‘The craft will die if khadi yarn is not used’

Print edition : September 20, 2013

Ruby Palchoudhuri displays a 60-year-old jamdani sari. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

From left, skeins of yarn of 500, 400, 300, 200, 150 and 100 counts. Photo: THE HINDU

Interview with Ruby Palchoudhuri, honorary general secretary, Crafts Council of West Bengal.

RUBY PALCHOUDHURI, honorary general secretary and executive director of the Crafts Council of West Bengal, is deeply immersed in her latest project—the revival of the complex art of the jamdani weave, a fine khadi cotton fabric rich in floral and geometric motifs. Her passion for the khadi jamdani is more than apparent from the saris she wears to the carefully preserved heirloom jamdani sari that belonged to her grandmother-in-law and has seen three generations in the family. Holding it up with an easy elegance, she describes it as “a small miracle of homespun khadi that has lasted three generations but sadly this masterpiece cannot be replicated because such heirloom quality is not possible nowadays since weavers do not have the same skills”.

Determined to revive this all but vanished skill, Ruby Palchoudhuri started work with the jamdani weavers of Kalna, a town near Kolkata.

She says the craft is “almost on the verge of extinction” and “design intervention” is one way to rescue it. Despite criticism that the weavers do not get the respect they deserve either in terms of financial returns or in the form of widespread appreciation of their skill, her work is a creditable effort. And, as both the weavers and Ruby Palchoudhuri said, they are unable to earn a living in any other way.

The designs are created while the cloth is still on the loom leading many to call it the art of loom embroidery, a process in which the shuttle is thrown back and forth much like a needle dipping in and out of fabric to create patterns. The origin of the word jamdani is uncertain. Some say it originates from the Persian jama, meaning cloth, and dana, referring to the buti pattern common in jamdani weaving.

In an interview to Frontline, Ruby Palchoudhuri speaks about the history of jamdani weaving and how the art is close to extinction. Excerpts:

What is the immediate challenge that you are facing in reviving this ancient weave?

Everything is a huge challenge right now… the design, persuading weavers to go up to high counts, the market economics. But our first major challenge was to persuade the old weavers to restart jamdani in the old way. Weavers no longer care to weave the intricate old designs because they take too long to weave. Our first lot of weavers couldn’t cope. We had to get their eyes tested because of the strain the work involved. An intricate pattern on a sari can take up to a year to weave. But we are training them slowly and they have gone up to 300 counts for a jamdani. It has not yet gone beyond that, but we are still trying to get them to make it finer.

On an experimental basis, weavers tried to go up to 500 counts but when they immersed the yarn in hot water before dyeing it fell apart. Something was not right. Traditionally the yarn was not dyed, so this was another factor we had to work with.

The market economics you mentioned?

Right now we have just eight weavers, so it is very difficult for us to cope. They’re on a salary... they’re not paid per piece. It’s not a great amount but it’s a start. We did this to ensure that they know we are committed to reviving this art, which, of course, we are but the market economics is such that the production has to be higher. There are actually a lot of issues involved—it’s not just a matter of design. For instance, the women who used to work for the Khadi Board came to us saying they got poor wages and felt terribly exploited. If the Khadi Board does this, what is the future for our craft? Khadi has a long tradition in Bengal.

The Bengali upper class chose cotton as their fabric because it’s simple and elegant and more than anything else it mattered to them what it stood for—even brocades were done in cotton. The charkha is part of an old tradition. It is very close to my heart. Fortunately, it’s still respected here for everything it stood for. When we were invited to the Edinburgh International Festival in 2011, I took along the charkha and demonstrated it there. They were thrilled!

Is using khadi integral to the revival of jamdani?

Very much so. You must remember that it has to be total khadi, that is khadi by khadi [both warp and weft should be khadi] for it to be a true jamdani. What is happening now in Bangladesh is that they use mill yarn by khadi. Sometimes this isn’t even cotton yarn, it is rayon. They don’t realise that the craft will die if khadi yarn is not used. You cannot really hold them responsible because they are, after all, looking at their day-to-day earnings, and mill yarn is so much more cheaper and easier to come by. But it’s a great loss to mankind to move away from hand-spun.

Are you reviving the old loom, too?

Yes, this is very, very important. It shouldn’t be the jacquard loom. We must retain the integrity of the weave.

There is quite a history to jamdani weaving which makes its revival all the more interesting.

Yes, it goes back to centuries. I believe the jamdani weavers were at their zenith during the Mughal era. They wove with a very, very fine yarn. You know, the famed dhakai muslin could pass through a ring… it was all a part of this era. Almost every village had developed its own special skill in this, giving rise to small variations in design and weave. Jamdani fabrics were then the cloth of emperors and nobles. There is an account of the Mughal court purchasing one lakh rupees worth of fabric in a year. Traders from all over used to flock to purchase jamdani worth lakhs of rupees. It was a profitable time for weavers and this skill was worth passing on to their children. Even then weavers were paid according to the volume of their work, so the pressure to produce was always there.

The East India Company, in its early days of trading, was aware of the economics of this trade and wanted a part of it. It had an agent in Dhaka to buy large quantities of jamdani. All weaving centres had representatives of the company. At one level, it was good for the weavers but it also meant that the company could assert itself, which is exactly what happened. Somewhere in the late 18th century, the East India Company started dictating terms.

A permit system was started, which cut out the private trader. Weavers could now only sell directly to the company. Then the company started dictating the price. This was, of course, very low. When weavers refused to comply, the company stopped buying. Protests by the merchant class were ignored. At the same time, cheaper quality yarn was being imported, thereby bringing down the price of the woven fabric. Sadly, this yarn was of an inferior quality. The situation deteriorated and by the early 19th century, export was all but dead and so was the livelihood from weaving jamdanis.

Is there enough interest in jamdani pieces to make it viable?

Oh, yes, but it will take time. The price factor narrows down the market. The saris are expensive, which is why we are making smaller pieces, such as stoles and dupattas, as well. People want to own jamdanis but, yes, they are expensive. Let us see how it goes. Our revival work is just over a year old.

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