India was the earliest centre of cotton manufacture; it was from here that the craft was introduced to Persia and Egypt, and thereafter, to Europe. Cotton fabrics were the magical creations of the Indian weaver. Handspun yarn and cotton weaving were famed throughout the subcontinent but nowhere did it reach the perfection of Bengal. Gossamer muslin, light as woven air and soft as a limpid stream, has featured time and again in historical records of ancient and mediaeval periods. The earliest mention of the muslins of Bengal appeared in Arrian's Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. Kautilay's Arthoshastra referred to the superior cotton fabrics of Vanga while Megosthenes, ambassador to the court of Chandrogupta Maurya, extolled the magnificent robes of flowered muslins worn in the royal courts. Several references to the fine muslins of Bengal are available in the travel accounts of foreigners who visited India at different times. This closely woven transparent cloth found its way to all the ancient cities of the world. Trade records of travellers from China, West Asia and Europe bear testimony to the richness of Dhaka's cloth trade, and its superlative weaving techniques. With the advent of the Muslims in India, ships sailed annually from Bengal to Jidda, laden with quantities of fine cotton goods. The external commerce of Bengal at that period was the exclusive prerogative of the Arab traders. Pilgrims to Jidda carried some of the more expensive products of the loom, as offerings at the prophet's shrine.
Gifts he prepares to deck the Prophet's tomb
The glowing labours of the Indian loom.
Camoen's Lusiad VII
Jamdani, a Persian word, connotes a species of fine cotton with spots and flowers woven on the loom. Jom-dar, meaning flowered or embossed, and jamewar, a brocade weave, are both Persian words indicating products of excellence.
While George Watts considered its superior designs to be of Persian origin, Percy Brown alludes to jamdanis as being strongly Persian in feeling and conception. Jamdani weavers were said to have perfected their process from the Kinkhob weavers of Persia. While plain or embroidered muslin undoubtedly was an indigenous weave, a plausible explanation for the Persian content of the jamdani could be that it was introduced, or greatly influenced, by the Persian masterweavers brought into the country by the Muslim rulers. The Sultans of Delhi, particularly Muhammad bin Tughlok, and the Mughals brought in hundreds of mastercraftsmen from Persia who have contributed greatly to the cultural heritage of this region.The Mughals commanded the best resources of indigenous craftsmanship while enlisting the finest talents of Persia to create products of outstanding beauty and vitality. It was in the Mughal period that jamdanis reached unprecedented levels of excellence and perfection. The translucent cotton muslins caught the imagination of the Muslim rulers with their taste for grandeur and opulence and presented them with a desirable alternative to Quranic restrictions on the use of pure silk by men. For the same reason Badshah, a floral muslin, was preferred by the Arabs as head kerchief for nomaz or prayers.
Jamdani became the royal attire in the imperial courts of Delhi and was therefore lavished with the best techniques and designs of the Persian masterweavers who settled in this country.
While muslins were woven by Hindu weavers (tontis), jamdanis were woven by Muslim weavers (Julahas) and continue to be the exclusive domain of Muslim weavers even in present times. Made for the emperors of Delhi and later, the Nawabs of Murshidabad, manufacture of jamdanis was the monopoly of the government and made only by the best weavers of the Dhaka aurungs. Today, they continue to be made in a few villages near Dhaka, using the same simple looms and techniques, the same implements and processes. The muslin weavers on the other hand, have moved northwards to Tangail and now use pure silk instead of cotton.
The outstanding feature of the jomdoni is a remarkable range of designs executed with extreme delicacy and dexterity. The weaving technique is akin to tapestry in which shuttles of coloured, gold or silver threads are passed through the warp as required by the design. The difference with jamdani is that instead of shuttles or bobbins, short lengths of design threads are fastened to the warp, using a bamboo or tamarind wood needle called a kandur. Each length of this thread merges in with the weft, additional lengths being added until the motif is completed. The joins are not visible to the naked eye, although there may be several of them in each design. The real test of a weaver's mastery is his 44 ground motifs are baghnoli (tiger's claw), harsh (swan), ability to interweave the design in such a manner as to give the appearance of being part of the weave. Using the same fine quality of yarn as the actual fabric, the design thread is merged in as extra weft giving it a dreamy and suggestive look, barely discernible to the touch. Despite limitations some weavers still aspire to achieve the same shadowy effect by merging the patterns into the weave.
