Hands of West Bengal

Ami Bangali. (I am a Bengali). That’s something I don’t go around telling people – it is something they guess right away when they look at me.

But then, I take it as a compliment. And yes, I do have a proclivities towards the Arts, books, films, smart people, lively conversations, food, sarees and of course adda (which is chit-chat).

However I am not a Bangali from Kolkata – and some people don’t get that – they can’t fathom that Bengalis can live outside of West Bengal.

And I don’t get how they cannot get that.

The moment they come to know that I am a Bengali – pat comes out ‘Aami Tomake bhalobashi’ (which means I love you). I mean, really? You love me? We’ve just met.

So, I had a comeback ready for the next person who said this to me – this person who was a bit surprised when he learned that I was a Bengali ( I really don’t know why) and as usual said the three dreadful words, pronounced in the most obnoxious way, “Omi Tomoke bholobashi’ – and I said to him in English – I love you too…The man was flabbergasted and went ‘WHAT’ (he thought that I meant it) – to which I answered, ‘You said it first’. He goes, I didn’t know what it meant, I just said it. Me – Why? Why do you just want to say something without knowing what it means. Overfamiliar stranger – Silence.

The result? It put paid to his lame banter and I was overjoyed at my timely comeback – which is usually never timely.

But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy being a Bangali. I do…and most Bangali girls know their sarees.

Me? Not so much. So, I dove into it straight away. And this is what I learnt…and what I learn, I pass on….

Baluchari

Baluchari, according to me, is one of most comfortable sarees. It’s soft and super easy to drape. The base fabric is often Murshidabad silk (and also Bishnupuri Silk) and its colour is often muted, primarily because of limited availability of colours in the ground fabric. But the contemporary versions come in bright colours too.

They have a wide anchal, richly detailed with stylized human and animal figures, among other paisley motifs and floral patterns. The designs on Baluchari have a specific style to it and are recognizable in an instant. They usually depict scenes from the era of the 16th and 17th century, whether it was the Nawabs or the British or Hindu nobleman.

If you pay close attention to the designs on a Baluchari, they will tell a certain story of the ancient times or certain depiction of Hindu rituals. They are richly documented on the anchal and most fascinating.

This image showcases the intricate designs on the anchal of the Baluchari
Intricate designs on Baluchari

The threadwork is a result of intricate weave of untwisted silk thread, mostly in a contrasting colour.

The inimitable craftsmanship of Baluchari is exquisite and enviable.

I usually like to pair it the running blouse piece that comes with the saree, without upstaging the rich motifs. While draping, the saree hugs your body giving it a feminine silhouette.

The class and elegance of a Baluchari does not need any loud accessory. Simple delicate earrings with a simple chain will work wonders and make an evening of it.

A vintage Baluchari on Murshidabad Silk
A Vintage Baluchari

Dhakai Jamdani

In Mumbai, it is almost impossible to get an authentic Dhakai Jamdani, unless you know a direct-to-home vendor (which are very few) who gets his inventory directly from weavers of West Bengal and Bangladesh.

Fortunately for me, I know a one such vendor, who brings some choicest pieces of Jamdanis from Dhaka. Also, since my family knows my craze for Dhakai Jamdani, I have been gifted them for birthdays and Durga Pujo.

So, my wardrobe has several of these beauties collected and earned over a period of time.

Dhakais are intricately woven and need precision, craftsmanship and detailing – which is why it takes nearly 2 months to weave just one piece.

Dhakais’ base fabric is muslin, which is hand-spun cotton. They are thin, light-weight and feathery.

The tiny motifs on the saree looks like small flowers wafting in air. The simplicity of the saree makes it an efficient work-wear.

A White Dhakai is a must have in your wardrobe

I have worn Dhakais for work on many occasions and have been inundated with compliments. They are comfortable and stay in one place till the close of play.

Yes, they will crinkle by the end of the day, but they are easy to manage. If you are beginning to experiment with sarees and fear any kind of wardrobe malfunction, Dhakai would be a safe bet. My post on The Distinctiveness of Dhakai coming up on Wednesday.

Garad Silk

Garad, pronounced as Gorod, is a pure silk saree usually in a standard colour combination of Red and white. White or off-white body with deep and bright red border and aanchal.

Garad, pronounced as Gorod, is a pure silk saree usually in a standard colour combination of Red and white. White or off-white body with deep and bright red border and aanchal.

