M for Mekhela Chador

THE MEKHALA CHADOR POST BY OUR GUEST BLOGGER KUMKUM NUNGROM

The state of Assam is one of the striking regions of India. There is hardly any other state which has greater variety and colour in its natural scenario and in the cultural treasures of the people that inhabit it. The region combines the ethnic setting of weaving skills in white and golden Assam silk, indigenously called Pat and Muga, together with agriculture and fishing in the neighbouring villages.

 Mekhela chador is the traditional Assamese dress worn by women. It is undoubtedly one of the most elegant costumes worn in any of the Indian states. There are two main pieces of cloth that are draped around the body. The bottom portion, draped from the waist downwards is called the mekhela. It is in the form of a very wide cylinder that is folded into pleats to fit around the waist and tucked into an underskirt.

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The Mekhala Chador is the Assamese style of draping a 2-piece garment with a blouse

The top portion, known as the chador, is a long length of cloth that has one end tucked into the upper portion of the mekhela and the rest draped over and around the rest of the body. Invariably there is a blouse that is worn underneath, which is similar to a saree blouse.

Assam is the home of several types of silks, the most prominent and prestigious being the muga, the golden silk found exclusively in this state. It is said that the muga silk is a family heirloom and is often passed on through generations due to its strength, durability and sheer beauty. It is known to outlive a few generations….at least!!

The weaving tradition of Assam can be traced to the 11th century when king Dharma Pal, of the Pal Dynasty, sponsored the craft and brought 26 weaving families from Tantikuchi to Sualkuchi. The village took shape as a weaving village after the Mughals were defeated in the 17 th century. Since then, most Assamese homes in the traditional weaving villages, both in the lower and upper banks of the Brahmaputra, boast of a loom, and weaving is part of life. So much so, that the great Mahatma Gandhi once remarked that ‘the Assamese women weave dreams in their looms’!

Assam silk denotes the three major types of indigenous silks produced in Assam; the golden Muga, the white Pat and the warm Eri silk. The Assam silk industry, now centered in Sualkuchi, is a labor intensive industry.

Muga silk is the product of the silkworm “Antherea assamensis” and endemic to Assam. The pupa of these silkworms feed on “som” (“Machilus bombycina”) and “sualu” (“Litsaea polyantha”) leaves. The silk produced is known for its glossy fine texture and durability. Due to its low porosity, the Muga  yarn cannot be bleached nor dyed and its natural golden color is retained. This silk can be hand-washed with its luster increasing after every wash. Assam has received a geographical indication for the production of Muga.

Pat silk is produced by silkworms which feed on mulberry leaves. It is usually brilliant white or off-white in colour. This silk cloth has the ability to dry in shade. Eri silk is made by “Philosamia ricini” which feed on castor leaves. It is also known as Endi or Erandi silk. Due to the fact that manufacturing process of Eri allows the pupae to develop into adults and only the open ended cocoons are used for turning into silk, also popularly known as non-violent silk. This silk is soft and warm and is popular as shawls and quilts.

There are some popular weaving motifs on the ‘mekhela chadors’. The most commonly used are the khing-khap, (emblem),  mogor (creeper ), mina (jewel), miri (tribal art) , gos (tree), jaapi ( bamboo hat), moyur (peacock), gor (rhino) and the gumkharu (traditional bracelet) designs. All in all, most of them are the aristic translation of everyday objects on the cloth or silk.

The traditional  silk mekhela chador has become very popular amongst the ‘saree – enthusiasts’ in the larger cities of the country. It is every such woman’s dream to own either a muga or a paat set for its sheer grace, elegance and exclusivity!

THE MEKHELA CHADOR GALLERY

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A close up of the miri or tribal design. Brilliant colours.

 

 

 

 

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A phool design on a resplendent pat silk

 

 

 

 

 

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A moyur design on a pat silk

All the images in this post are the courtesy and copyright of the author of this post – Kumkum Nongrum.

