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Detail of a Baluchar silk sari, west Bengal, 19th century. The excitement generated by steamships and trains, as well as gadgets like binoculars and cameras, is captured in the vignettes of this sari end. 

Baluchari sari is a type of sari and a garment worn by women across India and Bangladesh. This particular type of sari originated in Bengal and is known for depictions of mythological scenes on the pallu of the sari. It is mainly produced in Murshidabad and producing one sari takes approximately one week or more. The Baluchari sari has been granted the status of the geographical indication in India.

 

In the history of textile in Bengal, Baluchari came much after Maslin. Two hundred years ago Baluchari was used to be practised in a small village called Baluchar in Murshidabad district, from where it got the name Baluchari. In the 18th century, Murshidquali Khan, Nawab of Bengal patronised its rich weaving tradition and brought the craft of making this sari from Dhaka to the Baluchar village in Murshidabad and encouraged the industry to flourish. After a flood in the Ganga river and the subsequent submerging of the village, the industry moved to Bishnupur village in Bankura district. The sari industry prospered in Bishnupur, Bankura during the reign of the Malla dynasty. But this flourishing trend later declined, especially during British rule, due to political and financial reasons and it became a dying craft as most of the weavers were compelled to give up the profession.

Later in the first half of 20th century, Subho Thakur, a famous artist, felt the need of re-cultivating the rich tradition of Baluchari craft. Though Bishnupur was always famous for its silk, he invited Akshay Kumar Das, a Master Weaver of Bishnupur to his centre to learn the technique of jacquard weaving. Sri Das then went back to Bishnupur and worked hard to weave Baluchari on their looms.

Once Bishnupur was the capital of Malla dynasty and different kinds of crafts flourished during their period under the patronage of Malla kings. Temples made of terracotta bricks were one achievement of these rulers. A major influence of these temples can be seen in Baluchari sarees. Mythological stories taken from the walls of temples and woven on Baluchari sarees is a common feature in Bishnupur.

Baluchari had enjoyed the special patronage of the Murshidabad court since the 17th century and developed a school of design where stylised forms of human and animal figures were most interestingly integrated with floral and geometrical motifs in the elaborate weaver material.

The Nawabs and Muslim aristocrats used the material produced in raw silk mainly as tapestry, but Hindu nobleman had it made into sarees in which the ground scheme of decoration became a very wide pal lava, often with a panel of large mango or paisley motifs at the centre, surrounded by smaller rectangles depicting different scenes. The saree borders were narrow with floral and foliage motifs, and the whole ground of the saree was covered with small paisley and other floral designs.

An interesting feature of earlier Baluchari sarees was the stylised bird and animal motifs that were incorporated in paisley and other floral decorations.

Gradually, hunters mounted on horses and elephants appeared, followed by scenes of the Nawab’s court. When the British took over Bengal, ‘sahibs’ and ‘memsahibs’ appeared a ‘sahib’ smoking and the ‘mem’ fanning herself.

The silk yarn used at Baluchar was not twisted and therefore had a soft, heavy texture. The advent of railways and steamboats was also most interestingly documented on these sarees. The ground colours in which the cloth available were limited, but they were permanent, are still fresh after hundreds of years.

The efforts made around 1960 by the All India Handicrafts Board to reproduce two old Baluchari saree designs at Vishnupur on a jacquard loom with 400 hooks failed, the product lacking the softness and vitality of the original.

The rich variety of the techniques, designs and texture of Bengal Baluchari sarees are endearing, enticing and exquisitely enviable. But the high cost of production leads to fell in patronage in the recent past. As a result, quite a good number of master weavers migrated to other centres. Yet, as people are becoming more and more fashion conscious and going all out for exclusivity, Balucharis, once again, have very good prospects. The demand for Baluchari, it is estimated, is far above its supply today.

To exploit this happy market situation and help weavers improve their lot, the Government of India and Government of West Bengal have jointly sponsored a Project Package Scheme for Bishnupur area of Bankura district.

The project attempts product diversification, up gradation of technical skills of our artisans by imparting proper training, providing uninterrupted employment, improving the weaver’s standard of living and strengthening the state’s handloom industry.