I have always known Garad to be a mature person’s saree. And I usually related it to mothers and aunts who wear this for special occasions like weddings, naming ceremonies (we call them onnoprashon) and Pujo.

I have not been fortunate enough to own a Garad myself but aspire to. And therefore, I have borrowed one from my Didi for the sake of this blog.

The TRAditional Gorod

It is said that since Gorod is mainly for religious functions only. They are kept white and red for this reason – which is why the traditional ones aren’t even dyed. And women who wear it for Pujo sometimes are known to not even attach a fall to it because they want a new one completely untouched by hand.

I found this legend simply fascinating. But I know that Gorods have also been contemporarised where they come in fancy colours. And of course, faux Gorods are also a dime a dozen.

Taant Saree

Now, what shall I say about Taant. Most under-celebrated saree in the wide world of six yards. Unfortunately, taants are not seen as occasion-wear. They have the ‘ghar ka sari’ perception, and perhaps that’s why it’s considered pedestrian and banal. It is an everywoman saree. It is an every-season saree. From the domestic help in West Bengal to it’s Chief Minister, all Bengali women love the Taant.

The Simplicity of a taant

They are understated and elegant. Super comfortable to drape and airy, it’s a hundred per cent cotton and characterized by broad borders and decorative anchals. Recently on my trip to Kolkata, I had wanted to purchase some authentic Taants, and I was appalled that large retail stores relegated Taants to a small kiosk in their store. When I asked them why don’t they sell more taants, they said, people don’t demand it much and it doesn’t make business sense for us to invest in it.

The understatedness of taant can be given a fillip if you style it well. I should remember to cover a post on it soon!

Kantha

Kantha is another wearable art. Essentially, a type of embroidery – a kind of stitch used to upcycle sarees into quilts. Prima facie, Kantha stitch looks a lot like Chikan embroidery of Lucknow. But on the reverse side, you will see the difference.

They can be on cotton as well as silk, but the ones that are made on Tussar silk is my favourite kind.

Kantha’s are hand stitched and needs sharp eye-sight and precision. The handiwork necessitates extreme detailing and more the detailing, the more expensive it gets.

I remember, there was this phase, when I was a just out of college, Mom had developed a passion for Kantha sarees. A vendor from Kolkata used to come home. Mom, bought one saree from him…it was so pretty. It was beige tussar with orange threadwork. Now, in college days, I was not into sarees at all.

Richly done Kantha Saree

But, I had fancied Kantha Sarees. Seeing my interest in it, she asked my Dad to buy me one. And so, the collection continued. Several Kantha sarees in a variety of colours.

I remember, wearing them for traditional day in college and festive days at work, trying to manage the saree and getting quite fidgety (I used to be quite a novice at sarees then). They will always have a special place in my heart because they were the first kind of sarees I ever wore.

Murshidabad Silk

Murshidabad is a district in West Bengal which manufactures this ilk of sarees – which are super soft, fine and light-weight. This district happens to be one of the important silk manufacturing clusters of India and the Government of West Bengal has gone to great lengths to support the handloom weavers in flourishing their business and keeping its prices competitive as compared to other silk producing regions of India.

Baluchari sarees and Garad sarees often use the Murshidabad Silk as their base material. The buttery smooth feel is something you will fall in love with. Those who are first time wearers of sarees, this saree might come across as slippery and might need a few pins to help you secure it. But it is a matter of practice and the feeling of wearing it is quite sensational.

There are many more sarees from Bengal, which I have not covered in this blog post – Fulia Cottons, Begumpuris, Dhanekhali, Gamcha, Khesh, Tangail also are famous sarees of Bengal.

Mostly, the names of sarees are given on the basis of where they are woven – For example, Dhanekhali and Tangail (now in Bangladesh) are towns, whereas Gamcha is a quintessential checkered design.

The silk clusters of West Bengal have versions such as Shantipuri Silk, Bishnupuri Silk, Murshidabad Silk and so on.

Kantha is a kind of stitch, whereas Taant is handloom cotton fabric. All this knowledge is most fascinating to me as every day I am learning something new as I deep dive into the world of the six yards.

West Bengal is just one state from where originate various types of sarees and I have merely attempted to give an overview. There’s a lot more to it in terms of techniques, history and innovation from all over the nation.

West Bengal alone exports sarees to the tune of Rs. 215 crores the world over. So, one can only imagine the popularity of these sarees and the scale of operations.

So, here’s to more deep diving, wearing more sarees and maintaining the art, the artist and the artistry.