Banaras, the city where the supreme light shines has a great legend woven to its name – the legend of Banarasi Sarees. Threads of gold and silver beautifully intertwined in silk and cotton, Banarasi Sarees were always an integral part of this city. It has found mention in religious and mythological works like Mahabharata and Jataka Tales.
The Cultural Influence
From the Vedic Period itself, Banaras was an important trade territory as Ganga here meets two of its tributaries – ‘Varna’ and ‘Assi’. This made Banaras a popular trading point and hence a spectator of lot of cultures over the centuries and so the Banarasi Sarees made today are influenced by Persian, Mughal, Chinese and Buddhist cultures.
It was during the reign of Akbar that the making of Banarasi Sarees gained momentum and popularity. Akbar was known for his love of fine details. From gem-crusted Shawls to the stone embedded Sarpahs (Turban Ornament), he was a man of taste. Banaras, hence, became Akbar’s favourite place for woven goods. Henceforth, the weaving industry in Banaras kept blooming.
The motifs used by the weavers in this period were similar to those used by stone carvers and architects who were responsible for the Mughal architecture. You can spot similar type of carving in the Taj Mahal and a Banarasi Saree.
When the British came to India, they came with their own taste. These people appreciated geometrical designs and thus, the weavers started making geometrical patterns in the Sarees which became a rage among people.
In some Banarasi Sarees, you can also spot designs inspired by Buddhist art. Before Tibet was captured, India had very strong trade relations with the country. Businessman would take Banarasi Sarees to Kathmandu and sell them to the Tibetan visitors. And so the designs were heavily inspired by the Tibetan Brocades and patterns inspired by Buddhist arts.
How are Banarasi Sarees made?
Like most of the textile industry, Banarasi Sarees too have found a way to the power looms but nothing can ever beat the beauty of a handcrafted Saree that comes from the handlooms of Banaras. It can take about 15 days to 6 months to create a Banarasi Saree.
An ideal Banarasi Saree consists of about 5600 thread wires with a width of 45 inches. For weaving the warp, artisan creates a 24 to 26 meter base.
The process starts with drawing the patterns on a graph paper and then making a punch or Jacquard cards of the same. The punch cards are large sheets of cardboard cut into rectangles. These cards are then tied together comprising the design that needs to be seen on the Saree. Meanwhile, on the hand, the yarn is dyed in bright colours. The Saree is then woven in a loom.
Base used for Banarasi Sarees
The base of Banarasi Sarees can be Katan (Pure Silk), Kora (Organza) or Jamdani (Muslin Cotton). While the silk for these Sarees was exported from China earlier, the weavers now use silk from South India.
How is the Zari made?
The ‘Zari’ that is used in these Sarees was originally made of only gold and silver. The metal is beaten into thin sheets and then is wrapped around a silk or cotton thread. Very often, the wrapping is done with silver and then the product is plated with gold.
Since the manufacturing cost is going up and the demand for these Sarees are increasing, the weavers have started replacing gold and silver with bronze and metals even cheaper than that.
The Dying Art of Nakshabandi
The art of Nakshabandi was used to make a template for the complex patterns used in making of Banarasi Sarees. The Nakshabands uses a wooden frame called ‘Machan’. The frame has threads wrapped on it that are called ‘Jala’. The purpose of this process was to make a template of the design that is to be woven on the Saree. Be it Jangla, Tanchoi, Butidar, Cutwork or Vaskat, they were all discovered and formulated on a Machan. The template once made, is cut out from the Jal and taken to the loom, so the patterns can be woven on the Sarees.
This process is very intricate and hence takes a lot of time and so most of the manufacturers are moving to machines for this task. This has led to an extinction of artists who knew Nakshabandi. Jala is now only remembered when someone is seeking an extraordinary design that only the hand of a Nakshabandh can make.
With each passing year, the number of artists who know the art of Banarasi Sarees closely are getting extinct. No one is really interested in learning to weave as it is no more seen as craftsmanship anymore. While the demand for Banarasi Sarees has not dropped down, people are looking for cheaper alternatives made from machines hence killing the jobs for weavers.
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Also check out our documentary on the Handicrafts of Surajkund – “Bunaai”: