The history of Baluchar saree : The Tribune India

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The history of Baluchar saree

IT is interesting how things go and come around sometimes.

The history of Baluchar saree

Col. Antoine Polier watching a ‘nautch’ as a connoisseur of things Indian Company School; ca. 1770. The Aga Khan collection.


IT is interesting how things go and come around sometimes. Long years ago, I was lecturing at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich and in the audience, there was a young lady from Germany whom I did not know at all. The lecture over, she approached me and asked if I could help her with choosing a theme for her doctoral work. Whether she was into the area of sociology or art history, I could not easily determine to begin with; but that India and her textiles interested her was clear. After some thought I came up with something: “The Baluchar saree”, I said. She had never heard of it, but the little that I was able to describe and explain seemed not only to interest but also excite her. We met just once, I think, after that and then, as far as I was concerned, she dropped out of my sight, disappeared from my ken. Over time, I did not even remember her name.

Some weeks ago, however, she ‘returned’, as it were. Shilpa Shah who, together with her husband, Prafulbhai, owns and runs the famed Tapi Collection of textiles at Surat, called me one day to say that she was showing early sarees from their collection in an exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum in Mumbai and it would be nice for me to see it, if I happened to be in that city. What kind of sarees, I naturally asked? ‘Baluchar’, she said. How interesting, I said to her, for it was the same sarees that I had recommended to a German scholar many many years ago to research. Shilpaben was intrigued, and called back the next day, after ascertaining, to tell me that it was the same scholar who was curating this show, along with her and another colleague. Eva-Maria Rakob was her name and she remembered vividly how it all began.

To get back to the saree, however, and away from my clouded recollections. As Eva-Maria, who eventually went on to get her Ph.D. on the subject, recounts in her fine introduction to the catalogue and the exhibition — it bore the title “Sahib, Bibi, Nawab”, in a witty take-off on a strikingly similar title of an old Indian film — how she went looking for Baluchar town after which the distinctive, richly patterned woven silk sarees are named, and could not even find it on a map. The town belonged once to the former princely state of Murshidabad in Bengal but along with its glory, the saree which made it famous, it was by now gone. She did persist, however, interviewing people, gathering saree samples, visiting museums and private collections to piece together a picture. Clearly, the sarees were woven, as she writes, from ‘locally cultivated mulberry silk’ which, unlike wild silks like tussar and muga, could absorb dyes extremely well. The weavers dyed the fabric in lustrous colours and names like pitambari, sonali, and dhoop-chhaya were common currency. The familiar ‘paisley’ motif — a take-off on the Kashmiri buta, locally called the kalka, obviously a corruption of the Persian kalgha — appeared again and again in all its elegance in the woven design, but it was the remarkable variety in the figuration and the range of motifs that appeared inside squares or rectangles on the broad borders — the pallav or anchal — which gave the sarees their very distinctive look. Tigers and deer lived in these squares, lush stylised vegetation grew, men and women inhabiting them sat smoking huqqas, ‘holding flowers and falcons, hunting, riding horses and elephants’. Within them also appeared ‘European officers, stiff and correct’, standing by cannons, sitting in train compartments, or paddling steamers. The weavers were apparently bringing into their designs sights they saw or knew, being witnesses to the social and political shifts all around them. 

In the introductory essay to the catalogue is traced, meticulously, the history of the saree. It all began, according to the narrative, in 1704, when Murshid Quli Khan, the Mughal governor of Bengal, shifted the provincial capital from Dacca to Maksudabad and renamed it after himself as Murshidabad. The area was already known for ‘the abundance and cheapness of its silk and its silk textiles”. What is more, it was almost cosmopolitan in respect of the people who lived there: “Gujarati and Marwari traders, Armenians, Iranians, Arabs, and Jews, Siddis from Abysinnia, Dutch, English, French and Danish merchants, all of whom had come here to make their fortunes”. Within 50 years of the renaming of the town, the decline of the Mughal empire had begun but the area continued to be rich, its economy still flourishing. There was fierce competition among the Europeans to take control of the region, a competition from which the British eventually emerged triumphant. The Battle of Plassey put them in command, after which Robert Clive wrote with obvious glee words which are cited in the essay: “A great prince was dependent on my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against one another for my smiles.”

There is this kind of richness in the text that appears in this catalogue. A whole range of images — paintings, engravings, inscriptions woven into saree pallavs, drawings of motifs — fill page after page; what is known of the last remembered master-weaver of Baluchar sarees, Dubraj Das, is recorded; the complex techniques and notes on the draw-looms on which these figured fabrics were produced; the possible sources, including Gujarat and Benares and Assam, from which designs and techniques were drawn are gone into; issues of trade and exchange patterns are raised; European patronage of these textiles and the notes left behind by perceptive ‘memsahibs’ and ruling ‘sahibs’ are drawn attention to.

 Like the figured silks that the exhibition is all about, and the seductive repertoire of designs and motifs, this study lands one into a world of riches long treasured and now nearly all squandered. Exultation and wonder and regret all come to mingle.

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