If you visit the houses of antique-lovers, there is a high chance that you may come across at least a few walls displaying a Baluchori weave. It is a common point of reference drawn by many saree sellers and boutique owners today to describe just how immense an artistic value this particular kind of textile is. It seems quite the possibility too, once you discover the sheer range of motifs and thematic display on such a piece of fabric.
The Baluchori weave is said to have been around since 500 years or so. Originating in Baluchor of West Bengal, this village on the banks of the Bhagirathi--a tributary of the Ganga--was once the creative hub of weavers and spinners dedicated to the art and craft of this textile heritage. It was a time consuming and meticulous process involving a team of craftsmen involving in cleaning of the yarn, spinning, dyeing, creating the design, laying the warp, and weaving. It is said that these earliest weavers produced just two to three sarees a year! An interesting fact about the looms in those times is that each used to be different; hence the weave varied accordingly. This imparted every saree with its own unique appeal and style, perhaps reflecting the imagination and aesthetics of every individual weaver or a weaving family. It must be for this reason that the Baluchori weave is so often compared to a painting--each creative piece bore the signature of the hands that went into its making.
The role of royal and creative patronage was immense in the development of such crafts during the pre-modern era of the country. Murshid Quli Khan, the first Nawab of Bengal and the governor under Mughal rule, was the chief patron of the Baluchori craft. He indulged in this tradition and saw to it that both the art and the condition of the weavers flourished. In 1704, he shifted his capital from Dacca (present-day Dhaka) to Maksudabad, which he renamed as Murshidabad. It soon became a vibrant port city where people from various communities like Gujaratis, Marwaris, Jews, Arabs, Armenians, English, Dutch, Danish and French came together to interact and make trade. The village of Baluchar is also said to have been set up by him, as a hub of weavers.
The sarees from these times provide us with a slice of life from back then, through their motifs and themes--depictions of Nawabs smoking hookahs, dancing courtesans, zamindari lifestyle, palkiwalas (palanquin-bearers), wine vessels and the like. They also featured sculptural and architectural elements along with motifs of Persian miniatures. When the Bhagirathi flooded and drowned this prosperous village, the weavers shifted base to Bisnupur and began renewal efforts. However, by then, a lot had changed both politically and socially and the tradition saw a decline. The British too had set base and the capital shifted to Calcutta. The sarees continued to capture the changing reality of the times, and motifs such as the railways, Englishmen on horses, Victorian ladies with broad-rimmed hats, and hunters began to appear in the weaves. These fabrics continued to adorn the rich and the powerful, such as upper-class women and wives of zamindars. Some scholars say that the ‘vocal’ display of contemporary themes without censoring the hedonistic pursuits of the privileged classes made many of them uncomfortable. Hence, the Baluchori sarees may have been most popular amongst the tawaifs, who lived a life of ostentation and pleasure. The last of the renowned weavers from Baluchar, Dubraj Das, passed away in 1903.
With the efforts and initiatives of patron Shubho Thakur and master-weaver Akshay Das, Baluchori weaving saw a steady re-emergence in 1956. As against the prevalence of cotton in the earlier days, Baluchori sarees are predominantly in silk today, and resort to storytelling from our epics and mythologies. The Baluchor weavers of the yesteryears reared worms locally who fed on local mulberry trees. Today, most of the silk is brought from Mysore and Bangalore. Similarly, the jala looms of native Baluchar weavers have been replaced by the jacquard looms of today because of which these sarees are no longer reversible--a unique trait of the original Baluchori weave.
A walk down the lanes of this heritage tells a story of struggle, resistance, creativity, and the endurance of the art of the common people. Often, that happens through someone setting flame to the loom and to the human spirit.