It sometimes amazes me, how being born in a district with three prominent weaving clusters of Bengal, I did not visit any of them until February, 2018. Hooghly district of West Bengal is home to one of the most staple household names – ‘Dhonekhali Tant’. We started out last year with Begumpur cluster but Dhonekhali (also called Dhaniakhali) happened only in April this year. Personally, I wasn’t too keen to work in Dhonekhali owing to it being a known name in Bengal, but I couldn’t be happier that we did. Two reasons for finally agreeing. One, the market today is flooded with the fish motif sarees, as if indicating those are the only ones Dhonekhali weaves and I wanted to know if there’s more to it. Second, we were again visiting Begumpur (about 40 minutes away from Dhonekhali) and Shubhangi insisted it made sense to combine the two visits and finally make a decision if it’s worth taking up the cluster.
9th April, 2019 Shubhangi and I booked a car and started off for Dhonekhali from Kolkata. As usual, not knowing whom to contact or meet there, it was another exploratory journey. I kind of enjoy such journeys into the unknown because your mind’s then a clean slate and you get to learn and imbibe more. The drive to Dhonekhali is very picturesque and rightly so owing to the greenery of Bengal. After crossing the (in)famous Singur, the roads get narrower, muddy and full of life. You find little tea stalls where older men sit together and solve the country’s most serious problems (‘adda’ – sorry that will never change irrespective of whichever century you are in!). Middle aged women were found filling water from the roadside tube wells in their nighties but with a dupatta wrapped around the torso quite firmly. And of course, the banana trees and the clear blue skies.
After almost 2.5 hours (thanks to a wrong turn adding 20 km of extra travel) we reached the quite busy by-lanes of Dhonekhali buzzing with bicycles and pedestrians. Meanwhile, we had found a contact number on Google (Thank you Larry Page and Sergey Brin for creating my ‘once upon a time’ dream company) and had spoken to someone from the local handloom society. There were numerous tiny saree stores lined up on either side of the road –not only were the designs and colors misaligned to our brand aesthetics but also the sheen was screaming out loud – polyester. With hopes really low, we stepped into a retail outlet like setup in an old building that had a dilapidated board outside saying Dhonekhali Union Tant Silpi Samabaya Samiti (Estd. 1944). The pre-independence set-up definitely had its own history and charm, but we weren’t still sure if this would be an opportunity for us.
It’s surprisingly common in most clusters, when you say that you have travelled from Delhi, suddenly there is an additional respect and a glow in the eyes of the people. Not sure, but I would either attribute this to Delhi being the capital or because they usually don’t get visitors from that far. Anyway, we were told to go upstairs to meet the Manager for the discussion. As we climbed up the coiled staircase of the old building –the blue painted rods and the red cemented stairs (like houses that I saw in my childhood) made it certain that things really hadn’t undergone any change in so many years.
We entered this room which had racks on the three walls full of sarees stacked up according to designs and prices. Seeing the nice shiny textured floor (old but well maintained), we both sat down and the staff was surprised. The joy of sitting on the floor is something big cities miss, but we never miss it, especially when in the clusters. Discussions followed, sarees were laid out before us and we were perturbed to see how polyester has substituted natural fabrics in this little town, because the local women wanted sheen and they are their major customers. Not being able to innovate with designs, weavers not willing to try new things due to lack of motivation, competition from power loom, were some of the issues they discussed and we could feel their pain. Humble handwoven sarees, dyed using pigments – they can’t change even if they wanted because their customers from that little town can’t afford to pay. After a lot of searching and to and fro, we selected our first batch of sarees that were pure cotton ones and without the fish motifs. First myth broken – there’s more to Dhonekhali than the fishes!! It was lunch time already and we learnt that the weaving unit in the building had closed for lunch. We were disappointed, but of course we weren’t going back without meeting the weavers.
Shubhangi and I strolled through the lanes trying to spot the sound of looms, but no luck. One of the staff from the unit saw us and on learning our mission, directed us to a different area where we would find the looms and the dyeing unit. We were elated and walked rapidly to reach the dyeing unit before they stop work too. It was so interesting to see how the courtyard of a big old house was used as the unit and the families of these workers stayed in the rooms surrounding the courtyard. They had just finished dyeing yarns in red and the place looked like a climax murder scene from a movie! Meeting the artisans, their wives, daughter-in-laws and grandchildren, we wished our conversations never cease. We were then accompanied by one of them to the neighbouring looms where we saw the weaving process. It’s amazing how each time we are welcomed by strangers with open arms, right into their homes and lives.
Dhonekhali is a special cluster because this is one of the humblest ones we have ever visited. We didn’t spot a single computer here; the accounting still happens in those big red ledgers, by hand. This cluster needs multi-faceted support and we are hoping in the near future we can bring about a sustainable change. We again went back in September only to be welcomed with more love. The simplicity of the weave is a reflection of the simplicity of the people and their lives. We hope these simple sarees find a space in your wardrobe and your heart, because sometimes less is also more.