Sources:

http://www.assaminfo.com/tourist-places/32/sualkuchi.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mekhela_chador

 

M for Maheshwari

It is easy to get confused between a Maheshwari and a Mangalgiri. But don’t worry, I’ve got this okay! As I said in the other ‘M’ post, the Maheshwaris and Mangalgiris are sarees that say little and want to add to your life story. And soon I will tell you how to differentiate one from the other. But first, why the Maheshwari is such sweet memory for me.

At one time, my mother-in-law loved them – the feel of that superfine cotton and for their ‘sober colours’ but she avoided wearing them. And quite adamantly so. ‘Why mummy?’ I would ask her. ‘I can’t wear a saree with a zari border to school’, she would say. I prefer something simple, she would add. She was the Principal of a school in Mumbai and after her retirement, headed a Continuing Education Unit in another school for the longest time. One day, while she was still a principal, she was trying to decide which saree to wear for an evening school function, in the sultry April heat of Mumbai. As a suggestion, I pushed one of my sarees forward – a pale blue Maheshwari with the usual gold border. Don’t have a picture to share here because this was so so long ago. She considered the ‘sober colour’, loved the feel of soft cotton and justifying the zari border as ‘acceptable’ because it was a function, decided to wear it. That evening, when she returned home, her opening sentence to me was ‘teri saree ab gayee’ / ‘your saree has now gone’. She would break into Hindi every once in a while when she was in a light mood. She basically meant that she had pretty much hijacked my saree. She gushed about how comfortable the saree was through-out the evening and how everyone had liked it. Ah!

That lovely feeling when a loss is actually a win!

She continued to like and wear the Maheshwari more often after that day. In fact, when we celebrated her 80th birthday, she wore a beige and gold, self-print Maheshwari which she had allowed me to buy for her. It went beautifully with the silver in her hair. And that’s the story of how a Maheshwari never allows its own beauty to overpower your story.

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The gold self print Maheshwari cotton-silk. Sober coloured indeed.

The Maheshwari saree started out as a pure cotton saree in pale colours with slightly contrasted colourful stripes along its borders and in the pallu.

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A simple cotton Maheshwari without the gold border. Picture courtesy and copyright www.jaypore.com

Another distinct Maheshwari style is the pure cotton body with a pale gold border which is distinct for its distinctive pattern of chevrons. Chevrons look like this: <<<<<<<< .

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A typical chevron gold border in a Maheshwari

The other pattern that is found on a Maheshwari, but not so commonly is the brick patter or the ‘chatai’ / cane pattern. The pallu is a continuation of the body, intersected by thicker gold lines, and sometimes the entire pallu is made of gold in heavier sarees.

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The brick pattern – in this saree it appears as a motif on the pallu of a Maheshwari

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And here is how it looks! The classic chevron border again.

Now for the story of the origin of Maheshwari – as laced with gold as the saree. The acclaim of ‘inventing’ the Maheshwari saree belongs to Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar (1725 – 1795) of the Holkar dynasty of the Marathas that ruled over the Malwa region. She was a tough queen who ruled and protected her kingdom after the death of her husband and her father-in-law. She was also a great patron of the arts. In 1960, she commissioned the famed weavers of Surat to weave something worthy of her royal family. It is said that Ahilyabai herself attended to and contributed to the design of the first Maheshwari. They created the saree, with designs inspired by the patterns and motifs of the forts of Maheshwar. Thus was born the Maheshwari saree, which started out as a cotton saree, as I said earlier. Now it has a cotton warp and a weft made of Banaras silk – a stately cotton silk. With the customary gold border.

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A cotton silk Maheshwari with a broader than usual border. See the chevrons? The self-lines are also an unmistakable Maheshwari characteristic.

