The glory of jamdani

Print edition : September 20, 2013

Master weaver Jyotish Debnath displaying a finished jamdani sari produced in his factory at Kalna. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Hunched over the loom, the weaver works on his designs with needle and thread in silent concentration. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

The traditional way of jamdani weaving begins with the making of the yarn. Spinning the yarn with two charkhas. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Enfolding threads in a slightly wet cloth to let them soak in the dampness. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Spooling the threads in bobbins Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Reeding at the pit loom. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

The final stage: weaving at the pit loom. Depending on the design, sometimes a single sari can take one month to weave. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

The Crafts Council of West Bengal is making huge efforts to revive the traditional craft of making jamdani saris with hand-spun yarn.

KALNA, a subdivision in West Bengal’s Bardhaman district, is known for its temples and hand-woven saris, particularly the jamdani weave. However, over the years, the delicate art of making jamdani with homespun yarn has practically disappeared, with mill-made yarn replacing khadi. Handloom purists can easily discern the difference between a traditional handwoven fabric and a mill-made one by the texture of the fabric. Much as anyone would want to possess the whole six yards of khadi jamdani, producing an authentic jamdani with traditional motifs is time consuming.

The Crafts Council of West Bengal, a non-profit organisation affiliated to the Crafts Council of India, has stepped in to encourage this skill. Ruby Palchoudhuri, honorary general secretary and executive director of the council, has taken up the challenge of reviving the traditional form of jamdani weaving. Designs and motifs from old saris (some even three generations old) are replicated with some variations. One of the main factors behind the decline of this traditional art of making jamdani is the time required to weave it. Though weaving is usually done by men, practically everything else, from spinning the yarn to spooling, is carried out by women.

The softness of the cotton fabric and the exquisite designs lend an enchanting quality to the saris. This magic in weave is the result of tireless work which brings meagre financial returns. Unknown and unrecognised, a small group of weavers continue with this line of work, primarily because it is the only thing they have been taught to do.

Hemanta Nandi and his family have been weavers for three generations. For a combined effort of 14 hours a day, he and his wife earn a measly Rs.5,000 a month. “We would be better off working in the paddy fields, where we would be earning Rs.140 for four hours of work. But we are not able to do that kind of work because this is all we have learnt to do. We somehow eke out a living because we live in the village and not in a town,” he told Frontline.

The process of making khadi jamdani is broadly divided into two parts—the making of the yarn and the weaving at the loom. The crucial pre-loom stage is usually handled entirely by women, from the spinning of the yarn to the point when it is placed on the warping drum before it goes to the loom. According to master weaver Jyotish Debnath, in whose Kalna factory the jamdani revival project is struggling to take off, the process of producing the yarn involves very delicate work, which only a woman’s hands can accomplish.

Making skeins of yarn from bales of cotton is intricate work. First, the rough and thick strands of cotton are soaked in a precise mixture of tamarind pulp and rice starch (the starchy water obtained while cooking rice in a pot). The exact ratio of the ingredients and the time of soaking have to be right for the production of fine yarn. The mixture has to be kneaded into the strands of cotton deftly, ensuring that there is no excess moisture in the strands.

The yarn is spun and processed over and over again, making it finer with every count. Initially, four yarns are spun into one, and then eight, and likewise more are added. A highly skilled worker can go up to 300 counts with relative ease, and some can go even up to 500 counts. “Ideally, we have to start working as early in the day as possible when the cotton is soft, because as the day progresses, the decrease in humidity will make the yarn brittle as it loses moisture, and it will not be possible to make enough counts on the wheel,” said Sheema Nandi, who can easily make 300 counts on the kishan chakra (the spinning wheel).

Shukla Nandi, a graduate in Bengali literature, can go up to 500 counts. Demonstrating how to work the charkha, she moves the hand on which the thread rests so expertly that it is almost imperceptible. The yarn produced is so fine that it resembles spider silk. From the spinning wheel, the threads are put on a damp cloth in which they are enfolded so they can soak in some of the moisture. The dampness absorbed by the thread will have to be accurate; even a slight difference can render the threads useless. There are no schools or institutions to teach all this. The skill and knowledge of this ancient tradition has been handed down from generation to generation.

After the threads absorb the dampness, they are placed in bobbins, using a special wheel. The bobbins are then put on the warping drum where the threads are laid out as per the requirement of the fabric to be woven. This is the final stage before the fabric is taken to the loom for weaving. It takes two full days to complete this process. The entire process, from soaking the threads to putting them on the warping drum, takes seven days with two people working at least eight hours a day.

There is also a direct connection between the environment and the production of fine khadi. Unless the moisture and the heat are in correct proportion, it is not possible to spin fine yarn. There are very few places in the country where fine yarn can be produced. Kalna and Murshidabad in West Bengal are two such places.

The second part of the process is weaving. The weaver is a solitary workman. Hunched over the loom, he works on his designs with needle and thread in silent concentration. There is no scope for distribution of work, nor is there any possibility of the weaver being relieved by an assistant after a long stretch of weaving. Any form of disruption can ruin the entire work. “The challenge lies in laying out the design perfectly. Depending on the design, sometimes a single sari can take one month for me to weave, sometimes even two and a half months,” Nityananda Rai, who has been a weaver for the past 35 years, told Frontline.

He is one of the six weavers in Jyotish Debnath’s factory run by the Crafts Council. He works from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., with a two-hour lunch break, for a monthly wage of Rs.4,500. Debnath admits that the wages are meagre. “We are hoping that the situation will improve once the revival of hand-made jamdani takes off. But for the time being we all have to struggle.”

The low wages have been a deterrent to many local talents taking part in the revival project. Sheema Nandi, who was with the project earlier, gave it up after a while. “I was only making Rs.1,000 a month for eight hours of work, six days a week. So I stopped doing it,” she told Frontline. On an average, around six saris with jamdani design are produced every month in the factory.

With limited resources and hardly any help from the State government, it is difficult for the Crafts Council to carry on with the project. But the octogenarian Ruby Palchoudhuri remains unperturbed.

“I don’t mind. Profit is not our motive. We are reviving authentic jamdani as it existed before mill-made yarn came to be used. We need promotion more than profit,” she said. The main market for the product, however, is not in Kolkata, but in cities such as New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai.