Baluchari weave :
On the banks of the Bhagirathi river lies the dusty town of Baluchar, a few miles north of Behrampur. The Baluchari is woven from the locally cultivated mulberry silkworms, the spread of mulberry trees adds to the character of the town. The rich creamy base takes to colour easily – deep maroons, reds and purple being the most effective colours. The shot effect was achieved by using different coloured thread for the warp and for the weft. However, for those who love the Baluchari silk sarees, it is the motifs on the woven borders and elaborate pallavs that are of special interest. These complex patterns were executed on traditional draw looms using a supplementary patterning weft and it was during the mid-18th to the late-19th century that the industry flourished. The history of Murshidabad of the 18th and 19th centuries is linked with the growth of the Baluchari saree.
When Murshid Quli Khan, the Mughal governor of Bengal, shifted his capital from Dacca to Maksudabad in 1704, he not only renamed it Murshidabad but soon found it to be a flourishing trading post. The arrival of Gujarati and Marwari traders. Arabs as well as Dutch, English, French and Danish merchants had made the town their home, drawing on the existing rich silk industry. Though the Mughal Empire was in decline, the region was of some economic interest, and foreign merchants were, by 1740, well entrenched. It is possible that the weaving tradition began when Gujarati weavers arrived in the increasingly affluent area that Robert Clive is supposed to have compared, it to being, as extensive and rich as the city of London!
Three decades later, in 1772, following Clive’s victory, the capital of Bengal was shifted from Murshidabad to Calcutta. In spite of the difficulties, that were inevitable, Murshidabad’s silk industry continued to flourish. In the later years of the 19th century, much of the fine weaving was done by a small group of men. Not only did they suit the changing times but they discovered new exciting colours. The contemporary Baluchari saree that re-imagines old motifs and styles. The motifs were an indigenous art of the region – such motifs echoed change in modes of travel, style of dressing as well, it reflected the unmistakable interaction between the ruling class and the local population. Innovativeness quickly captured such changes in life-style, quite often with motifs like Englishmen on horses. For instance, the motif of the elephant and rider has been around for centuries and its popularity shows no signs of receding. However, when steamers and trains started appearing in Baluchari pallus, they were clear indicators of change. Nor were any of these styles ossified neither were they set in stone changes were keenly observed and incorporated. The weaver was weaving time with his yarns!
In early Baluchari sarees, nawabs with falcons were favourite motifs, then by the nobility in steamers and even trains. For keen observers of the development of the paisley – it was the incorporation of the Kashmiri-style mango-shaped but as that helped date the Baluchari saree. Thus the Buta could be dated to around 1820. The new English, nabobs found many aspects of the Nawabi lifestyle appealing and took to smoking the hookah and wore Indian-style Angarkhas and pyjamas – and not only in the privacy of their homes. Soon bib is moved into the houses of Europeans, some becoming common-law wives. The nawabs and the royal Muslims were the patrons of the saree.
Gifts and Favours :
The nawabs kept the durai and the Company officials and European merchants happy by giving these sarees as gifts. The patriarchs in conservative Bengal would not allow their women folk to wear saree woven with pallus of hookah-smoking nawabs and courtesans, hunters, and European officers with cannons! Heavy Benarasi silk with elaborate zari borders yes – but no Balucharis. The only women who are likely to have worn such were the elite and some were kept as trophies like tiger skins from the east to show back home.
The Baluchari revived with traditional motifs later. With the modernization of the Baluchari sari, it has created a niche for itself, in the order of silk sarees of importance. Shatika has a vast range of traditional Baluchari sarees in silk. Which reminds us of a past of valour and tapestries.