The pull of patola

A saree may cost upwards of Rs. 1.5 lakh, but the Salvi family is booked with orders for three years

April 30, 2016 04:25 pm | Updated 04:25 pm IST

A masterpiece in the making. Photo courtesy: Salvi family of Patan Patola Heritage

A masterpiece in the making. Photo courtesy: Salvi family of Patan Patola Heritage

The unassuming town of Patan in Gujarat stands amid the ruins of the once-powerful Solanki dynasty that reigned between the 10th and 13th centuries. I am drawn to the well-preserved grandeur of the ‘Rani-ki-vav’ stepwell (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the exquisite silken weave of the patola textile. This is the heritage of the Salvi family that has kept the primitive looms click-clacking and the centuries’ old art of double ikat patola thriving till today. The GI tag makes the Patan patola unique.

As we drive towards the Patola House Heritage Museum and art gallery, our local driver renders a melodious Gujarati folk song for my benefit. Chhelaji re mare hatu Patan thi patola, mongha lavjo ema ruda re moraliya chitravjo Patan thi patola (a woman urges her husband who is off to Patan to bring her the coveted patola saree from there). Penned by the noted Gujarati poet Avinash Vyas decades ago, the popularity of this song reflects the unfading charm of the classic patola.

Worn by royals and aristocrats on auspicious occasions, and prized as a holy cloth even in South-east Asia, the patola finds mention in the 14th century travel accounts of Ibn Batuta, who gifted patolas to kings. Indonesia was the largest importer of Patan patola before World War II. It was a matter of great pride for Gujarati brides to have it as part of their wedding trousseau. Communities such as Nagar Brahmins and Kutchi Bhatia used patola as a ceremonial cloth.

However, the genuine patola remains only a dream for many. A saree may cost upwards of Rs 1.5 lakh, but the Salvi family is booked with orders for three years. The painstaking traditional process of spinning, tying-dyeing and weaving takes four or more people four to eight months to weave a piece.

The Salvi family of Patola House has carried forward this heritage art since the 11th century over roughly 35 generations. The elderly master weavers are Chhotalal, Vinayak, Rohit and Bharat and the next generations include Nipul, Rahul and Savan.

At the loom, master weaver Bharat K. Salvi settles down to weave a patola saree. The mulberry silk is still imported from China. Two Salvi weavers sit in front of a primitive hand-operated harness loom. Made of sturdy teakwood, the loom is slightly tilted towards the left. Bharat adjusts the warp threads with a needle-like device. This removes any tension on warp thread that ensues after weaving eight to 10 inches of the fabric.

About the specialty of double ikat weaving, Bharat says that each warp (longitudinal thread) and weft thread (that crosses warp) is tied separately with a cotton string to colour by a tie-dye technique (bandhani process). The resultant patola silk has no reverse side as both the sides have equal intensities of colour and design.

The time-consuming but highly skilled tying, untying, retying and dyeing in different colours take up to 75 days. Loud red, yellow, green and blue dominate. The pattern becomes apparent as warp threads set on the loom.

Floral motifs, animals, birds and human figures are basic designs, but geometrical patterns are in vogue. Traditional motifs are called bhat and include narikunjar , paan , choktha (square), chhabadi (10 elephants), laheriya (diagonal lines) and navratna (nine gems) among others.

Narikunjar is the most traditional bhat and remains the most popular for anyone buying their first patola,” says Rahul Salvi, a young architect who also weaves. A wall hanging on a central wall woven by four master weavers, including him, depicts shrikar bhat . The elaborate hunting scene with animal motifs featuring two ornate elephants against a red background took them three-and-a-half years to complete.

The striking colours remain intact for centuries as the Salvi family ensures that all colours are sourced organically. Turmeric, marigold flowers, onion skin, pomegranate bark, madder root, lac, catechu and indigo along with different mordant (use of chemicals to bind natural dyes to the textile fibres) are used as dye.

Historically, the double ikat textiles are made only in four places in the world: Bali (Indonesia), Okinawa island (Japan), Pochampalli (Telangana) and Patan. However, single ikat weaving spans many countries, and Bharat brings out a few samples from Okinawa, Cambodia, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Philippines and Holland.

Bharat points to a faded black and white photograph of his great-great-great-grandfather Ramchand M. Salvi; he traces their origin to the patola weavers of Jalna (Maharashtra). He then recounts an anecdote about the antiquity of patola. The king Kumarpal of the Solanki dynasty highly valued the patola and bought it from Jalna. But when he learnt that the king of Jalna used them first as bed-sheets before allowing the weavers to sell them, Kumarpal invited 700 families of Jain Salvi weavers to settle down in Patan in the 12th century.

Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer who strives to bring positive stories from across the country.

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