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.
Myths & Legends
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.