One of the most exquisite weaves in cotton and silk is found in the Bengal heartland of Shantipur – Phulia. Called as Shantipuri, this centuries-old tant (traditional Bengali saree) derives its name from Shantipur in Nadia district. The ancient handloom industry in Shantipur has been mentioned in manuscripts glorifying the life of Advaita Acharya as well as in Bengali folklore.
Locals say that the handloom weavers settled down in this district during the reign of Raja Ganesha of Ganesha dynasty of Gaur in the early part of the 15th century. This marginal handloom weaving cluster became a full-fledged industry under the patronage of Nadia Raj. The weavers made sarees and dhotis initially but the widespread interest in the sarees both within Bengal and across India brought the immense talent and potential of these weavers into the spotlight.
Handloom fabrics produced in Shantipur in the late 19th century were of hand spun cotton yarn and were woven on throw shuttle pit looms. It was during 1920 – 1925 that Shri Darga Das Kastha introduced barrel dobby thereby propelling a change to fly shuttle. As weavers were settling into this method, Shri Debbendra Nath Mukherjee brought in the jacquard machine which allowed for more designs on the saree. Shri Jatindra Nath Lohori installed a 100 hook capacity jacquard for producing myriad types of Santipore sarees in the 20th century.
Since the beginning, Santipore handloom fabrics were renowned for their novel designs, technique of hand spinning using extra weft (crosswise yarns), rich colour patterns and combinations and extremely thin fabric. The traditional materials used to create this saree are cotton and silk. These days muga, twisted cotton, zari, gold and silver are used for the extra warp (lengthwise yarns) in the borders.
Santipore sarees today are woven in either fly shuttle or pit looms or treadle looms using 80s – 100s cotton yarn in warp (lengthwise yarns) and weft (crosswise yarns) with a plain border or jacquard designs on the extra warp in the borders. Designs are floral, geometrical, motifs with historical backgrounds, paisley, temple motifs, abstract and traditional motifs in different colour combinations in the pallu. Generally, the body of the saree is plain or decorated with buttis or has fine stripes and texture created by different coloured threads or by a combination of fine and superfine yarns. Tie and dye designs are now quite common in the pallus as are jamdani buttis.
Sada, rangeen, dure, sarbasundari, kharkemoti, sinduri, chaurangi, tashkhupi, choukhupi, chakaram and ayanakhupi are some of the different types of patterns woven in various colours.
The weavers double the thread count using sana (reed) which creates its own impression on the saree. The higher the thread count, the softer and glossier the finish of the saree. The weavers generally refrain from removing the reed mark on the saree while putting the finishing touches. This lends the saree a very natural feel to it. Santipore saree is marketed in its typical folded form known as Guti Bhanj.
The various types of Santipore sarees based on their border edges and designs are Chandmala, Taj Kalka, Kaldungri, Nilambari, Vomra, Kaldumri, Dorokho (double – sided design), Ganga Yamuna, Terchi, Gont, Anspar, Mourpar, Rajmahal, Bhomra, Vishwabharati, Brindamani and Benkipar to name a few.
The most famous Santipore saree is the Nilambari saree which literally means blue sky. This deep navy blue body colour combined with a pallu decorated with stripes in varying thickness called sajanshoi in colours complementary to those used in the border gives an appearance of a night sky! This extraordinary weave has an exceedingly smooth texture and feel and is very popular among the aristocrats.
Santipore sarees are known for their super fine fabric, innovative designs and motifs, stunning colour combinations and elegance. This heritage saree received the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2009.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)