Throughout history, Bengal has been famous for its textiles, and while it has been the fine cottons and muslins that have always been the region’s most prized exports, the Baluchari Silk, with its elaborate weaves and visual narratives, is a stand-out. The story of this silk is closely linked to the history of Bengal.
It all started in the early 17th century CE when there was a virtual ‘Silk Rush’ that saw the Dutch, the Portuguese and the English zero in on Cossimbazar (now Kasim Bazar) 9 kms from Murshidabad to make it a centre of silk manufacturing. The emergence of Murshidabad as the capital of Bengal, under the Nawabs added Royal patronage, bringing in the finest weavers who congregated to create the lasting magic of the Baluchari silk.
The story of Baluchari Silk is closely linked to the history of Bengal
By the early 17th century CE Bengal and China had emerged as the main suppliers of silk to international markets. The Dutch established two factories, in (what is now) West Bengal. One in Cossimbazar and the other at Malda. Not to be left behind, the Portuguese and the English also set up factories in this region.
The Nawabs added Royal patronage, bringing in the finest weavers to create the lasting magic of the Baluchari silk
The history of Baluchari saris goes back as 1704 CE when Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, the Mughal Governor of Bengal shifted his capital from Dacca (present day Dhaka in Bangladesh) to Makshudabad (now Murshidabad in West Bengal). As the Nawab’s court shifted so did the network of artisans who worked for him. Murshid Quli Khan, brought to the new capital named after him, a number of weavers from Dacca, who were given their own space and settled in the village of Baluchar (Now called Jiaganj) located 9 kms from Murshidabad. Over time these weavers developed their own style of design that put this village on the world map.
Baluchari saris are known for their pictorial themes showcasing both social life and traditions. They are not just beautiful pieces of art, they are also canvases through which various themes are reflected. Normally plain in the body - the Pallav of the Baluchari is resplendent with elaborate woven motifs that often depict stories from mythology and folk tales.
The themes on the Baluchari kept pace with the times. With patronage from the Nawab’s courts, the Baluchari incorporated many Persian motifs and architectural patterns on to the Sari. The rise of the British, especially after the Battle of Plassey (1757 CE), brought European themes that even included pictures of East India Company officials and Europeans enjoying a smoke or a glass of wine. Horses, elephants, steam engines…. It seemed as though the Baluchari’s Pallav could hold just about anything!
Baluchari saris are known for their pictorial themes showcasing both social life and traditions
While the village of Baluchar was the focal point of this weaving tradition, the ‘style’ traveled to the neighbouring villages, forming what was called the ‘Baluchar Circle’ by the late 19th century CE. But this was also the time of disaster in the region . A series of famines, floods and earthquakes devastated the weaving industry in Baluchar forcing the local weavers to move to and set up base in Bishnupur around 200 kms away.
The ‘style’ traveled to the neighbouring villages, forming what was called the ‘Baluchar Circle’
One of the most famous Baluchari Silk weavers of the 19th century CE was Dubraj - a master weaver from the Bhadarpur village of the Baluchar circle. Dubraj is said to have started the trend of weaving religious texts onto the sari. The saris designed by him were such great pieces of art that they even bore his signature. With the death of Dubraj in the early 20th century CE, the sari weaving tradition in the Baluchar circle started seeing a slow death.
The shift of the weavers from Baluchar to Bishnupur was also reflected in the saris they wove. The saris of this phase were highly influenced by the terracotta temples in this town, that was once the capital of the Malla Kings.
The colours that were mainly used for Baluchari saris were red, pink, yellow, orange, green, purple, chocolate brown, indigo, green, orange, red and blue. There was no black and was, hence it was generated by mixing deep indigo and deep chocolate brown colours. It was either the unavailability of raw materials to source the colour or the Hindu belief that black is inauspicious that led to this.
Shubho Thakur, a noted artist and the then director of the Regional Design Centre, Calcutta (Kolkata) worked towards the revival of the weaving tradition as early as the first half of the 20th century CE. He introduced Akshay Kumar Das, a master weaver from Bishnupur to the technique of the Jacquard weaving machine. However, the Bengal famine of 1943 proved to be a major setback for the silk industry and the weavers.
Major steps are being taken today to revive the once lost tradition of Baluchari sari weaving around West Bengal and a big thrust is on making this a high fashion fabric relevant to younger generations.
This seems to be working as the famed Baluchari once a staple in the wardrobe of zamindar households is making a comeback in the trousseau of young brides.