This saree, like many other traditional sarees of that time, had to endure a trying journey of its own as it faced near extinction due to industrialization. Many weavers of the Maheshwari lost patronage in the 1970s and had to leave the weaving town in search for other, more lucrative professions. It was around that time, in the late seventies, where a direct descendant of the Holkar family decided to do something about this rich legacy and founded the Rewa Society – a name synonymous with the Maheshwari saree. This society works towards the revival of the art and also the weavers of this art.

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The royal blue Maheshwari.

The Maheshwari, since then, represents the elegant, the simple, the tasteful, and classy. Today a Maheshwari saree is accessible through several e-commerce sites, weaver exhibits and large department stores known for selling authentic creations.

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And the Royal red Maheshwari

Buy and wear a royal heritage….you get the drift right because I don’t really want to sound like an advertisement. See you soon with the a new alphabet of a new region!

M for Mangalgiri

A lot of sarees, new and old, a few of them on this blog, shout out loud their identity, with their in-your-face-beauty. Yes, they pretty much speak for themselves. But here is a saree, and allow me to introduce it you, the simple Mangalgiri, whose only purpose in life is to become a part of your life story.

What the Chanderis and the Maheshwaris are to Central India, the Mangalgiri is to the South.

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A brown cotton Mangalgiri with its customary border and striped gold pallu

A Mangalgiri saree is usually made of superfine, sturdy, thick-yarn cotton, though now they are also available in silk. The body of the saree usually has self-checks or at best it is a plain solid colour. A good Mangalgiri saree falls well and stays well long after it is worn. The zari border, is also simple, with simple line patterns or chevrons at best without any elaborate motifs. The most distinct part of the zari border is its peculiar width – quite unlike the wide Kanjeevaram border or the Gadwal. Surprisingly enough, the thickness of the Mangalgiri border is very similar to the thickness of the Maheshwari border – except that the Maheshwari border may or may not be in gold. The Mangalgiri border is always in zari. In its state, Andhra Pradesh, the Mangalgiri border is also called the ‘Nizam’ border, very typical of the Mangalgiri region.

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The Mangalgiri border also called the ‘Niam’ border

The pallu of the saree is always a continuation of the body with slightly greater density of gold lines running across. Many observers call the Mangalgiri gold lines to have tribal associations – although they don’t look too tribal to me. This saree, available in exciting shades of all colours is a classy treat for the eyes and it is difficult to choose a single colour.

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A Mangalgiri border on a block printed cotton saree

And once again, like a template – the name of this saree is after the town Mangalgiri, in Guntur – now the administrative capital of Telangana. Mangalgiri was and still continues to be an important religious centre and weaving centre. Way back in early 16th century, weaving prospered because the saree was offered to the deity as ‘prasadam’. The compulsory buying of sarees for religious purposes led to the growth of weaving of cotton and cotton sarees. Adding zari was an obvious choice because the sarees with gold considered more auspicious than the plain ones. It is an interesting phenomenon; all over India, silk is considered as the fabric for worship. I suppose the rich cotton harvests in this region made cotton a more accessible choice.

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The block printed saree and its pallu with subtle gold lines running across

The Mangalgiri saree, like other cotton sarees, can be a little maintenance heavy if you want to retain the lustre of the zari border – which is not real. Without adequate care the saree can start to fade. So if you love your Mangalgiri, take good care of it and protect it from harsh chemical washes.

This is a short post I know; did not want to overpower the saree with the weight of my trivial words!

Mangal ho! / May there be prosperity always!

K for Kodali Karuppur

Once upon a time there was a saree….and these have to be the saddest words ever known to a saree connoisseur.

I came across references to this saree in my search to understand another, rather elusive saree – the Kumbakonam saree. With very little information available about this saree, all I could gather is that this saree is actually extinct. Sigh! And that one can actually find this saree in a museum; the Calico museum in Ahmedabad and in Kalakshetra, in Chennai. Sigh x 2.

And I thought extinction applied only to species! Leave alone pictures or a personal story, I have very little original material to present on this saree.

