Jamdani, West Bengal

Prerana Choudhury

The Jamdani or the Dhakai-Jamdani is a delicate weave originating in Dhaka of Bangladesh and is practised today in both Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. It originates from the Dhaka muslin–a high-quality, soft and transparent quality of cotton–that was worn by the royalty in earlier days. Some say, muslin was worn by priestly class and nobility during the Harappan civilization (although we cannot ascertain the fact). There are references to muslin in Kautilya’s Arthashastra as well.

We have a number of interesting references to muslin from the times of the Mughal rule; which isn’t too uncanny, knowing how the Mughal rulers were connoisseurs of great art and weaving. Jamdani weaving flourished and expanded under their patronage and support. Emperor Jahangir was particularly fond of wearing muslin sashes around his waist, woven with a large variety of floral designs. In another reference to this weave that speaks highly of its quality, it is said that Princess Zebunnisa had to wear seven to eight layers of muslin to court–such was its fineness–and even then had to face the chidings of her father, Emperor Aurangzeb. With the coming of the British, this craft suffered from colonial policies and villages such as Madhurapur and Jangalbadi that had once been the peak centres of Jamdani creation, ceased to exist. During partition and even afterwards, many weaver families migrated to India and settled down in West Bengal. One such place is the small town of Kalna situated on the banks of the Bhagirathi.

The Jamdani weave which has lived on from its earlier variant of the Dhakai muslin is most famous for the Jamdani sarees that Bengali women wear most commonly today. Being fine and transparent, they have an airy, ethereal quality that makes this weave one of the most nuanced one. These sarees are characterised by a number of motifs and patterns that help you spot them from afar; one gets the impression that the patterns stand out, almost lying atop the garment, the shapes floating. The designs are neither printed nor embroidered but are woven directly on the loom. This makes the process of weaving a Jamdani very time-consuming and labour-intensive. What comes out through the loom, however, can only steal one’s breath away!

The weaving community is a closely tied group of people comprising of weavers, spinners, dyers, loomers and others. They are united by a deep sense of identity and love for the craft. Traditionally, large looms were used to practice weaving but today a smaller, more practical version is used. The jamdani yarn requires great maintenance, as it can survive in only a specific temperature. It may take up to nine months to weave a single saree depending on the intricacy of the design as the weavers can work no more than two hours for the strain it causes to the eyes. They use a combination of the standard weft technique and the supplementary weft technique–the thicker threads creating patterns on top of the sheer base fabric. The designs range from butidar (scattered flowers) to tercha (diagonal stripes) to jhalar (network of flowers); all through a combination of traditional motifs such as kalka (paisley), fulwar (straight lines of flowers), duria (polka dots), panna hazar(a thousand emeralds) chaskona(rectangles), komol (lotus) and meen (fish).

There has been a steady decline of people taking up weaving as a profession, as youngsters from these families are looking for more lucrative options outside of the craft and their towns and villages. Some return back to it, unable to resist what their families have been practicing for generations. They try to experiment with newer styles, experimental designs, and unconventional colour palettes so as to attract the younger crowd. Storytelling has found a niche, with panels from Mahabharata and Ramayana finding a place on the weave, told through the hands of the weaver.

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