The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 5, 2003
'Art and Soul

Pattern-drawers of Benares
B.N. Goswamy

Flower study for use by naqshbands
Flower study for use by naqshbands. By Mammoo Jan of Benares, 1880, Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi

IT is not a common occurrence, but good things come out sometimes even from sarkari initiatives. When, for example, late last year, the "Golden Jubilee of Handicrafts Resurgence in India" was celebrated, under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Textiles, it became an occasion for the publication of a small series of monographs. With the Craft Council of India being involved, some thought went also into writing and documentation. The monographs I spoke of earlier came out of that thought.

One of these was devoted to the work of one master craftsman: Ali Hasan, also known as Kalloo Hafiz. He was a naqshband of Benares: a pattern drawer. Belonging as he did to the great design tradition which has always been drawn upon for the making of the finest of Indian brocades, but tracing his ancestry to families which originated in distant lands centuries ago, Ali Hasan knew all that needed to be known about kimkhwabs, and zarbafi, and gold and silver and minakari work in textiles. His was a life and career clearly worth recording, therefore. But, while doing that, Anjan Chakravarty, who wrote the monograph, went far afield and pulled in valuable information – and fascinating illustrations – about techniques, the cultural context of that kind of work, and, to an extent, about the history of Benares as a great and ancient centre of crafts. All of which makes for rich, if not always smooth, reading.

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The way of the brush
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Passion for collecting textiles
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Dazzling images from Amir Hamza’s life
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Recording intellectual journey of man
July 13, 2003

A dynasty of artists
June 29, 2003
Controversy dogs IIAS again
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To study, conserve & restore
June 1, 2003
Images from the Mexican cultural tapestry
May 18, 2003

The Persian word naqsh means many things: painting, printing, staining of two or more colours, embroidering, carving, engraving, even ‘striking clusters of dates with thorns to make them ripen quicker’. There is, one knows, an association of the word also with the rituals of an order among the Sufis. But, over time, naqshband came to mean a craftsman who drew patterns, ordinarily for use in textiles, the word naqsh referring to the "indigenous equipment to weave complicated designs on handloom", something like "the jacquard of modern weaving". The whole idea in making naqsh-s, as Pupul Jayakar, who worked years ago on the naqshbands of Benares, wrote, "is to weave one complete design in a group of threads and duplicate it on the fabric wherever it is required by attaching these threads to the loom and to the threads of the fabric in a suitable way." If this sounds complicated to the unused ear, there is far more around the corner as far as even a rudimentary understanding of the complex techniques goes. For one would then have to move into the world of terms like machan and chaukari, gulli and tili, likhai and kheva and pagia. The incredible beauty of some of the designs would stay with one but, after a point, technical analysis could get very dense for the non-specialist.

What fascinates me greatly, in the midst of all this, however, is the way in which different crafts seem somehow to come together, growing into one another, and the extraordinary manner in which, for hundreds of years, craftsmen have been moving across great distances in this land of ours. Nothing is as straightforward, or as linear, as it initially looks. Take the case of naqshbandi itself. The master pattern-drawer is not alone as he works: he has to be aware of and work with the weaver (karigar), the calendaring expert (kundigar), the darner (rafugar), even the dyer (rangrez). This apart, there is the inevitable intimacy of relationship between his work and that of a painter (naqqash or musavvir). Everyone seems to work hand in hand, all differences between religion, sect, caste, even class, growing faint in the process.

Then, again, there is the matter of movement and migrations. Consider this: the naqshbands of Benares regard, as their patron saint, Hazrat Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshband of Bukhara who lived in the 14th century. There are others who trace their descent from the legendary Ghiyas-ud-din Yazdi, who worked in the imperial workshops in Iran, and whose deft work – "three hundred pieces of brocade, all woven by the hands of noted weavers", as the records say – appears to have come as part of royal gifts from Iran to India in the times of the emperor Akbar. Not only this, men from these workshops seem to have moved to Mughal India and made it their home, for Abu’l Fazl speaks of "skilful masters and workmen" "who have settled in this country to teach people an improved system of manufacture". Within India, again, there was extraordinary movement. Her naqshband informants told Pupul Jayakar that they moved to Benares following a great fire in Gujarat in AD 1300. Another family is said to have moved from Ayodhya and settled in Benares. Still others say they came from Azamgarh. But why to Benares? Evidently on account of the antiquity of the place as a centre for fine brocades, but also because of the patronage that the ruling house of Benares extended to the arts and crafts. At the same time, from Avadh, the work of naqshbands and weavers is known to have been sent out in enormous quantities to the Maratha courts, and to the royal houses of Rajasthan. There are remarkable connections, and it would seem as if this kind of thing had gone on forever.

And one wonders if it is not fine threads like these that bound the different parts of India.

Shades of meaning

Once, while looking up the word naqsh in the dictionary, I came upon some expressions and phrases in Persian which the reader, like me, might take delight in. Thus: naqsh bar ab means "writing upon water"; and naqsh bar ab kashidan is "to draw figures upon water", engage in unprofitable pursuits, in other words. Dar abgina naqsh-i pari didan means to see the reflection of the beauteous cup-bearer in the wine; but naqsh-i bi-ghubar, literally ‘signs that do not even raise any dust’, signifies the "cries of the oppressed". And one of the epithets of God is naqshband-i hawadis, ‘the pattern-maker of things unforeseen’.