The history of Baluchari that literally means sandy river bank can be traced back to 1704 CE when Murshid Quli Khan, the Nawab of Bengal who patronized the flourishing weaving tradition brought several weavers from Dhaka in Bangladesh and helped them establish a small weaving community in Baluchar village on the bank of the Bhagirathi River in Murshidabad district in West Bengal with the intention of spreading awareness of the craft of making this saree. However, the community soon moved to Bishnupur in Bankura district after the village was submerged in a flood.
Bishnupur became the capital of Mallabhum during the reign of Jagat Malla and it is believed that the inspiration for the designs and motifs seen in the Baluchari saree comes from the terracotta temples, detailed art panels and architecture favoured by the Hindu Malla kings. This particular craft was on the verge of extinction as many artists became compelled to switch over to more economically viable works and it was the timely intervention of a famous artist Subho Thakur in the twentieth century who came in contact with a master weaver, Akshay Kumar Das of Bishnupur and encouraged him to pick up the technique of jacquard weaving and since then, the Baluchari saree industry has been steadily growing.
Baluchari has been worn by the royals, upper crest and the Zamindars since the 17th century. The Nawabs and Muslim aristocrats used these as tapestry but the Hindu noblemen made them into sarees with stylized human and animal figures and floral and geometrical motifs. The wide decorated pallu often had panels of paisley motifs in the centre surrounded by smaller rectangular panels depicting scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharat, Bhagavad Gita and the Puranas. The body of the saree had smaller floral or paisley designs with stylized bird or animal motifs. The designs gradually changed over time with scenes of hunters mounted on horses and elephants, women with hookahs, sahibs, memsahibs and typical scenes of British officers and their wives. Industrial revolution also featured in the panels of these sarees and steamboats, trains and social lives became a common theme on these pure silk sarees.
The borders are highly ornamental and have Kalka motifs with a series of designs or figures woven diagonally. Generally, these designs are in five colours alternating in a shaded background. The most popular colours are red, green, blue, white and yellow. Though the motifs used to be woven on silver jari earlier, they have now been replaced with shining threads.
The main raw material is silk though these days organic silk and cotton are also used to create these lovely sarees. The silk yarns are extracted from the mulberry silkworms and then smoothened by boiling them in hot water and soda and dyed with acid dye. The yarn is then stretched to make it tight and strong enough to be woven into a saree.
Rough designs and motifs are drawn on graph paper first, coloured accordingly and then punched onto the sarees using cards. These cards are sewed as per the design and fixed in the jacquard machine. Baluchari sarees are considered to be the pinnacle of handloom weaving of silk sarees. The fabric is very fine and generally in bold and vibrant colours. A master weaver will take almost 20 – 25 days to complete weaving one Baluchari saree.
Nowadays, technology is used by the master weaver to complete a saree in 10 -12 days using computerized designs to make it more modern and contemporary. Natural products like vegetable dye, neem leaves, turmeric leaves, bamboo and banana plant stems have also made their way into the weaving process.
The main features of the highly decorative Baluchari saree are the arrangement of the design in the pallu by maintaining the corner and cross border perfectly in boxes using the jala technique, a white outlining of the motifs, usage of extra weft (crosswise yarns) on the pallu, border and body and the central arrangement of paisley motifs in the pallu with butties in the body portion.
Baluchari sarees are called ‘the loveliest and most charming of all silks of India’ and was granted the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2011.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)