Saturday, March 16, 2002

Death of a ‘royal art’
Sujata Tiwari

MANY centuries ago, during the reign of King Kumarpala, a temple priest in Patan committed what was then considered an unforgivable act. He stopped the king and his queen from entering the temple premises as the latter was wearing a patola saree that was ‘second hand’ — and hence, impure.

The king argued that he had bought it first hand from a merchant, who visited his palace. But the priest insisted that the saree had changed many hands as patolas were not woven in his kingdom. The only place where the saree could have originated was in Jalanda, an obscure hamlet in neighbouring Maharashtra.

Overnight, the king ordered that all saree weavers from Jalanda be relocated to Patan and paanch sheeris (or five lanes) be allotted to them outside the city limits. Around 800 families (bearing a common surname, Salvi) were resettled thus and ever since, patolas have originated from this colony — Patola Sheeri.

"Fact or fiction, the point is you cannot get a patola saree from anywhere else," says Vasant Salvi, a descendant of the original migrants from Jalanda. "Today, out of those 800 families, only three remain. And the art is concentrated in just 15 hands. The rest have just given up and left."


Migration is said to be the single-most determining factor to have robbed the weaving tradition of its practitioners. But deeper than that lies a fundamental problem: there is just no demand for the saree as not many can afford its price.

"The cheapest patola comes for Rs 70,000 and the price can go up to even Rs 5 lakh, depending upon the work involved," says Vasant. "Very few Indians can afford to pay such money for a saree. It is a royal indulgence... In the olden days, kings were the only customers for these sarees."

So what’s so special about the patola?

Those in the know would point out that every patola saree is one of its kind as it is created entirely with the imagination and skill of the weaver. It could take him four months to a year, depending on the texture, patterns to be incorporated and the finish.

"It is the only fabric to have a double warp and weft," says Vasant’s brother, Vinayak Salvi, a three-time winner of the national award (1978, 1987 and 1997) as master craftsman. "It therefore involves double the labour... In fact, no other woven fabric would take as much time as weaving a patola."

The silk for the sarees is imported from China in the form of raw hanks. These are opened on small spindles and multiplied eight times to form thick threads. The threads are again shaped together into hanks and boiled in water mixed with washing soda.

Next, the silk threads are twisted by using spindles after which the warp and weft are created. The saree begins to take shape only after the fabric is subjected to several rounds of colouring material with knots tied at select places, as is done for bandhini or tie-and-dye fabrics.

"Only natural colours manufactured out of dried peels of pomegranate are used," informs Vasant. "We guarantee our customers that even if the fabric frays or gets worn out from use, the colours will not fade. I have a 300-year-old patola whose colours are as good as new."

"Not just the colours, the fabric can never tear because of the unique double warp and weft," interjects Vinayak. "That is why is is said that you buy a patola only once and that too, not for yourself, but for the generations after you. It ends up as part of the family heirloom."

This also explains why there is no regular flow of customers at Patan. Between the three surviving families (the others being Sevantilal and Kantilal), barely 10 sarees are produced during the year. The margins do not exceed 30 per cent of the costs, Vinayak points out.

Yet it is pride in their art that keep the Salvi brothers going. Vinayak points out that while his cousins have turned into motor mechanics and labour contractors, he can never think of giving up weaving patolas. Even his son, Rahul, a qualified architect, has returned to Patan to be a weaver.

"I don’t think that there is no demand for patolas," he adds. "Probably, we are not marketing ourselves enough. Right now we are catering to export orders because only foreigners can afford our price. But if there is an increase in demand, we will not have enough artisans."

It is a catch-22 situation!