SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Eternal weave

Down the ages: A Chanderi sari with elaborate zari work.

Down the ages: A Chanderi sari with elaborate zari work.   | Photo Credit: Photos: Abhilash Gaur

ABHILASH GAUR

Most of what made Chanderi famous have disappeared with time. Except the distinct art of weaving that makes Chanderi saris unique.

Every house here has a loom, sometimes two or three, depending upon the number of able hands in the family.

Many centuries ago, Chanderi was worth dying for. It was a walled city with a hilltop citadel. It had palaces, tanks and pleasure pavilions. The beautiful Betwa flowed close by its side. And precious cloth flowed off the looms of its weavers. So Babur laid siege to it and Medini Rai defended it with all his might. In the end, every last Rajput warrior lay dead on the battlefield, and every Rajput woman lay charred on the jauhar (collective immolation) pyre — their final act of defiance.

The battle has passed into Chanderi’s lore. The grand fort lies in ruins, and the old city below it is crumbling under the weight of its booming population. For all of Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s hard-sell, Chanderi today is not a pleasant place for tourists. Yet, it produces something that many tourists would love to take back home — the Chanderi sari.

The looms never stop

Chanderi’s lone road divides the town into two unequal parts. On one side lies the old walled city, and on the other the crowded, slum-like Patkuian Mohalla, also known as Bahar Shahr (outer city). It is in this congested quarter that hundreds of Chanderi’s looms click-clack away night and day. Every house here has a loom, sometimes two or three, depending upon the number of able hands in the family. The workmen may rest but not their looms. So when Aamna’s brothers sleep, she continues the work, or leaves it to her mother. “Chanderi’s children learn to weave in their playtime,” says the matriarch.

How many weaver families does Chanderi have? Around 3,600 or 60 per cent of the population. That sounds like a large number but let’s not forget that these people work on traditional handlooms. Consequently, each household averages no more than two metres of cloth in a day, and the entire town’s monthly production would yield only around 40,000 saris. Then, how is it that Chanderi saris are available at every big shop across the country? That’s easy: most of them are fakes.

It is an odd fact that Chanderi does not produce yarn. It never has in its history. How, then, did it become a famous centre of weaving? The answer lies in its location. In the old days, Chanderi lay on an important trading route between Gujarat, Mewar and the Deccan, so all the raw material for weaving –– cotton, silk and brocade –– came from outside. What Chanderi pioneered and became famous for was a technique that it has kept alive till now.

Briefly, that technique is: cotton in the warp and silk in the weft. But simple as it sounds, it is a slow process, and even the plainest sari takes three days to weave. Throw in an intricate pattern and the weaving can take a week or more.

The Chanderi cloth is very light. Before machine-made yarn came to be used here, it was comparable in lightness to Dhaka’s famed muslin. And the lightness extended to the colours and designs as well. While today Chanderis come in all colours — ranging from the darkest greens to blues and reds — traditionally, they were white or very lightly coloured. The dyeing used to be done with saffron and flower extracts, which also scented the cloth, but now bright chemical dyes hold sway.

Changing patterns

With time, the patterns woven into the saris have also become more complicated. These days, very few Chanderi saris sport the traditional ginni (coin) or booti (tendril) motif. Instead, their designs now range from big flowers to geometrical patterns. After all, it is a demand-driven world. But one thing that hasn’t changed — apart from the Chanderi weave — is the traditional border. This heavy strip of brocade is made with a special fibre that is locally produced by twisting together four strands of zari thread. Two weavers work on it at a time, and it is called naalpherma as the thread turns back from the base. Since the border is not woven along with the sari, it is sewed on later.

Watching a weaver work at his loom can be fascinating, but if you wish to buy a Chanderi sari, you would have to wind your way to the Narsingh Mandir in the walled city, for the saris are the property of rich seths who live there. They supply the raw material to the poor weavers and get the saris woven for a pittance.

Propped up against bolsters in their old-fashioned stores, you will be shown Chanderi’s finest cloth, and may buy it at half its Delhi/ Mumbai price. The range here is available from a few hundred rupees to Rs. 50,000 for saris woven with pure zari motifs. Amidst their stock, you will also find cloth for pagris (turbans), dupattas etc., and the traders say these were Chanderi’s specialty till saris became its weavers’ mainstay. Now again, in deference to demand, there is a gradual shift away from weaving saris to dress material.

Factfile

Location: Chanderi lies in Ashoknagar district of Madhya Pradesh, close to the Betwa river.

Getting there: By road, Chanderi is 230 km from Gwalior and 205 km from Bhopal. Both cities have airports. The nearest railway station is at Lalitpur, 37 km away.

Sari trade: The weavers’ settlement lies in Bahar Shahr (outer city) while the traders live in the walled city, close to the Narsingh Mandir. Driving in the narrow lanes on either side can be painful, so walk.



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