We are all a product of our environment, experiences, ancestry and upbringing.
And though, I am a Bengali by birth and ancestry, my environment and my upbringing is a confluence of cultures – as I am sure it is with all individuals.
So, having lived all my life in Mumbai and Maharashtra, I had the privilege to stay in a Maharashtrian community. I had a bunch of building friends, all of whom studied in Balmohan Vidyamandir – a Marathi medium school. So, I conversed with them in Marathi all the time. Sometimes, when people hear me speak in Marathi, they think I am one of them and it evokes in me a sense of belongingness I so love. The feeling of being part of a tribe. The strange thing is that this is the first time I am acknowledging it even to myself, as I write this piece.
The groundedness of Maharashtrians, their simplicity, the humility and their fierceness all come together into a concoction that is heady and sobering at the same time.
Everything Maharashtrian is simply delectable. The fabrics, the food, the arts, the humour.
Have you heard P. L Deshpande’s work? His intellectual humour will evolve you.
Have you watched the film ‘Aajcha Divas Majha’? or Harshchandrachi Factory?
I have not even begun about their cuisine – have you eaten Kothimbir vade? Have you tried ‘thecha’? Misal Pav? If you haven’t already, you should try them pronto.
My work has taken me to parts of Maharashtra, wherein I have gained insights into their mindset. Pandharpur, Alandi, Chakan, Pune, Lonavla, Igatpuri, Nashik, Karjat, Wada, Wai – some popular, some religious, some touristy.
Have you ever eaten Tambda rassa of Nashik? I’d urge you to look it up.
When I started to write this blog post, I wanted to write about all the weaves of Maharashtra – but somewhere along the way, I realized that I would be doing a disservice with just an enumeration.
And so, I chose to stick to these two particular weaves. Read on…
The Romance of Paithanis
The most popular weave of Maharashtra – the Paithani.
The eponymous saree Paithani comes from Paithan in Aurangabad, a town in Yeola, about 90 km away from Nashik.
Trade records in conservation books indicate that the history of Pratishthana or Paithan dates back to 2nd Century BC, when it was used to be bartered with Roman wines and oils.
But the craft really flourished in 16th and 17th century when they received enormous patronage from the Mughals, the Peshwas and the Marathas, who loved all things regal and opulent. This explains the plentiful usage of gold on the anchal made with the finest silk threads and purest of zaris, making it ostentatious and kaleidoscopic.
A typical saree consists of ‘padar’, or anchal or pallu as we call it. The rich and intricate brocade like pattern all over the saree makes it an equivalent to a Benarasi or a Kanjeevaram.
The border is called ‘kath’ in Marathi which is symmetrical on both sides of the saree. The pure zari adds heaviness and stiffness which also helps to protect the saree from wear and tear. The width of the border could vary from 2 inches to 12 inches.
The body – ‘saree-cha anga’ is decorated with richly sewn motifs made of pure zari. The traditional motifs that are used are parrots, peacocks and lotuses, also known as Ajanta motifs, found in the Ajanta caves of Aurangabad. Each saree may have 200-300 buttis on it woven with slow and meticulous precision.
The padar or the anchal is the richest part of the saree using a thematic and differentiated design. And therefore, requires copious amounts of zari. Paithani padars are at least 30 inches in length. So, whether you wear it the kashtha style or the nivi drape, the padar stands out luxuriously and opulently.
A typical Paithani is either saha-vari (six yards) or nau-vari (nine yards).
The base yarn of a Paithani saree is Mulberry silk (read more on Mulberry silk here), procured from Bangalore or Mysore and the zari is procured from Surat.
Each saree uses about 700-800 gms of mulberry silk and 100-250 grams of zari.
Both these elements require significant investments. And since weavers need to invest in larger quantities for multiple sarees, their outlay becomes significantly high.
In Yeola, there is no guild of Paithani weavers. Each household is a business unit in itself that churn out these rich pieces on a day in day out basis.
