FARZANA’s brow creases as she peers at the delicate parrots that form thread by thread under her dexterous fingers. Against a golden brocade backdrop, motifs spin into being from the tiny shuttles or tillies that she places with care, so that the birds’ wings shimmer, their jewel-bright beaks glow.
Farzana’s loom at Paithan, on the banks of the Godavari, 56 km. from Aurangabad, ensures she is a vital link in a chain that threads back to 200 B.C. To times when brides at the Maratha court wore these dazzling saris as they stepped daintily towards the nuptial rites, because the fabric was said to have a blessing woven into it, ensuring the bridegroom’s longevity. To times when Paithani weaves were traded abroad for gold and precious gems.
“Mere pitaji, chacha, dada, sab yehi karte the. My father, his brother and my grandfather ~ each of them wove these saris,” Farzana explains, tucking the pallav of her synthetic sari into her waistband as she continues to ply the loom. “I’m proud to be a torchbearer of a tradition since the Shalivahan rajas.”
She has worked for over 15 years at the 61-loom Trimourthi Paithani Centre, set up by the Maharashtra Government in 1976 when this precious handloom teetered towards extinction. That was when barely a dozen families earned their living by the Paithani sari, compared to over 500 expert weavers a century ago. Paithan’s self-sufficient infrastructure then included the zari, the silk, the dyeing and even the looms. Today, its silk is sourced from Bangalore, its zari from Surat.
For about 30 years, the market for this brocaded fabric seemed to have died out. But
Farzana and her companions at the loom have helped to stem the rot. Today, each brocaded Paithani takes between two to 18 months to weave. The effect is rich, royal, and rare. Each sari sells for between Rs. 10,000 and 1.5 lakhs in glitzy Mumbai shops, often adapted by designers like Naina Zaveri and Saroj Dhananjay. Each is an heirloom that can grace three generations, if handled with care.
But the passage to the rebirth of the Paithani proved tough. For the delicate fabric depends on intensive labour. Woven by a tapestry-like process on a drawloom, even the most skilled hands can weave barely an inch over a 12-hour working day. Yet, under their nimble fingers, a Behestiparinda or bird of paradise, even a pheasant-inspired Humaparinda, could flit into a golden ground.
As we listen to weaver voices, Paithani lore comes to life. The Rig Veda mentions such a golden weave. Greek records note gorgeous woven Paithani fabric from the ancient trading centre of Pratishtan (now Paithan), the capital of the Satvahana kingdom. Scholars trace the Paithani to central Asian tapestry weaves that traveled overland to India, originally woven for emperors and their nobles. With the Muslim invasion, the hereditary art fell on bad times, as the khatri community of weavers scattered far and wide in search of work.
History notes that the Paithani fabric found favour in the court of the 18th century Peshwa rulers. Madhavrao Peshwa was enchanted by dupattas in red, green, saffron, pomegranate and pink, preferring those with the asavali pattern of vines with blooms. The Nizam of Hyderabad is said to have visited Paithani looms, while his daughter-in-law Niloufer even introduced new designs to its border and pallav.
In traditional Paithanis, the three-ply fine sari had a 20/22 warp, with real gold zari used for its butis, border and pallav. Originally, natural dyes from amla, henna, pomegranate, indigo and turmeric were used to dye the silk.
The Paithani sari’s dhoop-chaon (light and shade) effect is achieved by intertwining two silk threads of different colours together through a basic tabby weave, while multiple spindles or tillies achieve its intricacies without a jala or jacquard mechanical contrivance. Even a 2.5 inch border might require a complex pattern of 15 to 20 separate tillies, the tiny cloth pins that interlock the silk or gold yarn on the weft. Jidabai Kunte, who creates a narli or coconut-mesh like reticulate border on her Paithani loom, explains, “The jacquard technique makes it possible to weave much faster. But it needs more strength, so only the men do it. Even after 22 years at the loom, I can’t use it.”
Jidabai recalls once weaving a Paithani sari at home to fulfil an order from Aurangabad, “It was of jamun blue, with red borders adorned with green creepers. Its 45 inch pallav had beautiful tree-like motifs. It took me a year to weave, from one Diwali to the next. They paid me Rs. 55,000 for it.”
At the centre, a mother weaves a silken ground with kuyri (mango) buti or tiny motifs, as her baby sleeps in a makeshift cradle of a sari slung between beams. On adjacent looms, other butis spin into view ~ tara (star), mor (peacock), rui phool (flower), paisa (coin), pankha (fan), kalas pakli (petal) or even chandrakor (moon). On the floor, youthful Mirabai Sherke fills her spindles with zari thread. At another loom, Amita and Sheela work at an intricate golden pallav of Bangdi Mor or a bangle-like peacock pattern.
Trainees at the government looms, which turn out 200 Paithanis annually, receive a stipend of Rs. 500 per month. Most employees’ monthly earnings vary with their output, from Rs. 2,000 to 5,000, for a 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. day. On an investment of Rs. 30 lakhs, the centre earns an annual profit of Rs. 6-7 lakhs, according to its manager, A.R. Rakshe, who is proud of photographs of actress Rohini Hattangadi and singer Anuradha Paudwal on their walls.
Even today, the Paithani wins hands-down over the Kancheepuram, Patola or Tanchoi silk during a Maharashtrian wedding. Sourced from Yeola, Nashik, Pune and Malegaon, apart from its original niche, Farzana places the sari in its current context, “In our state, all the wealthy people wear only these saris to weddings and parties. It’s not for the likes of us. But to those who pay a hundi or dowry of Rs. 1 lakh, a Paithani sari worth Rs. 18,000 is affordable!”
With that, she returns to her loom. And to the everyday truths of her existence that helps to keep a precious woven tradition alive for generations unborn.
(The Hindu Sunday Magazine 2003)