Hence, this post is just a placeholder till I am able to share something more substantial. Not the one to leave you without any dope, here are some articles I found on the Internet that should satisfy some degree of curiosity. See how both articles, from different publications, use the same image. A sign of its extinction, I infer sadly.

An article in the epaper version of the DNA, published in August 2014 writes; ‘The Kodai Karuppur is an exquisite cotton weave that dates back to the 17th century to an eponymous village near Kumbakonam. The technique blends a painstaking combination of the Jamdani weaving technique with wax resist painting and block printing.

Read more about this saree here.

Another article in the e-version of the Hindu, published in November 2014 has this to say about the almost extinct Kodali Kurrupur ‘The Kodali Karuppur saris evolved under the patronage of the Maratha ruler Serfoji Raja Bhonsle Chhatrapati II in 1787-1832 and were made exclusively for the Ranis of Thanjavur up to the 19th century. The saris were produced in the village of Kodali Karuppur near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district. The ancestors of the weavers comprised about 400-500 families who migrated from Saurashtra to Madurai, Salem and Kancheepuram’.

Read the full article here.

Wish me luck on finding stories, histories and images for this saree!

 

K for Kalakshetra

This is a placeholder post. Let me explain. When I started writing this blog – I knew a fair bit about the sarees I owned. I had worn and experienced their beauty and could write about them. My quest for authentic information about them led me to discover more sarees. Of all the discoveries I made, the most stunning was about the beautiful Kalakshetra saree.

When I read about this saree, almost 6 months ago, I began a frantic search for images and some more authentic information. None of my earlier sources were of help. I could not even find a suitable image – leave alone buy one.

Now I have reached K and this is where the Kalakshetra saree belongs. And here I am – without any images, without any new or exciting information. And so a placeholder post.

Based on what I have read so far, this saree deserves a special spotlight of its own. The Kalakshetra saree, based on the rich Southern weaving legacy, revived by the eminent Rukmini Devi Arundale. It is said that its weave and design is so rich, intricate and pure, that it deserved a new and distinct identity. Hence the Kalakshetra saree is a saree type in its own right.

The story of the Kalakshetra saree and its maker are both very inspiring. Let me begin with Rukmini Devi Arundale. Her name needs no introduction. An eminent person of great beauty, intellect, talent and grace, she crossed boundaries of her own art, dance, to enhance other art forms. According to Wikipedia, Rukmini Devi was an Indian theosophist, dancer and choreographer of the Indian classical dance form of Bharatnatyam and an activist for animal rights and welfare.

Way back in the 1930s, Rukmini Devi Kalakshetra, an academy of dance and music, built around the ancient Indian  Gurukul system in Chennai. The sole purpose of this academy was the preservation and revival of traditional arts and crafts of India. Read more about this here.

Our interest is the Kalamkari (pencraft) center. The Kalamkari unit was set up to breathe life into the ancient  Indian craft of textile printing. Some of the sarees that were designed by Rukmini Devi herself are today preserved in the museum at the Kalakshetra centre. I have read that the use of colours, the use of motifs, it is all exquisite.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to access any other information from anywhere. So till such time, this is a placeholder.

Sources:

http://www.kalakshetra.in/craft_history.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rukmini_Devi_Arundale

F for Fulia

Wearing a saree, especially for non-festive occasions, is such an eyebrow-raiser these days. Me thinks that is not just beauty, but even disapproval that lies in the eye of the beholder. Behenji, amma, aunty, mataji, teacherji, or madam are some of the sarcastic terms of endearment that are likely to come your way when you wear a saree. And if you happen to be approaching the hill (35+ years), sporting some middle-age spread, wearing a saree can invite a stray and tactless comment by the self-appointed fashion and trend police.

This unfortunate behenji-fication of the saree does not deter me from wearing one when I want to. Someone who loves sarees once told me “Sarees have stayed in ‘fashion’ for 2000 years. They’re not going anywhere.” And I so second that sentiment. On this happy, optimistic note I bring to you, from the state of West Bengal, a handloom delight.

