Paithani: A poem in silk and gold

 By Moin Qazi

There are moments when I hold the Paithani

Close to my heart as close can be; its soft, silken caress

Brings my grandmother back to me.

The intervening years vanish,

Time’s broken thread runs whole again;

O golden squares of my grandmother’s sari,

Tell her of my wellbeing then…

-Shanta Shelke

The late Marathi writer Shanta Shelke rummaged through an old cupboard to find mothballed dresses. One of them was a green Paithani sari with a coconut motif within brocade checks. It was her grandmother’s wedding sari, and whenever Shelke held it close, it reminded her of her grandmother’s “soft, silken caress”.

A symbol of exquisiteness

Paithani saris are known the world over among those with a discerning and refined taste, as a poem hand-woven in silk and gold. Purchasing a new Paithani is akin to investing in jewellery because it can be handed down from generation to generation and has virtually become a status symbol. Paithani uses the ancient technique of tapestry where multiple threads of different colours along with gold and silver threads are weaved together to form a fascinating piece of silk. It’s made from natural silk or cotton, along with precious gold and silver metal threads, that gives Paithani the Midas touch.

Paithani saris have been a precious heirloom since the Shalivahan era of 2nd Century A.D. and have been handed down from mother to daughter for several generations. Traditional creative artistry and painstaking workmanship combine to form this unique cloth and make it an experience for the visual and tactile senses. It takes a master weaver an entire day to weave just an inch, thus, it takes a year-and-half to weave the entire sari. The intricate weaving, in all its hues and colours, when brilliantly executed, makes the fabric highly prized.

Tracing its origin

Paithan is a small town and quiet religious place on the northern banks of the river Godavari in Aurangabad district in Maharashtra. Gone are the days of palaces and kings, of Sanskrit pundits who held forth the Vedas, of preachers and their religious discourses. Gone too are the days when Paithan was a prosperous trade centre called Pratishthan, and it exported rich fabrics and precious stones to far off lands. Yet, a glimmer of the glorious past carries on—not handed down by kings and princes, or even by learned men but by patient weavers working endlessly at their humble looms—an indelible heritage, the Paithani sari, a poem in silk and gold.

The Paithani is not just a silk sari of gorgeous colours, intricate design and painstaking labour. It is part of a culture given more to thrift than flamboyance and also treasures elegance and beauty. It tells us of people who were willing to spend lavishly to clothe their womenfolk in nine yards of traditional silk and spun gold, crafted by indigenous weavers.

Richness in creation

No Maharashtrian wedding trousseau was ever complete without the Paithani sari and shawl or stole. They then became treasured heirlooms that could be preserved and worn by at least three generations. The eye-popping dhoop-chaav (light and shade) effect is achieved by weaving two different coloured silk threads together in the process of a simple tabby weave. It has an ornamental zari border and pallu, and buttis (little designs) of tara (star), mor (peacock), popat (parrot), kuyri (mango), rui phool (flower), paisa (coin), pankha (fan), kalas pakli (petal), kamal (lotus), chandrakar (moon), narli (coconut) and so on. Many of these designs are found on the border and pallu in different sizes and patterns. The designs show the influence of the panels of Ajanta frescoes close by.

The dominant traditional colours of vegetable dyes include neeligunji (blue), pasila (red and green), gujri (black and white), mirani (black and red), motiya (pink), kusumbi (purplish red), and pophali (yellow).  The red-white version called panetar is the most cherished sari for a new bride. The local names of the colours are interesting: kaali chandrakala (black), uddani (a fainter black), pophali (yellow), neeligungi (blue), pasila (red pink green), mirani (black red), pheroze (white red pale green), samprus (green red), kusumbi (purple red), motiya (pale pink), and shkirodak (white).

Weaving and costing

A Paithani sari can take anywhere from one month to two years to finish and has a very high yarn count in its warp and weft. The three-ply fine filature weft silk and 20/22 warp are typical of an original and traditional Paithani. The normal zari count is 1,200 yards, which may increase to 3,000 yards in the case of the traditional coconut design border. So fine is the weave in some antique Paithanis that it is practically impossible to distinguish between the positive and negative sides of the fabric.

An Indian bride looks forward to having the most exquisite of saris in her trousseau. Moreover, if she is a Maharashtrian bride, a Paithani would be the high point of her bridal finery. But not everyone can afford the gold and silver threads interwoven with silk that go into the making of an exclusive Paithani sari. More affordable are Paithanis woven with just silk threads. But even these saris are cheap only by comparison, for they start at ?15,000! No wonder they enjoy so much demand.

Recreating traditions

The oldest of the traditional Paithani designs are the asavali (flowering vine) and the akruti (squish flower) forms. Some other traditional designs include the narli (coconut), pankha (fan), rui ful (flower), and the kalas pakli (a petal form). Some other designs and motifs used in the Paithani are the kuyri vel (vine and mango), annar vel (vine and pomegranate), draksha vel (vine and grapes), tota-maina (parrot), and behestiparinda (the bird of paradise). Right on top of the quality scale is the sari with an asavali border (6 inches wide). On par are the sankhli mor (chain of peacocks) and the Ajanta lotus border measuring 6 inches each. These are followed by the muniya border (1.5 inches), and the cheapest is the sari with the narli border as it is the easiest to weave.

Storks and swans became popular during the Shalivahana era while the golden lotus belongs to Yadava times. The Mughal period-inspired flowers, plants, birds, and the peacock motif are a popular example. The Buddhist influence is seen in motifs like the Ajanta lotus, the triple bird, and the seated Buddha.

The township of Yeola, 83 kilometres from Nashik, is now the main hub of Paithani.The government has invested heavily to make infrastructural support available to the weavers. The hub hosts about 3,500 weaves and is a tourist destination.

Anecdotes of mirth

Bharatsa Tak (66) inherited this art from his father and now his sons and grandsons are also into it. “There are around 4,000 weavers here. People prefer traditional and common Paithanis with single and double motif pallus,” said Bharatsa, who has three looms. Vinayak Thakur who has been weaving Paithani saris for over 30 years, said: “Creating a Paithani not only requires skilled labour but also the expertise of artisans with in-depth knowledge of fabrics, threads and dyes. The time taken to weave a Paithani can range from two months to 20 months depending on the intricate designs on the pallu and the border. It can cost between ?60,000 and ?5 lakh.” Baliramsa a Kokane (78) interlaces the dyed silk threads to strike the right combination of warps and wefts. With an eye for perfection, a touch of class and the right blending, he weaves the exquisite six yards. The fourth generation of Kokane family is weaving Paithani saris.

The New Wave Paithani Festival is an annual event held at Mumbai for promoting Paithani sari. It is now in its 28th year. Kamakshi Barve, a proud owner of a 100-year-old black Paithani, said: “The sari has been in the family for over eight generations now.”

Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt