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Weaving life into art

Weaving is a primary source of livelihood for the tribal people of Chattisgarh. The innovative artisans of the State have put up a stall at the ongoing National Handloom Expo.



An exotic sari from Chattisgarh, on display at the National Handloom Expo in the City. — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

ELEGANT AND timeless silks, myriad designs and hues, motifs that tell tales — all from the landlocked and predominantly Adivasi state of Chattisgarh, now here in Bangalore. It lead me on to a journey during which I attempted to unravel some of the mystique of the ancient and traditional Marbahi form of hand embroidery and the kosa or ahimsa silk which have become synonymous with the State.

Laba Kumar, a tribal weaver in his twenties, from India's newest state, acted as a self-appointed ambassador. Although our conversation was primarily in Hindi, Kumar's English vocabulary pleasantly surprised me. Travel has broadened the horizons of this gifted craftsman who has sold his ware to scores of Western tourists. Team Chattisgarh has been awarded the gold medal for "design and fabric" at the annual International Trade Fair held in New Delhi in the month of November, for the years '96, '98,'00 and 02.

Weaving constitutes one of the primary sources of livelihood in the state which was only two years ago an integral part of Madhya Pradesh. Chattisgarh attained official statehood on November 1, 2000, and is the 26th state of the Indian Union. A major part of Chattisgarh (Bastar) as we know today was known as Dandakaranya in ancient times and the other parts of the state were known as Dakshina Koshal.

It is significant that human settlements came into existence in this State much before they did in any other part of the country. Historians and anthropologists are still trying to ascertain the exact details about the earliest human settlements in this region.

Kumar and the other members of the Chattisgarh Artisans Welfare Association hail from the Mana Camp near Raipur, capital of the state. Kumar's predecessors were artisans as well. Nearly a thousand artisans are employed here and women comprise the majority.

Poverty has driven even educated women to try their hand at weaving instead! Weaving and hand embroidery provide them an opportunity to be financially independent. Free training for six months is imparted by the State Government, and the artisans are given the option to work from home. According to the savvy weaver, some of their employees are even post-graduates. And it is not rare to spot women with babies in tow at work. The average monthly income of the artisans is Rs. 2,500.

The Marbahi form of hand embroidery is nearly 150 years old. Kumar points out that it normally takes six months to embroider a single sari and the dupattas take nearly a couple of months. The artisans trace designs from paper onto the plain material and painstakingly embroider each motif. These motifs capture the daily lives of the hardworking tribals and are more often than not inspired by nature. In lay terminology, this exquisite art form is referred to as "folk art" or "travel art." Laba Kumar proudly declares that since there is no duplication of design, every garment is an exclusive. While natural colours such as cream and brown are dominant, vegetable dying techniques impart the darker hues to the fabrics.

While saris have been their mainstay, hand-embroidered dupattas have been included in a bid to keep up with the changing times. Saris are woven in silk and cotton and are priced according to the design. Whilst the cotton saris are priced Rs. 500 upwards, the silk saris fall in the range of Rs. 2,500 to Rs. 5,000. Embroidered silk salwar suits are priced Rs. 2,500 upwards and dupattas are between Rs. 850 and Rs. 2,100.

The silk used to weave saris and the fabric for the salwar suits is one of a kind. It is popularly referred to as shuddha ahimsa silk. This silk is actually procured through non-violent means and that is how it gets its name.

This brand of ahimsa silk is worn both by men and women when they partake in religious ceremonies. In the past it was also believed that the fabric had healing properties and the wearer can be cured of disease on donning it.

An ingenious procedure is followed in the jungle belt of Chattisgarh to obtain silk without killing the worms. The jungle belt of the State is rich in Mahuwa trees, from which liquor is also brewed. The seeds of the Mahuwa tree are crushed and dried in the sun to make a powder. It is strewn liberally at the base of the mulberry trees at night. Timing is crucial and this procedure can be followed only 45 days after the formation of the cocoons. The morning after, the silk worm, unable to withstand the overbearing smell of the powder, force their way out of the cocoon. Silk is then extracted from the abandoned cocoons. Nearly 300 meters of silk can be woven out of a single silk cocoon. Live demonstrations of the procedure are done for global audiences at international fairs in New Delhi.

The garments come at discounted prices, as the State Emporium is still in its infancy. The Union Government is helping the State to stand on its own feet by giving an impetus to the weaving and garment sectors, one of the principal sources of employment for the locals.

(The exhibition is on at Palace Grounds till January 15.)

HARIPRIYA SRINIVASAN

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