Mira Sagar, CEO of Rehwa, an NGO, tells PANKAJA SRINIVASAN the story of how the exquisite Maheshwari sari was pulled back from the brink of extinction
An old fort looks down majestically on a river flowing quietly alongside. Several hundred years ago it was home to soldiers, artisans and nobles going about their job of serving the royal family that ruled there. Like many others, it might have just crumbled into oblivion had it not become synonymous with exquisite craftsmanship. The Fort of Maheshwar on the banks of the river Narmada from where in the 18th century Ahalya Bai Holkar ruled the state of Indore, is today home to weavers who turn out some of the most beautiful saris in the country - the Maheshwari.
The Maheshwari saga
The story goes that Ahalya Bai Holkar wanted nine-yard saris that she could gift to her royal friends and relatives. So she summoned weavers from Surat and Malwa to do so. And thus was born the Maheshwari sari. Ahalya Bai did not care for floral motifs as she herself did not wear them. The weavers who had no patterns to go by looked around and drew inspiration from the Maheshwar Fort itself. Detailing on the walls of the old fort became their blueprint and features of the fort were transferred on to the delicate fabric they wove. Even today, the Maheshwari sari has only geometric patterns woven into it. Chatai (woven mat pattern), Iinth (brick pattern), Hira (diamond pattern) and chameli ki phool (the chameli flower) that are evident in the walls, niches, enclosures and scaffolding of the fort are faithfully reproduced in the pallu and border of the saris. Contrasting sharply with the rich and heavy Kanjivarams of the south, the Maheshwaris are almost ethereal. Delicate and incredibly light, they originally came in earthy shades of maroon, red, green, purple and black. But, over the years, they began to be woven in jewel tones of blues, mauves, and other pastel shades with gold, silver or thread work. While royal patronage saw the craft flourishing for years, by the time 1947 came and went, it was on the brink of extinction. Then the royal family of the Holkars intervened. Sally and Shivaji Rao Holkar revived the craft, and Rehwa, a not-for-profit NGO, was born. "Rehwa is another name for river Narmada," explains Mira Sagar, CEO of Rehwa. She has been with Rehwa for more than 15 years and knows every warp and weft of the weaving business. In Coimbatore recently to hold an exhibition of Maheshwari saris and fabric, she tells the story of how the Maheswari sari was given a second lease of life.She recounts how, "When the penniless weavers approached them, the Holkars did not turn them away. Sally and Richard dug out fabrics from old chests and trunks, begged and borrowed from elderly aunts and friends who might have had a few Maheshwaris, and with that began the process of breathing new life into the craft. With a grant from the government they set about providing the weavers quality yarns. As the weavers were in penury they had been reduced to weaving substandard saris, with substandard yarns and cheap colours." Rehwa picked up the threads and helped weavers get back on their feet. Providing them with the right yarn, dyes and infrastructure, it encouraged the craftsmen to revive the dying art. Rehwa also took care of the education, health and housing of the weavers and there was a dramatic improvement in their output. The women especially benefited by the intervention of Rehwa. "Eighty per cent of the people who work with us are women," says Mira. "Most of them are the only earning members of their families. They have been able to educate their children, get them married and improve their lives."Some of the weavers' children, who would have otherwise migrated, are now also weaving the Maheshwaris. "There is a lot of incentive for the weavers. They are paid per piece and if they produce a flawless sari they get a bonus and it is the same if they deliver before time. Similarly, if the piece is defective or is delivered late, they lose out on some money. So, they are on their toes and this also acts as a check and balance for quality control," explains Mira. A traditional Maheshwari sari comprises a silk yarn in the warp and a cotton one in the weft. In keeping with changing times, the yarns now include wool.
The Coimbatore connection
Interestingly, the cotton for the yarn used traditionally comes from Coimbatore. Silk comes from Bangalore, Tussar from Bhagalpur and wool from Australia that is then processed in Kolkata. "In order to sustain the weaving we have to generate enough volume. While saris are the mainstay, we are now diversifying into running fabric, table linen, etc.," says Mira. Since weaving Maheshwari saris is labour intensive and requires expert skill, the costs are high. Weaving the sari and borders is not too time consuming; but just 30 centimetres of the Pallu in each sari takes nearly eight days. Rehwa brings the royal Holkar legacy of Maheshwari saris and fabrics to Coimbatore where they are on sale and display at Pralochana, on Avanashi Road, till June 10.