If a puddle of water could be contained in cloth, then this was it.
A strange bird looked out at me from lake-blue linen, shining between lustrous yardage that fell silkily around it. The lady I buy sarees from had curated sarees with animal motifs for me – knowing I would admire the unexpected patterns.
Weavers from West Bengal had translated what they see often in real life on the cloth: a wetland, with a bird wading through it. On the linen, they had used the Jamdani technique – the result was that the bird was not stuck or painted on, but woven right into the cloth. The bird had thick legs and a long neck and beak; and it looked nothing like a real waterbird. It was too tall for a Purple swamphen, too short for a Crane, too thickly set for a Black-winged stilt. I decided then that the bird was the best thing of all – a piece of art fueled by imagination and interpretation. Not a real bird, but an idea of what a bird should be.
As I discovered more sarees, I realised the richness of interpretation that unfurls on the six yards. People say sarees are forgiving garments, because they suit all kinds of sizes – the only garment which each woman can wear within the family. But the saree is also something else other garments are often not – a canvas for wild imaginations.
I can’t imagine wearing a satin dress with chili-green birds on it, but my weaver had woven me a fuchsia-pink jamdani with green parakeets on it. Ikat Nabakothi sarees – woven in Odisha – had lines of roaring lions, rows of ducks, and parades of elephants on them.
Tropical forests and peacocks grew lushly out of fine kanjivaram silks. And humble cotton chettinad sarees had flying horses, and Yalis – a creature that is lion-headed, horse-bodied and elephant-faced, all at once – woven on them.
In many of the handwoven sarees, the animals defied scientific proportions. Lions had huge, shaggy heads, extended in roars. Butterflies had more than one set of antennae. Dragonflies had an extra pair of wings, and many birds had wrong beaks.
But like the waterbird on the lake linen saree, all the pieces had skill and imagination. To love something does not mean to be able to know it fully, or comprehend all its dimensions. It could also mean grasping the defining, pulsating characteristics of one’s object of attention. I am amazed at the skill of the weavers – they see lions for their roars, waterbirds for their long, wading legs, and butterflies for their delicate (even if extra) parts.
On the journey with Ikat, Tangail, Baluchari, Kanjivaram and Chettinad, the saree had transformed from a ritualistic garment to an exciting, living canvas.
And it doesn’t come too soon – weavers are not doing well. Despite handloom sarees requiring a high level of skill, weavers do not have direct access to good prices for their sarees, or to an enabling entrepreneurship climate. While many weavers were once patronized by Royal courts, todays weavers are given little more credit than an ordinary wage worker. The government recently shut down the All India Handloom Board, depriving the sector of its voice. The weavers I know were badly hit by the Amphan cyclone that lashed Odisha, West Bengal and Assam earlier this year. After that, the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed many markets.
The saree has survived generations. And I am confident new generations will always have sarees. Perhaps these sarees will be machine-made prints which need little personal attention, not requiring the pouring-in of generations-old craftsmanship. Perhaps they will be machine printed with telephones and computers, as new cultures are formed.
But what such mass manufactured pieces would miss would be the allure of a tiny, handmade imperfection, the artist’s view of a happy parakeet and a running elephant, and the interspersing of colours positively leaping next to each other – brinjal purples with turmeric yellows, parakeet greens with pinks. Handloom and handwoven sarees, I have learnt, possess that undefinable quality of being lived in and deeply thought through – they are scenes of what life is, or should be, in brushstrokes of colours that an urban palette can never expect. The hands of the weaver then, come from the eyes of the artist – and each handwoven saree brings me closer to the vision of a world full of fascination.
Following my lake linen, I am now looking out for totally unscientific, and fully wild, animal motifs running all over my sarees.
Photos: Neha Sinha
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