, zaris of gold, silver and copper colours are in current use along with silk and cotton threads, the three basic raw materials out of which saris are made even today. Although Indian silk has been experimented with in this kind of weaving, a major portion of the silk is still imported from China while cotton is supplied from Southern India. Based on different combinations of these three basic raw materials, different kind of saris ranging from basic to the most exclusive ones are produced: with cotton primarily forming the basis for warp, based on the thread used in the alternating weave of tana, cotton saris are made with cotton, ‘Khathan’ or ‘Organza’ saris are obtained with either raw silk or degum silk and tissue sarees are woven using zari and silk threads. The motifs on the saris use zari threads and a more intricate or higher number of motifs add more value to the saris. The key features characterising Chanderi sarees are that the motifs work which is based on single weave unlike cut work observed in other kind of sarees, the squared dimensions of the folded Chanderi sarees and the quality of weave which can be cut at any point without the threads moving out of place. These are some tips for a handloom rookie to bear in mind attempting to differentiate the genuine work from that of other similar sarees found in markets under the pretext of ‘Chanderi’.
The twelve step process consisting of pre and post loom procedures starts with the warping of threads ranging between five to fifteen thousand onto the reels. Bundles of hundred are then warped around big wheels.
The third step involves dying of threads and it’s been noted that procurement of chemical dyes is getting harder day by day. People involved with the occupation of dying are currently in a vacillating state of mind in continuing the risky business of using chemical based dyes and choosing natural dyes which further amplifies their efforts to obtain standardised shades as well as convincing buyers to pay the added expenses of those dyes.
The fourth step in dividing the threads irrespective of their quantity into widths of forty six to forty seven inches which is the standard width of a typical sari demands a great deal of precision.
Obtaining a width of 46 inches.
These threads are set on the loom by twisting and joining the ends of the threads that were on the loom with the new set. This takes about three to four hours of work that can rightly be termed meditative in nature. Usually ash is used as binding material and care is taken that all of five hundred to fifteen hundred threads are joined correctly with the appropriate colour combination.
Threads being twisted and joined.
Before the actual weaving process, the artistic skill of setting the relevant graphic cards in series is well implemented. The patterns on the saris are obtained by creating the framework by passing the strings through the holes of these cards that remain the same for a particular type of design.
Graphic cards set in series.
The seventh step involves the actual weaving that a weaver gets accustomed to throughout the year. There are either two looms, of which one works on the border and the other on the rest of the sari or a single loom with two graphic cards set up to achieve both. Weaving families are distributed throughout Chanderi town with some working for about twelve hours a day, everyday, and gets paid for his labour. A handful of others earn their livelihood based on the number of pieces that they can produce. A growing population of the younger generation are setting up family businesses of their own through which they deliver the orders to end users or master weavers. These master weavers are the connecting link between skilled weavers and the market.
The differentiating factor of a Chanderi saree getting packed in square boxes owes its perfection to the painstaking step of measuring every sari that comes out of the loom and diligently folded in a very particular fashion.
The other four supporting, yet crucial steps include converting new patterns into graphical representation based on which punch cards are produced, making the rectangular comb like tool that sits on the loom, wood work in making the frames on which threads are warped and the pedal like mechanism called ‘rach’ which rests at the foot of a weaver aiding in alternating movement of the loom. Owing to the digital intervention initiated by Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), the designing work has boiled down to just a few hours spent on a computer and encouraged many youngsters to be on par with the market trends by adding novelty to their designs in an easy and efficient way. On the contrary, the other three processes are on the fringe of fading away. Owing to the expertise that these tools demand in making and the time spent in the process with very nominal economic gain in return, the families traditionally associated with this are opting to find better ways to improve their living while parallelly ensuring that the tradition is passed onto the next generation. Although weavers are concerned about the plight of their occupation slipping into oblivion owing to the loss of skill set required to support the weaving tradition, the community is still trying to find ways to improve the situation. As one weaver is seen busy with the construction of his permanent house, one of the tool makers, Narayan, is seen on the opposite end continuing the detailed work of making the tools along with his wife recollecting the struggling situation his family faced staying unemployed for about six months while the wife suffered from heart related problems during the pandemic. His hopes in keeping the tradition alive with a better value in return through facilitating training programs is something that awaits to see the light of the day.
Narayan and his wife working on the tools.
In recent years, Chanderi’s fame has grown with well known designer labels adding a flare of glamour. The sarees and fabric from Chanderi are commonly displayed on many national platforms. This has been viewed with mixed opinions among the locals with some welcoming the step which helps them reach to more customers while some others believe that any additional work on Chanderi sarees masks the authenticity of the weaving as most weavers commonly agree that these sarees are so rich that extra finishing of any form is completely unnecessary. Apart from this, in many stores across the town sarees named ‘Anushka sari’, ‘Kareena sari’ etc, referring to Bollywood movie actresses, are being marketed reflecting the influence of movie industries on the local market. But as the common saying goes that fashion crawls in and fades out within a short span while traditional styles and designs thrive gracefully and eternally. One such design locally known as ‘banebar’ is a popular one in the wedding season with its exquisite border.
Another interesting design which is a bride’s favourite goes by the name ‘mehendi racha haath’, that translates to the hand with henna design. Sakir Mohammed Ansari is the only weaver who has spent over forty years working exclusively on this design for which he has also been awarded a couple of times. Showing the very first pieces of this design, he mentions that only one sari can be woven per month. With a constant smile on his face, surrounded by his beloved grandchildren, he also talks about the work of fixing the graphic cards that he takes up on himself fearing replication of design as many copies are always looming in the market.
Sakir Mohammed Ansari with his grandchildren.
Like any other tradition, Chanderi weaving is no exception from being impacted to the ebbs of changing tides that mark the pages of history. During the end of the rule of Aurangazeb, due to depletion of resources, the tradition of using silver and golden threads had to don a new attire by replacing them with the zari threads of silver and gold colours that are still in current use. For decades, artisans mainly thrived under the patronage of rulers which ended with the rise of British rule in India. This was the era when the pulse of the weaving tradition had to take a pause until the artisans were trained from London and Manchester in an attempt to revive the occupation. Another recent challenge of this sort was faced when the whole world was gripped with Covid-19 pandemic. The repercussions were mainly observed in the huge dip in market demands that predominantly catered to weddings, parties and showrooms. Moreover, a radical change in the attitude of the general public in terms of ‘doing more with less’ posed an insecure question about the sales of the stock that was beginning to pile up post pandemic. Work from home has been the norm to most weavers since its inception which made it easier during this situation and the digital empowerment of artisans whose foundations were laid by DEF even before the pandemic played a huge role in transitioning to E commerce mode of business. As a couple of Covid waves swept the lives of many, followed by a lull, the celebratory culture of Indians has brought back the spotlight on Chanderi sarees. Yet again, the town has managed to revive its tradition, but only this time forged out of self reliance and carried with an awareness to include a diverse set of occupations, in addition to weaving, within the family to support each other in times of uncertainty.
Sitting in her beautiful garden, Zumamrudd Khousar narrates the plight of her own family during the pandemic, juicing it up with various expressions and tickling the funny bone at times like a true story-teller. Married to a master weaver, with two grown-up sons, she has inspired her children to grow better by mustering the courage to complete her own education after bearing two children. Although slightly familiar with working around computers, she quotes “necessity is the mother of invention” as she recollects the struggles she had to go through to set up an E commerce website called ‘Fankar’ along with the help of her son during the pandemic. To support eighty other weaving families that are associated with their business, although she worked hard to create a digital platform, she did not expect the arduous effort a single saree demands to get sold. However, she has managed to smoothly run her virtual set up by collecting bits of lessons from her experiments, mistakes and youngsters who were quick in adapting. She still seems to be getting used to the world of hashtags, getting the colours on the website to match the sarees and the never ending discussions on call with some of her finicky customers.
Zumamrudd Khousar narrating her story.
Her take on the debate of occupation playing the role of means to an end or proving an end to the means of living is an intriguing one to mention. She is a strong advocate of sparing some time and energy to engage with the family in a meaningful and joyful way to share the nuances of earning a livelihood. She disapprovingly nods at the lifestyle that allows one to slightly improve the living standards at the cost of being drained of emotional and mental faculties. She pleasantly invites to experience this in person at Chanderi during the rainy season when it is hard to spot a woman on the streets and instead finds merrymaking on the banks of a river or a nearby reservoir with their children on Sundays.
This said, the conscience of occupying oneself with a work instead of lazing around is quite strong among the residents. No matter which other professions the members of weaving families choose, they never fail to carve out some time in their daily routine to weave a saree as they take pride in their tradition upholding the uniqueness of the work to an extent that many personally choose to buy other saris instead of using a Chanderiyaan to enhance its value. While people of Chanderi seem to have gotten the definitions of the urban lingo of work from home, going virtual and work life balance, it is awaited to see in what further ways this living tradition of weaving is going to strengthen and flourish with some hopes pinned on encompassing the growth of tool makers and amplified recognition of the rich heritage echoed in the beautiful stone carved remains of history along the way.
View of Chanderi from Kila Koti.