Maheshwari weaving was traditionally done to make saris, fabric by yardage, turbans, Dhoti (a drape worn by men around their waist), Chunri and practically to meet any fabric needs of the town. Maheshwar being a mix of weavers from Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat also became a cultural hotspot of diversities from these states. The woven fabric found varied usage in the way saris were worn differently by the women of each of these states. Keeping the weaving style similar; with striped cotton silk borders and motifs by extra weft in the border alone, the usage has expanded to a much diverse variety of garments being designed by inquisitive fashion designers from across the globe. Layering the fabric brings out the most innate qualities of the fabric like translucency and beautifully woven colorful borders in extremely exciting and innovative creations, be it through dresses or Kurtas. However, the cluster still retains its popularity as one that weaves the most exquisite and breath taking to contemporary tastes Saris.
A sari is an Indian female garment, usually associated with grace. It's a two to nine yard long drape of fine fabric, two to four feet in breadth, wrapped around the waist. One end of the drape is usually heavily worked upon or woven and goes over the shoulder to fall free at the back and is called Pallav. Traditionally worn without one, a sari is now worn with short fitted blows covering the torso of the female body, keeping the midriff exposed and is popularly called Choli. This term for female bodice, the choli is derived from ruling clan from ancient Tamil Nadu, the Cholas. The concept of Pallav, the end piece in the sari, originated during the Pallavas period and is named after this ruling clan of Ancient India.
The onset of this sari boosted the economy of Maheshwar. Initially known for its temples and ghats dedicated to Lord Shiva, this little town transformed itself into the only place where this unique design was conjured. The expertise of craftsmen from various places, blended in the flavors of their natives. It became a beautiful concoction of cotton and silk threads and grew to be much appreciated because it was elegant and went very well with the weather. This fabric is perfect for starching into stiff pagdis and is said to be 'ekdam khadak' or 'so stiff' that it stands up without support, just as the wearers would want it to be. De-gummed silk is used in this craft, where the silk fiber is processed to remove the gum to make it soft and increase the tensile strength, it also prevents the sari or the yarn from cracking along the folds.
Myths & Legends
In ancient times, Maheshwar was known as Mahishmathi and it was ruled by King Kartavirya Arjuna (Sahastararjun). One day the King and his 500 wives went to the river for a picnic. When the wives wanted a vast play area, the King stopped the mighty river Narmada with his 1000 arms. While they were all enjoying themselves, Ravana flew by in his Pushpak Vimana (flying chariot). Downstream, when he saw the dry river bed, he thought it was an ideal place to pray to Lord Shiva. He made a 'Shivalingam' out of sand and began to pray.
When Sahasrajuna's wives were done and they stepped out of the river bed, he let the waters flow. The voluminous river flowed down sweeping Ravana's shivalingam along, messing up his prayers. Furious, Ravana tracked Sahasrajuna and challenged him. Armed to the hilt the mighty Ravana was in for a huge surprise. The mighty Sahasrarjuna with the 1000 arms pinned Ravana to the ground. Then he placed 10 lamps on his heads and one on his hand. After tying up Ravana, Sahasrarjuna dragged him home and tied him up to the cradle pole of his son. A humiliated Ravana stayed prisoner until his release was secured. Even today, the Sahasrarjun temple at Maheshwar lights 11 lamps in memory of the event.
For generations Somavaunshiya Sahasrarjun Kshatriaya (SSK) genealogy is historically maintained by the Bhats. Bhats claim that Sahasrarjun had 108 wives. Bhavasars and Shimpis were borne to the 6 wives of Sahasrarjun. Today they are in much larger number than Khatries. As expected, Parashuram arrived at the caves. He noticed many Ksatriyas were sitting calmly, wearing Janni across their shoulder. They held flower in their hands. Their mounth chanting verses of Gayatrimantra. Parashuram was puzzled. Apparently was expecting some armed resistance. Parashuram looked towards Mata to seek the answer. She explained to him that they were Khahtris and have denounced all weapons. They will no longer wish to fight. Bhats even expressed that Parashuram gathered all the offspring's of Sahasrarjun at the caves, and taught them new trades. He taught Khatries how to weave clothes, Bavasars how to color the yarn and fabric and Shimpis how to sew the clothes. This weaving trade has been practiced in many SSK communities for generations ever since. Starting from Mandawagad,( Maheshwar in MP), down all the way to South India, to date many Khatries still weave saries. Many trade commodities related to looms and sarees. My family inherited the trade of weaving sarees and sale. They hire weavers and manufacture large scale sarees and promote them in the market place.
Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, the ruler of Malwa, made Maheshwar her capital city in 1767. This small town by the banks of the river Narmada was transformed during her rule into an active centre of trade and industry. The design of the Maheshwari sari was one of the steps taken towards this development by the Queen.
