The first comparison I had on laying my sight on a Begumpuri saree was to the simple, cotton handwoven kopahisadors of Assam. The Begumpuri weave looks close to being austere in its style and texture, often traditionally woven from coarser yarn. Its identity lies in its quiet dignity, a grace born out of simplicity, yet playful with the colour palette.
The Begumpuri weave originates in a small village in Hooghly district of West Bengal, called Begumpur. It is a prominent village identified wholly by its population of weavers, most of whom have been weaving since generations now. The village got its name with a wave of Muslim migrants who came in from northern India with Hazrat Shah Sufi under the orders of Ghiyasuddin Balban in the 13th century and settled in Bengal. Some other scholars say it was named Begumpur by Muslims who migrated from Delhi in the 14th century and invaded Bengal, whose descendants are also known as Ashrafs.
The industry is about 200-250 years old. A decade or so back, this village prided itself in hosting a large number of weavers–close to five thousand–that has all but dwindled in numbers now, the reasons being many. Most youngsters today choose to opt for different professions that will bring them greater security and stability in terms of money. Several migrate out of their villages, as has been the trend across working and middle-class populations of the country. Today, thanks to cluster intervention by the State government, the Bemgumpuri handloom cluster is witnessing a promising revival. Contemporary Begumpuri weavers today experiment with colour combinations and designs; although the traditional mathapar (broad bordered sarees of two or more colours, without any motif or design) and nakshapar (simple-patterned) sarees are what consumers associate the Begumpuri style with, these sarees have adapted to present-day market demands so as to attract the younger crowd towards this indigenous weave. However, patterns and motifs such as the serrated edge, stripes, and the broad borders of the mathapar are very much an integral part and are here to stay.
The emphasis till date is to produce sturdy and long-lasting cotton sarees, a characteristic trait of the Begumpuri weave. A visit to Begumpur will yield stories from sights of weavers and their families dyeing the yarn in water of different colours, producing astonishing combinations on the loom that catch our breath. The weaving families work in great sync and it is said that they resemble the workings of a cooperative society. Soft, subtle, and translucent, these sarees give us a peek into the lifestyle of the Begumpuri weavers united through hard work, surplus talent, and unity of labour and vision. In essence, these sarees defy the weight of intricacies of the thread and embrace its breeziness instead.