Manjari Sihare of Saffronart explores the art of Jamdani weaving in conjunction with the saris featured in Nadia Samdani’s collection on The Story
New York: This past week, Saffronart launched a new collection in The Story, curated Bangladeshi collector and philanthropist, Nadia Samdani. Best known as the foremost connoisseur of Bangladeshi contemporary art in her capacity as the Founder and Director of Dhaka Art Summit, Nadia Samdani has brought together an exquisite collection of contemporary art, jewelry as well as traditional textiles from Bangladesh. What caught my fancy are two light hued jamdani saris. It is common knowledge that Jamdanis are handloom woven fabrics made of cotton, which was historically referred to as muslin.
Jamdani weaving is the foremost symbol of Bangladesh’s rich cultural heritage. The cities of Dhaka and Narayanganj in Central Bangladesh have served as hubs for Jamdani handlooms for centuries. Numerous chronicles reference jamdani weaving. In the book Sril Silat-ut-Tawarikh, written in the 9th century, the Arab geographer Solaiman talks about the fine fabrics manufactured in the state called Rumy, or modern day Bangladesh. An interesting article in The News Today references the famous Book of Periplus of Ertitrean Sea (written as an navigation and trading account of the world), noting that it documents the fine fabrics available in this area as far back as the first decade before the birth of Christ. The golden age of Dhaka muslin, however, began with Mughal rule in the 17th century. Due to the labor and time intensive manufacturing process, Jamdani fabric was frightfully expensive and thus a luxury afforded by only royals and aristocrats.
Jamdani weaving is similar to other handloom weaving techniques, wherein small shuttles of threads are passed through the weft. It is hand-woven on a bamboo loom with the weaver sitting in a trench dug into the ground. As illustrated in the above image, two weavers sit alongside each other at the loom and add every discontinuous
supplementary weft motif separately, by hand, interlacing the supplementary
weft threads into the warp with fine bamboo sticks in a zigzag manner using
individual spools of thread. It is a special process as there is no use of mechanism what so ever and neither does the loom make any noise. The design is drawn on a graph paper and placed underneath the warp. It is remarkable that the designs are never sketched or outlined on the parent fabric. In fact some seasoned weavers don’t even use the graph paper; they insert motifs from memory! The patterns are mostly floral or geometric. The Victoria and Albert Museum of London have a fine collection of Jamdani saris.
Two of the saris in the Nadia Samdani collection are excellent examples of Jamdaani weaving. The ivory and gold sari exhibits a beautiful ‘butidar’ pattern, a term where the entire sari is scattered with floral sprays. A design with larger flowers is also referred to as ‘toradar’. My preference of the two is the pink and gold sari for its lightly colored hue and its beautiful ‘jaal’ (a term used when the design covers the entire field of the sari).
What makes Jamdani the exquisite art form it is? Its exclusivity is attributed to its rarity. The decline in the Jamdani industry is reported to have begun as early as the middle of the eighteenth century. With the decline of the Mughal empire in the Indian sub-continent, Jamdani kaarigars or weavers lost their most influential patrons. This is considered to be the primary reason for the decline of this exquisite art form. The decline was accentuated with the subsequent import of lower quality and cheaper yarn from Europe. These issues have had repercussions in contemporary times as well. With the oldest generations of artisans unable to sustain their craft production, the younger generations did not have any training to fall back on. Also, the main Jamdani-making belt in Bangladesh, on the banks of the river Shitalakhya, is under severe threat with waste from factories, mills, and settlements. The long-winded nature of the Jamdani weaving process demands a price that limits its consumer base. A craft process at risk of extinction, it must be recognised that the Jamdani industry can only survive if the market is expanded.