Jamdani designs were fabulously elaborate and diverse. They were unique geometric representations of fruit, flowers, leaves and creepers skilfully devised to adapt to the weave of the material. Individual floral motifs or floral sprigs scattered over the surface were called butidar; floral sprays arranged diagonally were terchi; and as a regular network, jhalor. Amongst the other popular floral patterns were the panna hazar, phulwari, toradar, guldasta, anarkoli and jamewar. Arrangements of running creepers (belpatridar) and leafy scrolls (beldar) were used to great effect, as were motifs of chond (moon), tara (star), ashra fi (a gold coin), pan (betel leaf) and angur (grapes). Sheborgo, a triangle of three dots, and karela, a vegetable with a delicately tapered top, were special favourites. Central rosettes set in interspaces of diagonals and trimmed with intricate borders were beautifully executed in scarves (rumals). Variations of the cone (toranj or kolka), a decorative form attributed to the painted manuscripts of the Mughals, have been used with extraordinary flair as corner motifs in the rumal and later in the sari anchal.
Over the years jamdani weavers have replaced paper patterns with memorised verbal instructions known as buli. Jamdanis are woven by two weavers; the master weaver (ostad) sits on the right and calls out the buli to the assistant (hargid) who follows it with care. In a continuous pattern, like a sari border, the buli is dispensed with once a section of the design has been completed. The basic buli consists of -e instructions around which variations are added for different designs (see below).
Rare designs were catalogued in swatches of cloth called doma but most of this valuable collection has been lost in the turmoil of 1971, Today, traditional designs have acquired indigenous names drawn from images of everyday life and interpreted in stylised geometric motifs. The motifs reflect the weaver's own perception of the world around him, so the names may differ from weaver to weaver. Some of the popular Ground motifs are baghnoli (tiger’s claw), hansh (swan), dalim (pomegranate), doring (flower), kakra (crab), sandesh (a sweetmeat), projopoti (butterfly), sobudona (barley), chotobuti (small flower) and earring.
Diagonals are called tesri and are known by specific designs such as korat, adarpanor, korolo, neempata, hatubhanga etc. The traditional jhalar is interpreted variously as chandrahar jal, bundir jal, shankha jal, angti jal and chinirbosun bhanga jal. An extraordinary range of patterns form the repertoire of border designs used in jamdani saris. Amongst the more traditional ones are angurlata, goolapchar, krilata, khara, shoal, teenpata, moyurpench, inchi, kochupota, supari tanki and belpato. Although the kalka is seldom used as a corner motif today, variations of it are represented in several border patterns and referred to as ponkhi. The more expensive saris are often embellished with exquisite little surface motifs called azrabuti and cholchito while the borders are highlighted with a running pattern known as madli.
Since jamdani requires more skill and dexterity than technical innovation; it has responded to the market mechanism over an extended period of time. The British introduced standardisation of the product for export to Europe, thereby dispensing with the outstanding quality possible in the limited quantities required for the royal courts. European preference for Japanese patterns and imagery of European figures, locomotives and other similarly mundane motifs were reflected in the figured muslins of the period. Several authorities writing on crafts at the time comment on the deterioration in design caused by Western influence. Lack of demand for expensive muslins affected the splendid design content of the fabric, while scarcity of fine yarn seriously impaired the textural quality of all muslins. The final blow to the muslin industry was the introduction of British yarn into the captive market of India and the punitive taxes levied on the export of muslins to Europe.