Besides training, necessary infrastructure facilities like jacquard machines its accessories, modification in the loom, improvement and expansion of work sheds etc. are being undertaken under the scheme.

In recent years, expert weavers in Jigging in Murshidabad and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh have successfully reproduced old Baluchari sarees, using the traditional jala technique, but too have not been able, so far, to create new designs that could be considered extensions of the old tradition.

Bengal is famous for its unique craftsmanship and artistic values. The unique products of even rural artisans bear the impression of high artistic values. Similarly, the Bengal handloom sarees is created its own global identity due to its unique designs and craftsmanship of weavers of Bengal. The traditional handloom sarees of Bengal occupies a special status even in the era of modern fashion. The variation of design, colour combination and the weaving pattern of Bengal handloom sarees like Dhania Khali, Tangail, Aarong and of course the unique Baluchari. A number of traditional weaving villages are still in existence in West Bengal such as Shantipur in Nadia district, Begumpur in Hooghly district, Kenje-Kura in Bankura district. Centuries back these villages were known as Weavers Heaven of Bengal. The Baluchari sarees are adorned all over the world for its unique designs, depicting ancient stories on its borders and pallus. Sometimes it revives the themes of Vedic or events of ancient times.

The Baluchari saree originated in West Bengal, and is mainly worn by the women of India and Bangladesh. It is a hand-woven saree using richly dyed silk, with intricate motifs depicting Indian mythology woven onto its large ‘pallu’. Baluchari takes a week to be woven, and the craftsmen are largely centred in Murshidabad. The designs are mainly from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and are worn as a sign of aristocracy and status. They are indeed connoisseurs’ items.

Origin and history

The Baluchari sari traces its origin to West Bengal. The name Baluchari came into existence because the weaving of these saris started in a small village called Baluchar in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal around 500 years ago.

Due to some natural calamities, the weaving set up was then moved to Bishnupur from Baluchar and the industry grew tremendously there after the British rule.

The making

Manufacturing Baluchari sari is a time-consuming process. It requires extremely good craftsmanship and takes around a week to weave one saree. These are hand woven and use the purest of yarns depending on the material. These were originally woven only using the purest of silk threads; however, as time went by, cotton fabric was also used to weave the Baluchari sari.

The mulberry silkworms are cultivated through a process called sericulture and the silk yarns are extracted from their cocoons. These silk yarns are made smooth and colourful by boiling them in hot water and soda, and then dyed with acid dye. After that, the yarn is stretched to make it tight and strong enough to be woven into a saree.

The complex yet beautiful process of weaving the motifs and embroidery comes next. The raw designs are drawn on paper first and then punched back into the sarees. The colours used these days while weaving Baluchari saris are bright and cheerful. A lot of environment-friendly items are being used to weave Baluchari sarees today. Banana plant stems, bamboo trees and natural products like flower dye, fruits dye, neem leaves, turmeric leaves and dried twigs are used in the weaving process.

Story behind the design

The Baluchari sarees are known for their intricate designs and handwork on them. No other saree uses as many mythological designs as the Baluchari sarees. They are dominated by stories and characters from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. These characters give a royal look to the Baluchari sari. Saris depicting the story of Lord Krishna explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna is one of the most popular design of Baluchari saree.

Wearing Baluchari

The mythological designs makes a Baluchari saree perfect for ceremonial and festive occasions which have a religious touch to it. Ornate jewellery in the form of neckpieces and earrings complements Baluchari saree well.

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Detail of a Baluchar sari anchal (end panel) fragment showing a European lady with a child on her lap and gents seated across a table.

Origin of Baluchari saree

The history of Baluchari saree is very much interesting as it goes back to 200 years ago in the 18th century during the regime of Nawab Murshidquali Khan though Baluchari originated much after Muslin. Murshidquali Khan happens to be the Nawab of Bengal during the 18th century with a very deep sense of rural artistic craftsmanship and showed great concern to bring up unique product of rural Bengal into the lime light. He had a special craze for the creativity of the rural people and the traditional crafts of his regime.

