A pantheon of craftsmen and their art are on display at Kaivalam, under way in Chennai. Rashmi R.D. introduces us to some Living Legends of Indian crafts. Meet Jyotish and Rajib Debnath
Ninety-five kilometers from Kolkata, West Bengal is the town of Ambika Kalna or Kalna, positioned on the western bank of the Bhagirathi. This is the place where Jyotish Debnath was born, the place where he was schooled in the craft of weaving in the Jamdani tradition, and where he continues to perpetuate the craft by overseeing the work of a small but active group of weavers, with the help of his son.
Jamdani has its roots in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is a hand-woven, fine cotton fabric deftly embellished with intricate motifs that are expertly woven into the fabric.
“In the old days you could find 20,000 to 30,000 weavers here in Kalna,” says Rajib Debnath, Jyotish ji’s son, spokesperson and chief collaborator. “Today, you’d have to hunt a lot to find 300.”
Jamdani was traditionally done using mill cotton thread, resham silk thread, muga silk and tussar silk thread. It is a specialty weaving style, where patterns are woven into the fabric.
In the Debnath household weaving is a family affair, a skill passed down from generation to generation.
Jyotish’s father always insisted that school should come first; he would encourage his children to learn the rudiments of the craft after school hours. But so great was Jyotish’s interest in weaving that he would often play truant from school and sneak into a neighbor’s house to watch and learn. Rajib, too, learned from his father. Jyotish’s wife Juthika, also a skilled seamstress, and his daughter Arpita hand spin the yarn that is used for weaving the cloth.
“The traditional handloom used to make Jamdani is very large. We had to make a lot of technical adaptations to the loom to be able to do Jamdani style weaving with muslin yarn,” says Rajib. “Muslin yarn has a weather dependant temperament. It can’t get too dried out, or it will get brittle and impossible to work with—it’ll snap under the slightest tension. It needs to retain a certain quality of moisture which it naturally absorbs from the air. To keep the heat out in our workshops, we’ve built a three layer insulated type of roof. The first layer is made out of thatch, then tin, and then below that bamboo. In summer we hang damp cloth over our windows to cut down some of the effect of the hot air. We also keep a lot of fans running.”
In pre-independent India, Kalna had a surfeit of weavers. The yarn available then was more “mota”— thicker—and used only to make saris. Once finer yarn and silk thread became available, the weavers made their first forays into making bed, table linen, and curtains, all of which became very popular. “We even used to make Jamdani neckties at one point,” recalls Rajib. “But we don’t make them anymore.” For the last decade, the family has been specializing in making saris and stoles.
These days, says Rajib, things are done on a much smaller ‘home scale’. Since the community of Jamdani weavers has dwindled so considerably, weavers who have space to accommodate a loom in their house are identified and given a loom where two or three of them can work together. The Jamdani fabric is government certified, right from the thread processing stage to the weaving to sales.
Muslin yarn was not traditionally dyed. Rajib talks about the many failed experiments and their dogged attempts to get just the right count that could withstand the dyeing process.
“We first tried with a count of 300, then 350… we went up to 500.When we immersed the yarn in hot water it would coagulate; it would become like dahi. Sometimes it seemed like a count below 300 would work, but other days it would spoil. We found it was possible to work with 200, but it took time—a 100-150 count of yarn was ideal. Ek dum correct!”
When asked about what he thinks future holds, Rajib confesses that five years ago, even though things weren’t going so bad with their weaving craft, he decided it might be time to try a completely new vocation, something more in tune with the current trends of India’s job market. He left Kalna and his weaving behind to go to Hyderabad. He joined the ‘Incredible India’ organization’s marketing section. His stint with them lasted six months.
“Even when I made my decision I knew that this (weaving) was what really what I wanted to do, but I just wanted to try something different. I was worried about what would happen if things didn’t work out down the line with our weaving… What then?
“But I missed what I did; I realized that’s where my heart is. My mother and father would call me, ask me how I was, whether I was happy doing what I was doing now. I knew I had to go back, jo kaam aap dil se karte ho, wahi kaam aapko karna chahiye.
“I’m a weaver, and whether times are good or bad, this is all I want to do with my life,” he says with complete affirmation.
“I now create new designs, and teach them to other weavers. I do my best to encourage them. I also interact with customers and do a bit of marketing; my father oversees the training of new apprentices and looks into keeping a strict check on quality.”
He says that despite their small numbers, the weaving community is tightly knit.
“We all learn together. So many have helped me and helped my family.”
He talks about the trend in Kalna in the last decade, where there has been steady exodus of weavers to Hyderabad, Kerala and Chennai to look for better opportunities to earn and to boost their income. These weavers adapt their skill and sensibility of design to fashion gold jewellery. Rajib also remarks that a lot of weavers would rather see their children become doctors, engineers or MBA’S—they feel that is the new future for their children.
But to those who remain have a strong fervour for their craft and are quite hopeful for the future.
“We look for people who share our passion, people who want to help us in a practical way to move forward. My biggest hope from Kaivallam is to meet people with ideas, people who want to help, instead of just wanting to be middlemen. I want to meet people who recognize the craft in what we do, instead of just seeing it as a business.”
Jyotish and Rajib Debnath were invited to Milano, Italy in 2004 to be part of an international textile exhibition. In 2005 they participated in the Asian Spanish Festival in Barcelona, and in 2011 they took part in the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. They take with them a small scale, customized handloom designed by Jyotish ji, which allows them to demonstrate to a live audience the whole process of their particular tradition of fabric weaving.