A hundred and thirty two kilometers west of Kolkata, in the district of Bankura, lies the temple town of Bishnupur. Once the capital city of the Malla dynasty, Bishnupur is no longer distinguishable from any other small town of West Bengal. The only clues to its rich history lie in the terracotta temples, built by the Malla kings in the 17th and 18th century, depicting scenes from Hindu mythology in their intricate carvings. Apart from the temples, Bishnupur is also home to the weavers of exquisite silk saris, known as Baluchari owing to its origin in the erstwhile village of Baluchar.
The Baluchari saris were once patronized by Murshid Quli Khan, the first Nawab of Bengal, and the weavers flourished under his encouragement. All work was done manually and it took an entire year for a family of weavers to complete just 2–3 saris. The most intricate part of the saris, the pallu, featured elaborate motifs depicting a variety of themes from Hindu mythological settings to the lavish lifestyle of the Nawabs. The Baluchari saris became a symbol of royalty and opulence, and were even exported to patrons in Europe.
The British however, did not share the enthusiasm of the Nawabs and wanted the weavers to shift to more ‘productive’ jobs. The immense pressure from the British and the relocation of the weavers to Bishnupur, due to flooding of the Baluchar village, brought an end to the golden age of Baluchari weaving.
It was only a decade after independence that the art of weaving saw a revival in the Bishnupur region.
The mulberry silk for the saris is sourced from Bangalore. Before the weaving can start, the silk threads need to be boiled in soda and soap. Then the threads are dyed in acidic colors and spooled onto wooden beams.
The motifs are created with the use of punched cards sewed in order and fixed on the loom. The process of creating a motif and transferring it to a set of ordered punch cards is in itself very intricate.
Women generally take up ancillary tasks like bleaching and dyeing the silk, spooling silk threads etc.
There are a few big sari outlets in Bishnupur, employing a handful of workers each in their workshops, but it’s the individual homes where most looms are employed. The operations are generally handled by the family and might involve a few other weavers. Many of these families have been in this trade for generations now, with the looms and the know-how passed down through the years.
* * *
In the recent years however, this cottage industry has seen a significant decline. The ever increasing mechanization of textile production has made it difficult for these saris to fetch a fair price, considering the amount of effort which goes into the making of each individual garment. This has driven down the margins and wages across the board and has caused a scarcity of skilled workers. It’s no surprise that the next generation is not very keen about taking up the mantle from the last. Most have chosen to move on and want to pursue white collar jobs instead.
With dwindling returns, increasing mechanization and the scarcity of capable artisans, the future of Baluchari saris and their weavers is uncertain.