The origin of Baluchari sarees is stated to be in a very small village named Baluchar in the bank of river Bhagirathi in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. The word Baluchari itself means sandy river bank. The Bhagirathi river remained the main waterway for transportation of various product from one part of Bengal to another during that period. The Bhagirathi river remained to change its course time to time and the social set up and cultural pattern also changed remarkably with the change of the river’s flow. There was a significant topographical change on both sides of Bhagirathi river. The villagers and agricultural farmers had to shift their home stead with the change of course of Bhagirathi river. But during the British regime, there was a setback for the rural industries and crafts of the then undivided Bengal. The Bhagirathi river became means of transport for the valuable agricultural products viz. Rice, Jute, Silk and Metalwares to Kolkata port and finally these were used to ship from Kolkata port to Britain. The ignorance of unique art and craft of Bengal and many intricate handicrafts by the British rulers created a threat to the existence of these artistic creativity of rural Bengal. The artisans were compelled to switch over to some other works.

Similarly Baluchari handloom craft was also at the threshold of ruins. It is stated that a famous artist named Subho Thakur who took a pledge to re-cultivate these unique tradition of Baluchari crafts, which was almost at the phase of disillusion. Shri Subho Thakur came into contact with a Master Weaver named Akshay Kumar Das of Bishnupur, now in Bankura district, and invited him to his centre. It was Subho Thakur who inspired Akshay Kumar Das, Master Weaver to pick up the technique of Jacquard weaving. Shri Das, Master Weaver worked hard and mastered the weaving of Baluchari on their looms and returned to Bishnupur after some time. Thus, the Baluchari craft survived due to its shifting to Bishnupur from Murshidabad during the British rule.

Designs and themes

Bishnupur remained a prominent place in the history of Bengal for being capital of Malla dynasty. The original art of Malla dynasty is witnessed even today on the bricks of old temples and in the architectural ruins of Malla dynasty in and around Bishnupur and Bankura. The artworks of temples of Bishnupur are known as Terra Cotta. The brick art was also transformed into earthern pots and ornamental pieces placed in religious places of Bishnupur area and it was spread over even in the contiguous areas ruled by Malla dynasty, which stretches to the neighbouring districts of Purulia, West Midnapur and some places of Jharkhand also.

The artistic designs ofBaluchari sarees are mostly depicting

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Baluchar anchal fragment detail. Straddling two cultures ― seated on a chair, her legs stylishly crossed, a bibi or courtesan enjoys her hookah.

mythological stories similar to that commonly found in the temples of Bishnupur and Bankura of West Bengal. Baluchari sarees are mainly distinguished for their elaborate borders and fabulous pall us. The borders are ornamental and surround Kalka motifs within it. A series of figures is designed in rows and motifs, which are woven diagonally. Mostly the motif designs are in five alternative colours on a shaded background. The most popular colours of Baluchari saree designs include red, green, white, blue and yellow. Initially, these motifs were woven on silver jari, which has subsequently been replaced by various shining threads. The theme of Baluchari weaving remains focused to depict mythological stories and folk tales on the pallus of sarees. Some of the designs include tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Motifs are interspersed with flowering bunches, animals, architectural scenes, women riding the horse with a rose in one hand, pleasure boat, court scenes of Muslim era, women smoking ‘huccah’ and so on.

Interventions

Baluchari sarees are also known as the land mark of handloom weaving of silk sarees. The fabric of Baluchari saree is very fine and transparent mostly made of Murshidabad silk used with a soft drape. A Master Weaver almost takes 20-25 days to complete weaving a Baluchari saree with exquisite design. Surprisingly, creation of its intricate designs with high demand in the fashion world called for technical intervention for easing out the production mechanism. The latest development in weaving technique of Baluchari saree inspired scientists of Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute, Durgapur to develop a machine to reduce the time of Baluchari saree weaving with an attractive finish. The innovated machine is called Jacquard Card Punching Machine which can be operated for the weaving of computerised designs also. This machine will help a Master Weaver to complete weaving of an exclusive Baluchari saree within 10-12 days and will facilitate replacing of traditional motifs and theme with an attractive and latest concept. The machine is likely to cost Rs. 1.5 to 2.0 lakhs if commercially manufactured. NABARD is also taken up Baluchari as part of its plan to promote traditional crafts of Bengal like Terra Cotta and Bell Metal work. The weavers of Baluchari will have easy access to CAD/CAM facilities due to the promotional efforts of NABARD.

