Baluchari sarees woven on traditional jala looms are making a comeback. Will they survive the challenges of commercialisation?

A story usually heard is that of a persistent lady who had got panels of baluchari saree to show to the Naqshabandi of Benares asking them if they can recreate ancient looms or jalas to make these. The lady Prabha Shah who along with Pupul Jayakar was instrumental in reaching the Baluchari saree pieces to the Naqshabandi of Benares. Of the samples handed out, only one man was able to succeed in recreating it and with him is tied the story of revival of weaving Baluchari sari on the traditional jala looms. Today, that is the world of Naseem Ahmad, National Award winner who now is using the same jalas to weave traditional complex Baluchari sarees and panels as it was once done.

Most of us are familiar with the Baluchari sarees of West Bengal with their gorgeous borders and pallav depicting stories or scenes from mythology, modern scenes. These are today's version woven on jacquard looms. Historically the Baluchari sarees were woven using the jala tradition and its origins are usually traced to the mid 18th century. Documentation of the sarees usually refer to Dubraj Das the last known weaver, who died in early 1900. Many of his work beautifully handwoven, at times depicting the social activities of that era, can be still seen at various museums. It is usually said that, with him the brilliant technique of weaving also perished.

Textiles of yore

The tradition of using jala looms to weave the Baluchari was revived in the bed of jalas — Benares and it was Shri Ali Hasan Alias Kalloo Hafiz a famed Naqshaband of Benares who attempted this revival and was successful in recreating the splendorous textiles of yore, weaving it the traditional way. Today, this proud tradition is being carried on by his great grandson Naseem Ahmad of Benares (Kalloo Hafiz is his father's grandfather). A skilled Naqshabandi he successfully learnt the craft of tying and making the jalas expertly from his grandfather and today weaves Baluchari panels and sarees with much élan, apart from traditional Benares brocades. A National Awardee, he was awarded the Sutrakar Samman by the Delhi Crafts Council for 2011. The Sutrakar Samman started in 2005 by the Council is given for excellence in textile skills in the country. It gives a boost to the practioners of the traditional textile heritage and brings their work to limelight. Naseem's award was for his jala tying expertise and work on Benares brocades. The family has been carrying on the tradition of recreating jalas for years now.

Jala, as Naseem tells me, is the predecessor to the jacquard technique but what sets it apart is that the great degree of flexibility and the ease with which diversity of patterns can be created on it as opposed to jacquard. As an example he talks of how a pallav of a Baluchari saree can be designed with as many as 10 different motifs or more.

The jala patterning can be tweaked and fiddled around with, but with jacquard large motifs and a variety of patterns on one piece is difficult and works out very expensive. Also once made, changing the jacquard pattern is not possible while it can be played around with in the jala.

Long life!

Also in the jala system one can use more colours and designs. Jala once made lasts almost 100 years. The design is first drawn on paper. Then this is converted into designs on the machan using threads. This becomes the masterpiece or master set of design. The master jala is kept for reference. The design is made using fine threads. A copy of the master jala is made which is taken on to the loom. So even if the jala on the loom gets spoiled, another copy can be made from the master jala. Using this, one can make as many repeats of a design as possible. The same concept has been used for the Baluchari panel. The motifs are from a traditional old Baluchari saree.

Baluchari sarees are characterised by beautiful pallav which have a large panel in the centre with motifs running all around it. What sets apart this piece by Naseem is the fine detailing that has gone into it. The Ambi or stylised paisley motifs are further worked with fine colours akin to painting. The floral motifs around the panel and the beautiful horse rider make up the rest. The alternate colour combination further adds to the beauty.

The making of the jala for such a piece translating the pattern on to the machan takes about four months if worked on continuously, while the weaving takes up to one and a half months. This piece used five jalas totally and was worked on by one weaver, one helper, and two draw boys. The silk used is Bangalore mulberry on the warp and weft. The extra weft decoration or motifs have been made using malda yellow silk, which has its own sheen. Naseem explains saying, “It has no twist and is difficult to weave but is sturdy with wonderful colouration.” The other extra weft silk used is Assam dupion silk. Naseem has also woven a panel displayed at the INA Metro Gallery.

The weaving to recreate the magic of Baluchari sarees of yore has been well received in the market, what though acts as a deterrent is not being able to find people to work on old jala looms. As Naseem says, “The working conditions in a powerloom factory are better. Better lighting, space, neat buildings, while this is not so in most handloom set ups. A similar set up for handlooms can work wonders.” Any takers?