The Textile Industry is second only to Agriculture in India, a recent survey confirming the presence of about 24 lakh handlooms and 43 lakh handloom weavers which include those connected with ancillary jobs like spinning, warping, dyeing as well as hand block printers. It would not be an exaggeration to state that that textiles contributed to changing the course of Indian history. When our exquisite textiles, lined the coffers of Britain, and our weavers exploited, it was Gandhiji who led a movement to “cremate” foreign fabric and encouraged Indians to wear home spun cloth which was the forerunner of khadi, so popular today in sophisticated wear. This created a big dent in the economy for the British, and one thing led to another, ultimately to the end of the British Raj in India.
The handloom industry suffered a beating post Independence with the weavers in bad shape. It was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who revived our precious heritage, seeking Government support, establishing the Handicrafts and Handloom Board, unearthing our lost textile treasures, travelling to remote corners of the country to resuscitate languishing craft and handlooms, re instating the past glory.
The Atharva Veda describes day and night as two sisters weaving, the warp symbolising darkness and the woof the light of the day. Sunlight and shadow come together on the loom, and mention of the sisters indicates that originally weaving was possibly the preserve of woman, before it converted to a male dominated guild. According to legends,Vishnu himself collected the rays of the sun to create a magnificent garment for himself. It is said that Vishvakarma was the first weaver of the Gods who made cloth out of lotus fibre.
The Aryan scriptures compiled around 1300-600 B.C. was thought to contain the earliest references to weaving in India till the Indus Valley civilisation was unearthed at Mohenjodaro, on the banks of the River Indus dating back to the third millennium B.C.The Indus valley inhabitants knew the art of growing cotton, and understood that this innocuous looking fluff could be magically transformed into cloth that would cover their bodies. What a significant discovery it was, when through excavations at Harappan sites, a scrap of coarse madder dyed cloth was stumbled upon! The fragments of cloth were found wrapped round a silver pot, preserved by the metallic salts that impregnated the pot.
Ancient Sind deserts unearthed terracotta spindle whorls and a bronze needle. It established the fact that not only did the early inhabitants of the Indus Valley know how to spin and weave but the coarse scrap of madder indicated that they knew how to dye the cloth that they wove. In this quest, discovery of dyestuff was an accidental finding. By-products of medicinal remedies from plants and minerals resulted in the delicate-toned Indian palette of colour which was vital for producing dyed indigenous cloth, sensational in their muted colour codes. These natural dyes obtained from barks of trees, leaves and nature, were the only colours known before the brilliant burst of chemical colours which tinted the world of textiles.
The Master Weavers of India had their own poetic imagination melded with traditional expertise, guided by social custom. Weavers from the different regions of India expressed themselves variously specialising in their own art forms. They conformed to needs of various regions, and not to vogue dictated fashion as is the present trend today. The shaping of Indian textiles was governed by the climate, the contours of the countryside, the geographical conditions, the minerals and salts present in the waters running through the land, cultivation of crops, presence of deserts and lush forest areas. The blossoming of this art was dictated by royal patronage, religious practices and migratory artisans.
Spirituality and poetic metaphors are woven together in the textiles of India. The delicate fabrics of India, moved men to poetry. In the words of the poet Amir Khushru who describes the muslins of Daulatabad, “the skin of the moon removed by the executioner star could not be so fine. It is so transparent and light that it looks as if there is no dress at all, but that the wearer has merely smeared the body with pure water.” He mentions that hundred yards of the fabric could pass through the eye of the needle, so fine is its texture. Eastern India produced textiles of great delicacy. Khushru again talks of the Bihari muslin being “a pleasant gift of springtide, resting as lightly on the body as moonlight on the tulip or a dewdrop on the morning rose.”
The fragile cotton-muslin drew world wide attention. Buddhist literature speaks of the magnificient cotton spinners and weavers of Kashi, where the fabric is so tightly woven that oil cannot penetrate it. Spinning was assigned to the women, and the cotton cloths, washed, calendered, starched and perfumed. So sacred were these cloths, that they were used to wrap the body of the emperors when they died, and it is said that it was used to wrap the body of Buddha when he attained eternal rest.. The Roman Emperors paid fabulous prices for these Indian cotton treasures, known as ‘woven winds’. Centuries later in the Moghul period, these cottons or Mulmul Khus were given poetic names like Abrawan (running water) or Shabnam (morning dew)
Textiles provided the canvas for painters, embroiders and weavers to express themselves like the sujni embroiders in Bihar or the resuscitated Chamba Rumaals of Himachal where the women poured out stories with needle and thread.
Colours and modes of wearing cloth defined regions at one time but not any more. Such is our legacy. A legacy which cannot be brushed off in the quest for modernity and western wear, but it is something to be revered and preserved for all time.