F for Fuila. And no, I am not tryin’ to fool ya’. There really is a saree by this name. Though some may call it Phulia, I prefer the ‘F’ over the ‘Ph’. See I have a duty toward this alphabetical list I am trying to keep alive and without the Fulia, the F would be without a match.

The Fulia saree is hand-woven using cotton or silk yarn – simple and with little embellishment. The idea behind the Fulia is to let the fine fabric, the weave and the texture speak, hence the minimalistic style. A border, a few stripes or a smattering of a block print is all you get to see on a Fulia saree. Although I have seen the Fulia saree many times, I don’t own it, neither have I worn one. From what I have seen I can say that my wardrobe could definitely make space for one silk and one cotton Fulia saree.

A Cotton Fulia saree. Image courtesy and copyright www.jaypore.com

A Cotton Fulia saree. Image courtesy and copyright http://www.jaypore.com

A Cotton Fulia saree. Image courtesy and copyright www.jaypore.com

A Cotton Fulia saree. Image courtesy and copyright http://www.jaypore.com

A Fulia saree is a fine example of the illustrious Bengal hand-woven saree heritage. This saree is named after the town Fulia, in the district of Nadia 90 kilometers from Kolkatta.

The weaving heritage of Fulia is not very old. The weavers in Fulia trace their lineage back to the weavers of the famous Dhakai Jamdani of Bangladesh who settled in India at the time of partition. Some of them settled in the already rich weaving centers of Shantipur while most others settled in Fulia. A whole lot of information about Fulia and its weaving history abounds on the Web, but very little is written about the features of the Fulia saree itself.

Some of the most informative sources I recommend for further reading are this blog and this website.

How does one recognize a Fulia saree? Well, I tried hard to look for answers and found it difficult to find a concrete one. Based on what I know of these sarees by observation, I can say that these sarees do not carry Jamdani-like motifs. Their texture is coarse to look at but very fine, soft to touch because of the hand-woven characteristic. They are usually plain and available in earthy colours. They do however, look a lot like any other hand-woven cotton saree. A cotton Fulia may cost anything between rupees 1500 to 3000, whereas a silk saree may cost above rupees 6000.

A Cotton Fulia saree with block-print pallu.  Image courtesy and copyright www.jaypore.com

A Cotton Fulia saree with block-print pallu.
Image courtesy and copyright http://www.jaypore.com

A Cotton Fulia saree. Image courtesy and copyright www.jaypore.com

A Cotton Fulia saree.
Image courtesy and copyright http://www.jaypore.com

As I conclude this post, I feel a little unsettled that the information I have given is very little, though God knows I tried a lot of sources. My quest for information or images, as I have said before, does not end when a post is complete. I will keep looking and will update this post when I do get something good and credible. After F, it is time for G now. G for the Glorious Gadwal. Until then…

Sources:

  1. For the lovely images in this post, I am most grateful to www.jaypore.com who almost immediately gave me the go-ahead to use their images.
  2. http://bengalhandlooms.com/shantipur-fulia/
  3. http://artisansoffashion.tumblr.com/post/49923353065/village-weavers-of-phulia-shantipur-in-west-bengal

 

 

E for Embroidery Part III

It’s not like I am saving my best for the last. It’s just that there are so many embroidery styles I keep discovering, one post does not and cannot do justice. And each style has its own story to tell. And what is discovered must not be ignored, it must be shared right? Here’s something from the Chikankari chest of treasures.

In this post, which I cannot promise will be the last in the E for Embroidery series, I will share two exciting stories related to Chikankari.

 Chikankari

Chikankari or commonly called ‘chikan’ is one of the most ubiquitous forms of embroidery seen on all types of Indian garments and not just sarees.  I was personally excited about finding the meaning of the word ‘chikan’. I was wondering whether it would have something to do with the bird – but no, it did not turn out that way. ‘Chikan’ or ‘Chikeen’ is the Persian word for, well, embroidery or cloth filled with needle work. It was Empress Noor Jehan who first brought this art to our country. Synonymous with Lucknow and also called Lucknowi, Chikankari is an art form that finds patronage amongst both women and men.

