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Fluid fabric from the fort

The Maheshwari saris are back in town

When you wear a Maheshwari sari, you're wearing history.

YOU CAN almost hear the rhythmic khatl-khatl of the looms and deft hands working away at a fort by a river. The story of the Maheshwari fabric is as romantic the sari itself. When you wear a Maheshwari sari, you're wearing history. Because in its every weft there is as much of the 1,500-year tradition and the story of a maharani, as much as in its warp are its gossamer threads. A dwindling tradition revived with modern human incentives of health and education and the infusion of contemporary design.

Today, over 1,500 looms are owned by villagers of the fortress town of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. The weavers continue to be predominantly women. In the inner courtyard of the Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar's qila or fort, under the old neem trees and in the airy rooms of the ancient Mughal style fort, the sound of the busy shuttles melts into the soothing breezes from the Narmada.

In Bangalore, the design store Ambara is hosting from July 15 to 17 an exhibition appropriately titled The Fort Collection, inspired by the fort. On display will be dupattas, three-piece salwar kameez material and saris. The fabrics are all in natural dyes, weaves and prints with earthy rusts, oranges, browns, off-whites and indigo blues dominating the collection.

For two centuries the weavers prospoered under the benign patronage of Maharani Ahilya Bai, for there was the royal tradition of gifting saris and turban yardage as a mark of friendship. Ahilya Bai imported the first weavers from Surat and Mandu in 1760, at which time the saris were of the purest and finest cotton, with Maharashtrian weaving influences.

This glorious tradition almost died out with the coming of the mills and power looms, post-Independence. But in the early 1970s Sreemant Maharajkumar Shivajirao Yashwantrao Richard Holkar, the Indore royal scion, returned home after graduating from Stanford, with his American wife Sally.

A chance meeting between three starving weavers and the Holkar couple on the banks of the Narmada was the turning point in this textile fairytale. The weavers implored the couple to work on reviving the art — after all it was a Holkar tradition. Thus was born the Rehwa Society. `Rehwa' is the Sanskrit name for the holy Narmada river. Richard and Sally Holkar dedicated themselves to uplifting the lot of starving weavers. That is, the few weavers who had not migrated to urban mills, recounts Jaya Mani of Amabara.

For design inspiration, Richard searched the textile collections of his ancestors and today there are two trained textile designers who lend a contemporary flavour to old designs.

Appropriately enough, Rehwa began its operations with just eight looms and eight women weavers from the Maru community at Ahilya Bai's fort.

The Society introduced the concept of sponsoring looms, with anyone underwriting the cost of a loom being paid in saris. Actress and activist Shabana Azmi was among the first sponsors.

Then came help from Germany to set up a housing scheme, followed by the EEC's help with free crèches and schooling till Class VI, with one class being added on each year. Later a health scheme was started. Over 200 children attend the Ahilya School while health scheme has over 500 beneficiaries. These programs are supported solely through the sale of the handwoven merchandise.

Besides saris and yardage, dupattas, scarves, salwar kameez sets, western dress materials, home products like dhurees and mats and table linen are also woven. The textiles are now a blend of silk and cotton with silk yarn, bought from Bangalore and Varanasi, for the warp and fine cotton from Coimbatore for the weft. This gives the textile the alluring, gossamer look for which it is legendary. On either side the border is usually 2.5 inches of geometric designs. The pallav is woven separately on dobby looms rather than jacquard looms.

The Maheshwari story has a happy ending — the migration of weavers has been stemmed and the looms of Maheshwar continue with their staccato resonance.

The Fort Collection will be on from July 15 to 17at Ambara, 119 Annaswamy Mudaliar Road, (beside Foto Flash, opp. the Ganapathy Temple) Ulsoor, Bangalore 560 042. Ph: 25572829/ 25575196.

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