India has one of the finest and most ancient textile traditions in the world. The Rig Veda and the Upanishads, ancient Indian texts, envisioned the universe as a fabric woven by the gods. Thread and weaving held a hallowed place, linking traditional Indian textiles with divinity. As early as 5000 years ago, the Indus valley inhabitants knew the art of growing cotton, and excavations at Harappan sites revealed a scrap of coarse madder-dyed cloth, which confirmed that the art of dyeing existed centuries ago.
The master weavers of India form a rich artisan’s guild. Weavers from the different regions of India express themselves variously, specialising in their own, individual art forms. The shaping of Indian textiles has been governed by the climate, the contours of the countryside, the geographical conditions and the minerals and salts present in the waters running through the land. Blossoming of this art was dependent on royal patronage, religious practices and migratory artisans. The Mughals were one of the biggest patrons of Indian textiles. India is unmatched in her range of textiles even today. Resist dyeing led to ikkats, from Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, patolas from Gujarat, and bandini created by the artisans of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Banaras brocades and Kancheepuram saris, jewels in the crown of Indian textiles, are must-haves for weddings and formal occasions. Just as coveted are the marvellous tissue saris of Banaras, with more zari showing than their silk. The heavy brocades are called kinkhabs and are worth a fortune.
Patronage by the Mughal courts encouraged the weavers of Paithan, a village near Aurangabad, to create masterpieces called Paithani saris. The Kodali Karuppur sari, prized by the royal house in Thanjavur, was crafted for special occasions in the palace. It is a finely woven textile, with a richness of design in weaving and painting. Today the Karuppur sari has become a museum piece due to languished skills.
Tribal textiles have a rugged beauty of their own; prominent among these are textiles from the northeast: Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Additionally, there is a wide range of embroidered textiles: chikankari from Uttar Pradesh; kasuti from Karnataka; kantha from West Bengal; Toda embroidery from the Nilgiris; phulkari from Punjab and zardozi from Lucknow, Bhopal and some parts of south India like Hyderabad and Chennai.
Exquisite block prints have been in existence from the British days, when large quantities of printed Indian calico was exported. The main printing centres are Sanganer, Bagru, Jaipur, and Barmer. Sophisticated designs have been copied from Persian and Mughal motifs. Chennai, Tirupati and Machilipatnam in south India specialise in vegetable dye Kalamkari prints.
The delicate fabrics of India moved men to poetry. In the words of the poet, Amir Khusro, who describes the muslins of Daulatabad, “the skin of the moon removed by the executioner star could not be so fine. It is so transparent and light that it looks as if there is no dress at all, but that the wearer has merely smeared the body with pure water.”
Written by Sabita Radhakrishna, an expert on Indian textiles. She has been actively involved with the Crafts Council of India.