I had the priviledge of speaking to a couple of Paithani weavers from Yeola. Mostly woven by women, these ladies had a sense of groundedness and calmness about them. They were apprehensive at first, but when I started to chat with them in Marathi, they began to open up gradually.
Such a sincere lot! They shared that their main worry is that Paithani is an expensive and sophisticated saree, preferred by few connoisseurs. Owing to it, buyers are few, but players galore.
Although in the same breath they said that that their town, Yeola which at one time had more than 30,000 weavers is now left with only 6,000 weaver families. They are beginning to feel that Benarasis are stealing their thunder.
Paithanis are the cornerstone of every festive and religious occasion, from Haldi kumkum to bridal wear – a dream of every Maharashtrian lady.
As with other sarees and weaves, Paithanis have evolved too. From using a cotton base, the weavers have taken it a few notches higher and begun making them in silk, and even started using broader borders. The traditional Paithanis are made in bright colours like reds, oranges, yellows and purples. But interestingly, colour combinations unconventional colours like blacks and greys and others muted colours are giving this traditional weave a new and modern spin.
How to identify a genuine Paithani
One of the key differentiators of a Paithani is that the underside also looks exactly the same. So, if you are trying to identify a genuine Paithani from a fake one, this would be the way to examine it. Another mark of differentiation is that the threads are sealed with no loose fibers hanging, which doesn’t entangle with your gold jewellery.
In order to make this saree affordable, semi Paithanis have started flooding the market, which are mainly powerloom and also easier on the pocket.
But I am happy to mention that there are a few creative boutiques that are doing exceptional work in contemporarising Paithani.
Exclusive boutique stores like Vidhaate Paithani are promoting Paithani in their own special way. Their unique designs and application of the Paithani weave to other type of fabrics has widened its appeal.
If you follow my insta-handle, you will see my affinity toward Khun pieces.
Their bejeweled tone and texture make it such a festive wear. Mainly used as blouse pieces, they are paired often with Ilkal sarees. If you have ever been to any Haldi -Kumkum ceremony, a Khun blouse piece folded into a triangle is gifted to the guest, along with a coconut, an incense stick and a spot of haldi (turmeric) and kum kum ( sindoor/vermillion) on the forehead.
The uniqueness of Khun is that it is the only fabric that is specifically made for blouse pieces.
And typically, the width is no more than 30 inches.
And if you wear a Khun blouse with a plain solid colour saree, it looks classy and adds that x factor.
Khun is originally from Gulledgud, in North Karnataka worn mostly with Ilkal sarees – also from the same region. But owing to its proximity with Maharashtra and its influence , it has seeped into the Marathi culture deep. Have you seen Smita Patil, in the film Umbertha? She will give you serious Saree and Khun goals.
Khun is originally handloom, lightweight with a beautiful brocade like pattern. However, several weavers have invested in a powerloom in their own homes because it helps them meet the demands of the manufacturer.
Where handloom churns 1.5 meters of khun fabric in one day, a powerloom churns more than 15 meters a day.
They say that if we don’t keep up the demand of the manufacturers, the market for khun will die. What an astute economic observation by a weaver, an understanding which many entrepreneurs lack.
You need to keep supplying more to keep the fabric relevant to maintain demand and its commensurate price. This is a basic principle of the market dynamics.
Therefore, installing a powerloom in their home is an investment and their way of ensuring to improve their incomes and also keep fabric and tradition alive.
The town of Gulledgud boasted of 4,000 khun weavers a few decades ago, but now is working with only 500 weaver households.
Both Paithani and Khun are traditional art forms and deeply ingrained in our history and culture.
When you wear them, you are not wearing just a fabric – you are wearing a piece of the art and culture of India and Maharashtra – a piece of history.
It is not just the manufacturers who have to keep this art form alive and relevant. It is also upto us.
So please do not forget these weaves.
The next time you want to spend your hard-earned money on a saree – makit it a Paithani saree or a Khun blouse piece or saree and wear a piece of history.
Leave me a comment with your thoughts.