Vinayak and Rohit Salvi at the loom in Patan
Detail from the pallu of a traditional Patola
“Patan! Why would you even want to go there?” asks a puzzled friend in Ahmedabad in the winter of 2009. “To check out the11th century Rani nu Vav stepwell? Or the 100-plus stone Jain temples, built by the Solankis? Or to buy the cotton-silk mashroo weaves, created when local Muslims were forbidden to wear real silk by royal diktat?”
I realize I would tick none of the above as a crammed bus trundles me past Modasa, Mehsana, and Sidhpur to Patan, three hours and 130 km away. The journey marks a quarter century after I first set eyes on the legendary Patan patola (from Sanskrit pat or silk) sari I now seek. That was at ‘The Master Weavers’ exhibition at Chennai, a 1984 spinoff from the Festival of India in the UK.
Why is this fabric invested with mystical, mythical and healing properties? Why is Patan one of only three global centres of double-ikat weaving, besides Tenganan (Bali) and Okinawa (Japan)? Woven from the world’s finest silk, is it the most perfect weave extant?
The historic town on the banks of the Saraswati river was founded by Vanraj Chavada in 746 AD, and remained the Gujarati capital upto 1411 AD. Three major Rajput clans ruled from Patan – the Chavadas (746- 942 AD), the Solankis (942-1244 AD) and the Vaghelas (1244-1304 AD).
At the ‘Patolawala’ centre in Salviwado, Bharat Salvi creates geometric blooms on a blue sari of Shanghai silk at a teakwood and bamboo strip loom. A showcase protects another 200-year-old sari in auspicious red. Two walls highlight the National Awards that this Salvi family has earned over the years – Kantilal Laherchand Salvi (1978), Chotalal Manilal Salvi (1989), Vinayak Kantilal Salvi (1997), Rohit Kantilal Salvi (2008).
Brows creased, Vinayak explains to a brash NRI visitor that only three Patan families today weave this precious fabric. Their backlog of orders, mainly from well-heeled Mumbai and Ahmedabad families, stretches back six years. Dignified, he brushes aside her request for preferential treatment, despite her dollar offer.
An age-old motif on a new Patola sari
“For each patola sari, we dye the tana (weft) and vana (warp) threads of Chinese silk with mathematical precision. Only then can we make a double ikat, where both sides of the sari are equally perfect. The dyeing takes us four to six months,” Vinayak says. “With three to four assistants, a salvi or weaver may complete a sari in five to six months, because he can weave only six to eight inches daily. Single-handed, it would take him a year.”
Mental comparisons surface with the approximate month needed to weave a basic Kancheepuram silk sari. Or the 45-odd days that Banarasi weavers in tandem take to create an exclusive wedding sari with real Surat zari for about Rs. 45,000. Both centres weave with Bangalore silk.
Two of the young Salvis hold up saris of recent vintage
Tugging at the warp with an iron device, refining the weave every six inches, Bharat continues the silk odyssey, “The tradition of the Patan patola began in the 12th century when a Rajput king, Kumarpal, converted to Jainism. Every day, this Solanki king wore a fresh patola when he visited the shrine.”
Barring entry to Kumarpal (1143-1172 AD) one day, the priest pointed out that the king’s patola was ‘impure,’ suggesting that the ruler of Jalna in south Maharashtra, where it was woven, had pre-used the fabric as a bedspread. Furious, Kumarpal waged war on Jalna. Victorious, he brought 700 Salvi craftsmen to Patan to ensure immaculate patolas for the rest of his reign.
These weaves have traditionally been created of superior silk imported from China, Japan, Korea or Brazil at about Rs. 2,000 per kg. Each sari, its motifs flame-edged, requires at least 600 gm of yarn. Unlike the single ikat with its warp or weft dyed from Kutch, Surat, Sambalpur (Orissa), and Pochampalli (Andhra Pradesh), such double ikats are rare.
In 1342 AD, legendary Morocco-born traveller Ibn Batuta gifted patolas to kings whose courts he visited. French jeweller Jean Baptiste Tavernier noted that these silks – said to be divine, to lend protection from evil or poor health – were prized as far as Java, Sumatra, Samarkand, Basra, Damask and Rome in the 17th century. Such observations inspired the two 1979 volumes on ‘The Patola of Gujarat’ by Zurich-based art historian/ cultural anthropologist Eberhard Fischer and Alfred Buehler.
What of the patola’s folk-invested qualities? Known as virali pattu (variegated precious silk) in Malayalam, it decorates a Bhagavati shrine at Madiya kavu near Payangadi (Kerala). Its motifs distinguish the minbar (pulpit) at the Juma Masjid at Punnol, near Tellicherry. Frescoes at Kochi’s Mattancheri Palace depict its use in the 16th century, according to a 1987 monograph by Fischer and Indian artist- folk researcher Balan Nambiar. They note that in a Kerala folk ballad, the heroic Tacholi Othenon tore his virali pattu headcloth to heal his wounded forehead! Mystery shrouds whether the fabric reached Kerala from Jalna or Patan, though.
Legends apart, by 2010 the simplest patola sari, dyed synthetically, costs over Rs. 1 lakh. More complex natural dye weaves, revived over the past 20 years, soar to Rs. 4 lakh. This Salvi family weaves four to five saris annually. But that signifies little when a true patola can last over 300 years, its colours unfading.
Cued into the legacy of their Patan patola, Vinayak’s family recently acquired a plot of land en route to Rani nu Vav. Within four years, it will house a museum, enshrining priceless patolas from the family collection. A seldom-shared document will form part of their display – a hand-drawn album outlining the tradition, presented by the late Manilal to the 1939 Congress session, presided over by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Proudly, Vinayak shares a Rs. 5 postal stamp commemorating their textile, issued when the Indian President honoured him as a shilp guru in 2002. His nephews Rohit and Rahul, proud of their lineage, hold up a square chaupat, teeming with imaginary parrots, tigers, and elephants. Their life’s mission begins at home.
Are these untold stories about a legendary weave worth recounting? Is such an heirloom worth possessing? Without a doubt. My pilgrimage to Patan reaffirmed that, as I explained to my friend in Ahmedabad on my return.
(Originally published in The Hindu Business Line in March 2010.)