She invited many skilled weavers from various princely states like Hyderabad, Mandava and Gujarat to settle down in Maheshwar. Only a grey cotton fabric was locally produced. After these craftsmen moved in, many new aesthetics began to develop. The Queen also instructed them to take inspiration from the local architecture and the designs inscribed on the walls of her fort. This tied the fabric exclusively to Maheshwar in a distinct manner.
The craftsmen graduated from making just fabric to weaving saris, turbans and other clothing needs of the local people. Thereby slowly making the economy self-sufficient.The sari that was 5 yards in length was called - dandiya, whereas the one of 9 yards was called as sari. They used natural colours for the production of coloured textiles. Gradually, along with the simple textiles there began the production of checks and other fancy designs.
The Queen initially supported them by purchasing a lot of their products.She would then use it on herself when seen in public as well as use it to generously gift dignitaries. This way, the laurels of this craft travelled far and wide.
With the amalgamated skills of various artisans and craftsmen, under the efficient eye of the Queen, a unique aesthetic was developed. This also gave birth to a distinct traditional and cultural identity to the Maheshwar handloom operations, whose efficiency has survived until today.
The first challenge the craft faced was when the production of colours and dyes plummeted during the First World War. As an ofshoot of this, lower quality of colours were used which in turn affected the reputation of the fabric. The craftsmen slowly became lethargic. They then started moving away on the lookout for alternative professions.The population slowly diminished. This situation was resolved only around 1910 when a royal descendant, Naresh Thukojirao Holker and various subsequent organisations took measures to replenish it. The weavers were gathered once more and it was decided that the centres for dyeing and spinning will be established. After many more ups and downs created by socio-political incidents, the craft eventually flourished.
In 1921, the King Shreeman Holkarji Rao established a weaving and dyeing demonstration factory. The aim and objective of this factory was to create awareness about modern weaving techniques amongst weavers. At present this factory is a Handicraft training centre at Maheshwar. After the establishment of the training centre, various new weaving techniques were introduced in the cluster like the use of Dobby for border designing and the replacement of throw-shuttle looms with fly-shuttles. This increased the overall production in the region. These shuttles and dobbys were sourced from Nagpur and the weavers were given training in the usage of the same and many were even granted assistance for setting up pit-looms in their units. In 1978, Richard and Sally Holkar, belonging to the ex-ruler family established the
Rehwa Society, which has contributed significantly for the growth and development of the industry.
The Maheshwari saree is characterised by its elegant simplicity. Many of the patterns in the Maheshwari saris still retain their traditional form, while others have been modified over time. The borders are used as the demarcating feature. They incorporate designs inspired from the engravings on the Maheshwar fort.
The saris are classified on the basis of their borders or the patterns in them like Maheshwar bugdi kinar, zari patti, rui phool kinar (cotton flower pattern), phool kinar (flower pattern), chatai kinar (mat design), V kinar, kahar kinar, bajuband kinar ( narmada wave pattern in between silver and golden zari ) and the like.
They are also classified on the basis of texture. This determined by the amount of cotton or silk in the sari. The categories are 100 percent Cotton Sari, Warm Silk Sari, Silk Sari, Neem Silk Sari, Katan Sari, 75 percent cotton Sari, Tissue Sari, Mercerised Path Design Sari and Mercerised Checks Design Sari.
The sari has a reversible border so that it can be worn on either side. The border is made of beautiful zari work. The body of the sari is usually plain or has an array of stripes or checks. It has a unique pallav with five alternating stripes, two of plain white and three coloured ones. There are geometric patterns decorating the borders. There are no floral patterns. These patterns are usually fine abstract representations of local elements like the river and the local architecture.With fine cotton yarns in its weft and silk in the warp, this fabric is light and airy for the summers, yet has the subtle luster of silk.
Copper coated nylon has replaced the pure gold wires of zari and synthetic dyes have replaced the limited palette of natural colours. With high demands and extreme pressures on time, dyers have to get one warp of silk ready within an hour, leaving little room for revival of slow natural dyeing. There are only a handful of craftsmen who weave the original striped designs of the sari, which had a typical Marathi look, and these are popular in Maharashtra
Though recently the craft has been revolutionised by the youth of the society, almost 60 percent of the craftsmen are still lagging behind due to lack of marketing. Planning the weave of a sari is an art in itself and sometimes the craftsmen are not equipped with that. They are skilled but not everyone has the vision to study the present scenario, plan and create accordingly.
The silk yarn is dyed by the weavers in their homes. Although only acid dyes should be used for colouring silk but it has been observed that the weavers resort to cheap dyes, which leads to a large number of complaints regarding colour bleeding. To avoid this, the Weaver Service Centre at Indore has been organising workshops since past 3 years in order to create awareness on dyeing quality in the cluster. Besides, the co-operative societies and chemical merchants are supplying acid dyes in adequate quantities.