The Story of the Saree - 2

(Please note this blog article has been edited from Vimla Patil’s article “The Origin of the Saree”, July 2012 and is being published as a series. Part 2 follows the blo

ssoming of the textile industry in India - how techniques of dyeing and printing originated and their influence on the saree and its motifs.) 



With rich influences from Greece, Peeria and other Central Asian  countries, the wealthy, royal families of medieval India created a repertoire of clothing which was as classic as it was comfortable. 

The queens and princesses who lived in marble palaces surrounded by sylvan gardens and lily-filled pools, commissioned the master weavers of the court to create such fine muslins and silks that a length of several metres could pass through a dainty, jewelled ring on the finger of a royal woman. This has been recorded in the chronicles of several visitors to the Moghul courts. Often, such fabrics were embellished with gold and silver wires and gems to create designs reminiscent of the splendour in which the women lived. Together, the princely women and their master weavers slowly became the progenitors of the world famous textile arts of India so frequently portrayed in art and praised in the annals of trade around the world.

All through Indian literature, women were described as resplendently beautiful when wearing fabrics of extraordinary beauty woven out of silk, cotton and other natural fibres. In fact, historical records say that these silks and muslins were so highly prized all over the world that they were sold in faraway countries including those around the Mediterranean Sea. Several names were given to these fabrics depending upon their origin or texture. For example, Kausheya was a silk made from the finest cocoons. Chinnavastra was a fabric akin to Chinese silk. Tasara or today's Tussar silk, was made by using a particular kind of shuttle. The Moghuls wore brocades of such exquisite quality that throughout the world this fabric came to be described as Kinkhwab or 'Golden Dream'. The Europeans who imported this fabric turned this name into Kinkob. To this day, brocade is known by this name in many European languages.


India's dyeing processes and the results they could produce were considered dazzling by connoisseurs in Rome and Greece from Biblical times. In the golden age of Indian textiles, all the dyes were made from vegetables or other natural sources. It is reported that in the earliest age of dyeing during the Mughul era, there were over five hundred kinds of natural dyes.


These traditional dyes were made from turmeric, the indigo plant, barks of several trees, gums, nuts, flowers, fruits and berries. The silk cotton tree, for example, was reputed to yield a gentle yellow-orange colour called kesari, which was favoured not only by royal families for their raiments, but also for the robes made for the idols in many famous temples. The colours navy blue, khaki, mustard yellow, rust, rani pink and pista green seem to have originated during these years and have stayed on as names for identifying colours even now.


Fabrics were dyed in various ways. They were wholly dipped in tubs of dyes or separately dyed in different colours for a magical, shaded effect, or yarns were dyed and then used in the weave to create specific patterns. In the age of the Mughals, both hand block printing and tie-and-dye techniques reached their zenith and added new dimensions to the Indian textile industry's flourishing trade. The Bandhanis and Leheriyas made with the tie-and-dye process were used for the most colourful turbans and the festive sarees and odhanis later. With the advent of synthetic dyes, the number of natural dyes used by the industry began to dwindle considerably so that today there are hardly sixty varieties of natural dyes in use. 


Many new designs and techniques of weaving, dyeing and printing came to India with the repeated invasions of various clans. For instance, the tie-and-dye method of fabric dyeing was brought into Gujarat and Rajasthan by the nomadic Central Asians. By the tenth century, Patolas, famous even today, Bandhanis and Leheriyas from this areas were exported by the caravans of the Arabs to Egypt, Java, Sumatra, China and other middle and far eastern countries. The coming of the Muslims to India in the twelfth century brought several new textile crafts. Phulkari, which is the heritage of the Punjab, came from Central Asian Bedouins and its geometric designs, done in earthy colours like rust, magenta and green, often embellished the fine muslins used for sarees and odhanis, the latter garment originating with the Muslim women's traditional outfit of a salwar and kurta. By their cultural heritage, Muslims often avoided wearing pure silks. Since they were the ruling class, their needs originated several varieties of textiles which used mixtures of silk with other fibres. These textiles were called Mushroo, Himroo and Jamawar.


In the mountains of Kashmir, the cooler climate encouraged the weaving of Pashmina, a woollen fabric used for shawls. However, the silks woven for the Sardars and the Rajas who were vassals of the Delhi Durbar encouraged a whole spectrum of textures, colours, weaves and designs. These were so resplendent that they were often compared to a peacock's feathers; silvery moon beams; gurgling, prismatic streams; the glistening feathers of blackbirds; the rain-washed young leaves of trees; the fusion of colours in the rainbow; the gentle blossoming of flowers; the icy-cool glimmer of dew; the coolness of the moist western breeze or even the foam on the crest of lapping waves. So finely was cotton and silk woven that these fabrics were reputed to be fit for kings and queens all over the world. This is probably why many words in European languages, describing textiles, originate from Indian languages.


The all round development of textiles in India had a definite impact on the design of sarees. Paisleys used on shawls, figures from Jamawar weaves, floral patterns and bird and animal motifs used in brocades – all these slowly acquired the status of traditional saree motifs. Colours to suit the Indian woman's complexion were accurately identified. Peacock coloured shot silks, shiny-spun muslins in the purples of the aubergines, sunshine yellow jacquards, moon glow silk chiffons and the dusky rose coloured raw silks – these became the favourites of the weavers of the saree. During the reign of the Moghuls, hand block printing quickly took the place of hand painting on textiles. Sarees were printed with vegetable dyes, using wooden blocks carved expertly with fashionable motifs brought into India with the advent of the French, the Portuguese and the British. The various prints used by designers showed the influence of European motifs which were more gentle and subdued compared to the ornate, rich Indian motifs. This was the first time too, that fabric by the yard could be duplicated by the printers. On the other hand, combining the use of various blocks into myriads of permutations, they could also economically produce an unimaginable variety of prints in innumerable colour schemes. However, by the time the industrial revolution brought power looms into the weaving industry together with mechanised printing, the traditional weavers and dyeing experts were on their way out.

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