Geographical Indication (GI)

Geographical indication helps a community of producers to differentiate their products to fetch the premium price. It can also be used for protection of products based on traditional knowledge. The geographical indication refers to the products as originated from a particular place with a given quality reputation and other characteristic attributed to its geographical origin. A number of traditional products of West Bengal like Darjeeling tea are identified to qualify for GI protection which includes Baluchari, Murshidabad Silk, FuliaTant Sarees, Bishnupur Terra Cotta and Krishnanagar Martir Putul, besides several varieties of mango, rice and beetle leaves produced in the state. An intensive awareness amongst stakeholders is still needed for Gl protection of Baluchari sarees in West Bengal.

In the era of global fashion, Baluchari sarees are adorned as a sign of aristocracy, symbol of status, taste of aesthetic fashion and of course the legend of Bengal handloom. Let’s stretch our helping hand in whatever way possible in supporting the poor weavers of this unique craft and try to preserve such endangered craftsmanship from extinction.

Process of making the Baluchari

The production process of Baluchari can be divided into several parts:

1. Cultivation of cocoons: Since the discovery so many years ago that the fibre or filament composing the cocoon of the silkworm can be constructed into a beautiful and durable fabric, silkworms have been bred for the sole purpose of producing raw silk.

2. Processing of yarns: To make the yam soft, it is boiled in a solution of soda and soap and then dyed with acid dyes according to the requirement of the saree. The yam is stretched from both the sides in opposite directions putting some force with both palms. This process is needed to make the yam crisper.

3. Motif making: Making of the motifs for ‘pallavs’ and another part of Baluchari is in itself an intricate process. The design is drawn on a graph paper, it is coloured and punching is done using cards. After punching, these cards are sewed in order and fixed in the jacquard machine.

4. Weaving: After jacquard loom has been introduced, the weaving of a Baluchari saree takes five to six days to get completed. Two weavers work on it on shifting basis.

Design-baluchai

Motifs: Themes and variety

Baluchari saris today often have depictions from scenes of Mahabharata and Ramayana. During the Mughal and British eras, they had a square design in the pallu with paisley motifs in them and depicted scenes from the fives of the Nawab of Bengal featuring women smoking hookahs, Nawabs driving horse carriages, and even European officers of the East India Company. It would take two craftsmen to work for almost a week to produce one sari. The main material used is silk and the sari is polished after weaving.

 

While there is not a lot of variation in the method of weaving used today, Balucharis can be broadly categorised based on the threads used in weaving the patterns:

Baluchari: The most common Balucharis have threads in one or two colours to weave the entire pattern.

Baluchari (meenakari): Sometimes, Balucharis have threads in one to two colours along with attractive meenakari work in another colour that further brightens the pattern.

Swarnachari (Baluchari in gold): A gorgeous Balucharis are woven with gold coloured threads (sometimes interspersed with a bit of silver) that illuminate the patterns to a much larger extent.

Use

These saris were mostly worn by women from the upper class and Zamindar households in Bengal during festive occasions and weddings.

Organic Baluchari

With the changing time, the baluchari saree gets a makeover and a touch of eco-friendliness in terms of the used yams and colours. Cotton Kapas is spun with fibres of banana plants and bamboo shoots and the dyes are extracts of fruits, flowers, leaves and vegetables such as pomegranate, jamun, neem fruits and leaves, basil leaves, turmeric, marigold flowers, mangoes and others.

Baluchari refers to the traditional weaving of silk saris with floral or geometrical silk brocaded designs on it. The Baluchari saris are characterised by artistic motifs depicting scenes from Ramayana or sculptures made on historical temples weaved on the sari borders. Others may include motifs like animals, vegetation, minuscule images of human beings, marriage processions, brides in palanquins, horse riders and ethnic musicians. One important feature to notice is the white outlining of the motifs. Nowadays Baluchari style sarees are woven using highly mercerised cotton thread and silky thread work ornament in bold colours.

The Baluchari sarees are figured silk saree produced in the town of Baluchar in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. Baluchar sarees essentially have a silk base and avoid strong contrasts. These have detailed scenes from religious epics of India depicted on them and also other figures like horse with a rider, women smoking hookah and court scenes.

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