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The Chanderi fabric is traditionally woven to form sarees. Earlier, royal families of Gwalior, Indore, Kolhapur, Baroda and Nagpur used clothes woven in Chanderi on festivals like child birth, marriage, etc. Chanderi weavers produced a range of sarees appropriate to the tastes of their clients; the royalty and nobility of Gwalior, Baroda, Nagpur and beyond. In present times it is used for making salwar -“ kameez, dresses and suits too.
The Chanderi sarees are famous around the world and their distinctive features include their floral motifs or ‘Butis’ in the Pallu and their gossamer translucency. The Zari threads in Chanderi sarees are not cut off from underneath the fabric. These features have lent it a cult status worldwide.A unique feature of the Chanderi fabric is its transparency which adds to its lightness and appeal. This is not commonly found and is consciously achieved in the Chanderi fabric by the use of Single Flature quality of yarn used in the weave. This yarn is achieved when the glue of the raw yarn is not removed. This non-degumming of the raw yarn lends the fabric its transparency and shine. However, it also lends the fabric fragility and brittleness. While storing a Chanderi saree, special care must be taken to avoid keeping it under weight or folded for long.Until much recent times, all the turbans of the Maratha rulers were made by the Chanderi weavers. These were woven on a six feet loom. There probably is no weaver of this school of weaving left in Chanderi now. It is said that the Maharani of Baroda could immediately differentiate a lower quality of cotton used in the weave by just a ‘rub on the cheek’ and could decipher the finer nuances of the motif work and pay accordingly.The production of real Chanderi has been authenticated and protected by India with Geographical Indication (GI). This is a sign used on products with a specific geographical origin, which have certain qualities because of the place they have originated from. India has petitioned the World Trade Organization for the recognition of Chanderi as a GI product at the international level as well. The government owned bodies such as MP Handloom Weavers Cooperative, MP Handicraft Development Corporation and the State Textile Corporations now provide the weavers with marketing support so that their unique craft remains flourishing and gives satisfaction to countless women who possess the coveted Chanderi sarees.
A popular legend says that a Chanderi cloth was once gifted to the Mughal Emperor Akbar. It was sent across in the narrow hollow of a bamboo stick. When the cloth was drawn out of the bamboo stick, it sent out a wave of shock since it was large enough to cover an elephant.
Chanderi, the town is also mentioned in the Mahabharatha as being ruled by King Shishupal, who was Lord Krishna’s nephew. He was killed by Lord Krishna himself. The story goes that Shishupal was a demonic king and Krishna was destined to kill him. His mother begged Krishna to not kill her son when such a time came, to which Krishna said “If it is the fate and destiny it cannot be changed. Only thing I can do is to promise that I will spare the first hundred of his wrong deeds. I will kill him when he does the hundred and first one.
The Indian saree is fascinatingly more than five thousand years old. It is mentioned in the Rig Veda dating around 2000BC. The Rig Veda is the oldest surviving piece of literature in the world. The saree, originally worn by both men and women, was called ‘Chira’ in Sanskrit, meaning cloth. This rectangular piece of cloth was usually 5-9 yards in length.The tradition of Chanderi weaving has been recorded from 13th century. In the 1350s, Kosthi weavers migrated to Chanderi from Jhansi and settled down here. The royals have famously favored the Chanderi fabric for its richness and utility in the searing hot summers of the plains. With clientele ranging from the royalty to the nobility, the royal households of Baroda, Gwalior, and Nagpur among others, Chanderi weavers thrived under the royal patronage. The cocked turban of the Maratha rulers was very famous and it was draped using fine Chanderi fabric. It was a distinguishing mark of high nobility.During the reign of Jahangir, this art of weaving still used to mesmerize people. There are many Jain temples and pilgrimages in Chanderi. The craft reached its peak with the onset of the Mughal rule. The delicate nature and sophistication of the fabric comes across in the story where Emperor Akbar was sent several meters of the fabric rolled into a mere hollow of a bamboo stick. Jehangir too patronized this craft form. Chanderi fabric is mentioned in Maasir-i-Alamgir (1658-1707), where Aurangzeb ordered that, “In the Khilat Khana, thread embroidered cloth should be used instead of stuff with gold and silver worked on it.- A Jesuit priest, Tieffenthaler, who stayed in Marwar from around 1740 to 1761 has mentioned Chanderi in his chronicle De L’Inde as a very fine quality cloth that is woven here and exported abroad.In the 19th century, the British introduced mill-spun cotton. The raw hand-spun cotton gave the fabric a shine and quality which the mill-spun cotton could not reach up to. The Indian weavers combated this by weaving in Japanese silk threads along with cotton, which innovated the fabric into the present gossamer weave of Chanderi silk. However, the delicate gold Butis and designs have been passed on un-tampered. Technology and skill was improvised by the weavers over time without compromising on the name, quality and beauty of the Chanderi fabric.
Silk is used as the warp and fine cotton is used as the weft in the design of Chanderi sarees, leading to a very fine end product. The Zari work done in the weaves is inspired from the famous Varanasi sarees.
The sarees have a rich golden border and two gold bands on the loose end which hangs from the shoulder and is called Pallav. The Pallav ornamentation designs called the Butis or the golden embroidered motifs are paisley and floral – inspired by the lotus bud and jasmine flower. In the more expensive sarees, these motifs appear on the entire body.
These are embroidered in by the use of needles, a separate set for each Buti. The number of needles used depends on the number of Butis and their sizes. One of the most popular kind of pattern in the Zari work is Ashrafi Buti. Tested Zari made of synthetic yarn is also used nowadays instead of pure Zari.