However, responding to market trends, manufacture of jamdani shifted gradually from yardage and scarves to saris, thereby ensuring that an abiding interest in this outstanding fabric was retained.
The greatest setback for the jamdani weavers came in the early 1970s with the perennial shortage of cotton yarn and dyes in the war-torn economy of Bangladesh. Hundreds of weavers were forced out ~of their profession in search of a livelihood. A notable contribution was made at this time by the more affluent weavers who added looms to their homebased factories and provided employment to some of the finer craftsmen. However, the general quality of the jamdani fell drastically during this period; the fabric acquired a coarse loosely woven texture with designs becoming enlarged beyond any semblance of their earlier proportion and balance. An added distortion was the total absence of any design in the inner section of the sari, giving it a graceless appearance.
A preliminary survey of the situation made it obvious that any reversal of the declining standards would require the combined efforts of policymakers and the general public alike. The survey also identified shortages of raw materials, and a severely restricted market for high quality jamdani as the two main causes for the decline of this superb craft. While limited success has been achieved by the government in ensuring more regular supply of dyes and yarn, the major contribution towards the revival of high quality jamdanis has been made by the concerted efforts of non-government agencies and semi-government organisations working in the handloom sector. The latter have provided weavers with access to credit facilities and, to a lesser extent, import licences for cotton yarn. However, such assistance has been far too meagre to sustain the needs of the weavers and has contributed largely to the unfortunate increase in the use of silk yarn in jamdani weaving today.
Flexibility of the non-government organisations has enabled them to make noteworthy contributions towards the resurgence of jamdanis through a network of support services. The crucial task was to create discerning public awareness of the need to support this rich tradition and to ensure a viable source of earning for the weavers. While technique and equipment have remained unchanged, samples woven with 120 count cotton yarn imported for this purpose confirmed the innate skill and virtuosity of the craftsmen. Catalogues of designs commissioned by the organisations endorsed the wealth of motifs and patterns which had been retained in the technical recall of the weavers. Essential links now had to be re¬established through access to old samples and photographic material. Research and documentation of museum and private collections yielded a fair selection of classical designs. A selection of old samples and photographs provided the nucleus of pleasing patterns which have been reproduced with surprising precision and sensitivity. The ostads responded enthusiastically to the challenge of reviving the classical designs and exemplified their matchless virtuosity by the expertise with which they reproduced them. Here, one had to guard against the whimsicial imposition of fads and fashions, Few things are as distasteful and counterproductive as the 'modernising' of traditional designs. Recognition of the masterweaver's skill through national awards and similar honours has been significant but it is the development of personal relationships which has inspired the artisan to excel in his craftsmanship.
Much effort has been invested in securing sustainable prices and assured markets for the best quality jamdanis in order to ensure that the skill is retained and passed on to the next generation. Non¬profit craft marketing organisations have taken the lead in promoting increased demand through exhibitions at home and abroad. Weaving demonstrations at various exhibitions have created closer links with buyers and existing retailers, generating a marked rise in the appreciation and demand for finer jamdanis. Today the weaver has become aware of the celebrity and honour accorded to his craftsmanship. As long as social recognition is supported by a viable livelihood for the weavers, the future of jamdani is assured.
Sayyada R Ghuznavi has written extensively on Bangladeshi textiles and is currently Director of the Vegetable Dye (Research & Development) Society, Dhaka.
Examples of buli:
Ghoirey barey N‡i evB‡i
Garey barey N‡i evB‡i
Garey penchey N‡i †cu‡Q
Garer kheo bandhey garey N‡i †KI euv‡a N‡i
Garer kheo bandhey penchey N‡i †KI euv‡a †cu‡Q
Garey barey hoirey barey N‡i evB‡i nq‡i evB‡i
Knee, pench garey barey ‡KI †cuQ N‡i evB‡i
In the house and out In and out
In and twist
In the house, tie and twist
In the house and out
Twist, in and out
(House is used as a 'symbol' for the area being worked on)