Jamdani: A Tribute to the Bangladeshi Weaver

Jamdani Sari The Nadia Samdani Collection, The Story by Saffronart

Jamdani Sari
The Nadia Samdani Collection, The Story by Saffronart

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.

An authentic Jamdani loom with two weavers sitting alongside each other Image credit:

An authentic Jamdani loom with two weavers sitting alongside each other
Image credit: http://www.eyefetch.com

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.

Sari (jamdani) Bangladesh About 1880 Muslin Width 86 cm x Length 335 cm IS.664-1883, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Sari (jamdani) Bangladesh About 1880 Muslin Width 86 cm x Length 335 cm IS.664-1883, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

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.

The Jina Parsvanatha Sculpture: A Study in Symbolism

Josheen Oberoi briefly explores the signs and meanings embedded in ancient Indian Jina sculptures

New York: Jainism, one of the oldest faiths in India, is defined by its commitment to non-violence and a self-directed effort to attain enlightenment. The ‘Supreme Beings’ who achieve this state of liberation and assist others in the process are called Jinas (victors) or Tirthankaras. There are said to have been twenty four Jinas in Jainism, the last of whom, Vardhamana Mahavira, is possibly the most widely known among non practitioners of Jainism.

However, when it comes to the arts and representation in Jainism there is a rich history of sculptures of many of the Jinas, replete with symbolism relating to their positions, accompanying objects, and their meaning.

Jina Parsvanatha
Object: Sculpture
Place of origin: Garsoppa, India (probably, made)
Date: 12th century (made)
Materials and Techniques: Black shale
Museum number: 931(IS)
Image courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum

Two similar sculptures from different time periods are wonderful examples of Jina Parsvanathas and their symbolism. This beautiful 12th century sculpture (on the left) from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection in London represents the twenty third Jina Parsvanatha, who is revered as a great teacher and is one of four Jinas most often portrayed in Jain art. A similar sculpture in the ongoing Indian Antiquities auction conducted by Collectibles Antiques India and powered by Saffronart is from the 11th century, created during the rule of the Hoysala Dynasty. It is a distinctive work from a time period rarely seen in private hands; most works from this Dynasty are in museums or preserved at heritage sites.

Parsvanatha lived in the 8th century BC. He was the son of King Ashvasena and Queen Vamanadevi of Varanasi who renounced the world at the age of thirty to become an ascetic. He attained absolute knowledge and became the twenty-third Tirthankara or Jina in Jainism and is associated with the color blue and a seven hooded serpent.

The Jina fact file on the Victoria & Albert Museum website allows us as viewers to read the sculpture as well. Jinas are always shown in either a padmasana (seated) or kayotsarga (standing) position. The two Jina Parsvanathas in discussion here are standing; the immobility and discipline required is considered a form of severe penance and asceticism.

Jina Parsvanatha
Greenish Schist
11th Century
Hoysala Dynasty
Height: 51 in (129.5 cm)
Image courtesy: Saffronart Indian Antiquities Auction (Nov 28-29, 2012), Lot 3

The three tiered umbrella at the top of the sculpture is a symbol of the Jina’s spiritual sovereignty, while the seven headed snake, Dharanendra, protects the Jina with his coils and a canopy over his head. Jinas, like those in these two sculptures, are the only Jain figures shown unclothed as a sign of their absolute enlightenment and rejection of all materialism. They are often flanked by guardian spirits called yakshas and yakshis, positioned in these sculptures by the feet of the Jina.

The strength of the physical body and the powerful features in the sculpture above is distinctive of the Hoysala Dynasty, which oversaw great developments in architecture and classically modeled sculptures during its rule.

You can hear some interesting ideas about the importance of the seven hooded serpent and the significance of the standing position in context of the Jina Parsvanatha in the collection of the V&A Museum here.

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