Chanderi sarees were only made in white color till almost half a century ago. Later subtle hues were incorporated and natural dyes like saffron were used. Now fast acting chemical dyes are used to get a larger range of colors, though the preferred saris are still light and golden in shades. Locally popular as the ‘Ganga – Jamuna’, it is a type of saree which has a light color body with two shades of the color taking turns to appear every time it moves against light. In these sarees, contrasting colors are used in the borders.
Sometimes, there is a blend of techniques from other parts of the country. For example the Chanderi fabric is adorned with the Rajasthani Bagru prints and embellished with sequins.
The weavers work under very harsh conditions and expenses. Half of the day there is no electricity anywhere in Chanderi district, although a huge dam is just 2 km away. The saree takes about two to three days to a week to complete depending upon the complexity in design. The lack of awareness of the time – “ intensiveness of the craft, is leading to lower returns for the weaver and the phenomenon of youngsters leaving the practice for better paying jobs.
Zari – A metal or gold thread used in the borders and the Butis.
Cotton – Primarily white colour is used and it is sourced from Coimbatore. The cotton used is 2/120’s, 2/100’s (plain yarn) and 2/120 and 2/100 mercerized yarns. The yarn is of high quality and extra fine. Because of non – degumming of the raw yarn, the finished fabric produced is transparent and light.
Silk – Fine silk is sourced from Bangalore. The silk yarn used of 20/21’s, 2/100’s and 16/18 denier. The term Denier is a measure used to connote the fineness of yarn.
Looms – The Chanderi fabric is woven on the traditional pit looms. These looms, like their names go, are installed inside a 3 feet deep pit. The weaver sits at the wall of the pit with his feet inside. The looms are permanently installed in these pits and are hardly moved from their place. Since the artisans own the looms, they bear the expenses of maintenance and repairs of the looms. Pulleys and weights – These are used to suspend the zari and mercerized cotton above the loom and keep them taut. They also aid the weavers in being able to change the border colors.Jacquard/Dobby mechanism – A miniature Jacquard mechanism, normally referred to as the dobby, is installed on top of the loom. It helps in the design and weaving of the border of the sari.
Chanderi sarees are a fine blend of silk in the warp and cotton in the weft. The weavers work away on their traditional pit looms and create the Chanderi sarees of wonderfully light and rich quality.
Designing : The master weaver draws out the design on a grid sheet, where all the junctions of intersection of the warp and weft threads are clearly set in an organized pattern. The more complicated designs for higher range saris are now drafted on computers, which then the weavers incorporate into the weave.
Dyeing : The threads of the warp and weft are dyed according to the designs. Expert dyers with years of experience carry about the dyeing of the Chanderi yarn. The dyeing is done mainly for the silk yarn. The process takes approximately 45 to 60 minutes. After this, the yarn is loosened out and wound on reels.
Warping : Warpers carry about this specialized process by winding the warp yarns around bobbins. These are then arranged across a wooden frame called reel. The yarns from these reels pass through a reed to be wound around a vertical drum. At his maximum speed, the warper would warp 4 or 5 warps for 12 sarees each.
Street Warping (Bhem Bandhana) : ‘Bhem bandhana‘ is the process by which the spools of thread are arranged in the weft according to the design. The threads are anchored at different heights and tightened by suspension. The number of threads depends on the width of the cloth. The length depends the quantity of production. A warp is usually stretched to get eight to eighteen sarees in one go.Warp Connecting : After the warping, the yarns are passed through the reeds and the healds. These are deftly joined to the old warp threads by the women folk in approximately 3 – 4 days.
Drafting & Designing : The designs of the border and the Pallav are decided before the weaving begins. A vertical harness called ‘Jala’ holds the ends of the threads set according to design. The process is called Jala tying. This takes around 3 – 4 days depending on the complexity of the design. The higher the number of weft yarns and higher the reed counts, the more time the process takes. The time however can be reduced if the ply in the weft yarn is more. This also enables the weaver to move faster and cover more ground. The only disadvantage being that the output might be less fine.
Preparing the loom and weaving : A ‘Karigar’ or master weaver ties the silk thread on the drum, while another specializes in tying the symmetrical strings across two sets of metal eyes. This is done before the threads are fed ‘ into the looms.Sometimes there are separate families who do the warping and provide the weavers with pre-measured warps of lengths leading up to 18 sarees at once. The preparation of these long lengths of threads on the drums has to be done very carefully because losing it means losing the entire cost of the silk. The family carefully untwists, combs and spreads the length of warp into its woven width on the beam. Two people hold the bamboo lease sticks and flick up and down to spread the fibers out square. In the summers when the silk threads keep breaking off, the craftsmen use water and tighten the strands. To ensure that the threads don’t keep slipping off, the craftsmen coat their hands with soot.Once the setting is fixed, the loom can deliver up to six to eight sarees at a stretch. The process is labor intensive and takes great physical strength to change the loom settings.
Butis : The Butis are made by a separate string of heddles after weaving about two meters of the fabric. The Butis are done in zari with the help of supplementary heddles secured on a separate frame on the sides of the loom. They are tied to these stationary side members to hold their tension across the width of the cloth and underneath pin weights hold them down to keep the shed open.The Chanderi fabric does not require any post loom processing. It can be packed and made ready for sale as soon as it is cut off the loom. It is packed as per the requirement of the buyer and of the trader, by way of customized packing methods. However, the popular three fold folding method of the cluster is peculiar and is what sets these sarees apart in a layman’s eyes.
List of craftsmen.