A beautiful chikankari motif on pure cotton

A beautiful chikankari motif on pure cotton. Picture courtesy and copyright Hands of India

I was lucky to find not one, but two stories related to the origin of Chikankari in India. Here’s the first.

The first story, mostly a tale passed down through the ages, speaks of a poor traveler was passing through a village near Lucknow in the summer. The traveler asked a poor peasant for some water. The peasant felt sorry for the traveler and offered him some milk and invited him to rest in the shade of his home. The traveler was so pleased with the hospitality that he promised to teach him an art which would never allow him to go hungry. The traveler trained the peasant in the art of Chikankari. After he mastered the art, the traveler disappeared. And that’s how Chikankari arrived in India.

Chikankari on the ethereal doria kota

Chikankari on the ethereal doria kota. Picture courtesy and copyright Hands of India

And here’s the other.

This story rests on the belief that Chikankari was introduced in Lucknow in the 19th century through the court of Oundh. The Nawab of Oundh had a very large harem. A princess from the household of Murshidabad was married to the Nawab. She was a skilled seamstress and to escape from the boredom of the harem, she started embroidering a cap for the Nawab. She worked on it with rich white cotton threads on muslin cloth. She presented this gift to the Nawab personally. The Nawab was charmed by the gift that he started giving the princess extra attention. Seeing this, the other women in the harem got extremely jealous. So they too started embroidering different items of clothing. Soon they started making newer and different types of fine and delicate stitches.

And thus was born a great work of art.

Coloured Chikankari on white mul

Colourful Chikankari work on white mul. Picture courtesy and copyright Hands of India

Traditionally, Chikankari was done on the purest, whitest Cottons and Muls. Something distinctive, elegant and highly aesthetic about white  embroidery on white fabric caught the favour of royalty.

Today Chikanakari is found on all colours and all types of fabrics and to me it is just as beautiful. I find it interesting that designers are encouraging the experimentation of using Chikankari on sarees like the Maheshwaris and Mangalgiris. The coming together of different styles certainly adds to the merriment.

Even though a lot of Chikankari available today is machine-made, hand-made work is also easily available. Because of its popularity, it has managed to survive the onslaught of machine looms. This craft does not face threats of non-availability of ‘kaarigars’ or a narrowing of markets like some other embroidery.

Chikankari butis

Chikankari butis. Picture courtesy and copyright Hands of India

Chikankari boasts of a variety of stitches. Wikipedia lists 37 types of stitches. I possibly cannot bring images of each type, but I am definitely going to try. Meanwhile, it would be interesting for some to read the names. Some do reveal a lot about the stitch just by the way they are named. For example Ghass ki patti or Kapkapi.

They are: Tepchi, Bakhiya, Hool, Zanzeera, Rahet, Banarsi, Khatau, Phanda, Murri, Jali, Turpai, Darzdari, Pechani, Bijli, Ghaspatti, Makra, Kauri, Hathkadi, Banjkali, Sazi, Karan, Kapkapi, Madrazi, Bulbul-chasm, Taj Mahal, Janjeera, Kangan, Dhania-patti, Rozan, Meharki, Chanapatti, Baalda, Jora, Keel kangan, Bulbul, Sidhaul and Ghas ki patti. Whew!

Before I conclude, time to say a big thanks to my friend for the stories on Chikankari from her notes when she studied textile design in J. J. School of Arts.

As I sign off, I am unsure what to bring you next week – E, F, A or B. Who knows? It’s good to go with the flow sometimes. Till then, wear Chikankari and keep summer at bay!

Chikankari on a saree

Chikankari on a saree. Picture courtesy and copyright Hands of India