As a wedding outfit for a bride and groom, furnishings in a king’s court or presidential suite, an offering for god or saint, in costumes for dolls, as an illustration of the intricacy of Indian textiles, or even as symbols of marital bliss or disappointment, the brocades of Banaras (Varanasi) find their way, with equal ease, into homes, palaces, shrines, toy stores, catwalks, museums and films.
What exactly are brocades and why are the brocades of Banaras special? Brocades are a particular variety of handcrafted or machine-made fabric which are characterized by an embossed or dimensional appearance and feel achieved by the insertion of extra patterning threads into the base warp and weft. This is a complex technique, requiring great skill, and is capable of rendering the representation of motifs in such fine detail that it almost looks as if the fabrics have been embroidered on the loom. It is found all across the world—in Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Persia, Italy, Greece, France and even in Guatemala. In the subcontinent, within India, to name but a few places, this technique is used in Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu and parts of Andhra Pradesh in the south, in Murshidabad and Assam in the east, in Kutch, Surat and Ahmedabad in the west as well as in present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, it finds its most intricate expression in the brocaded fabrics of Banaras in north India. It is in the Banarasi brocade that we find the finest, most detailed rendering of flowers, birds, animals, human figures, geometric motifs and even the Persian and Nagari scripts. These fabrics are then transformed into furnishings, clothes, accessories as well as votive offerings to gods, goddesses and saints in Hindu and Buddhist temples and mosques. Fashioned most often in silk and embellished with extra patterning threads of silver and gold, these are expensive fabrics mainly used by the wealthy elite.
History of the brocaded fabrics of Banaras
The Banarasi brocades we see today are the product of a long history of cultural intermingling brought on by political conquests, trade and migration. We know from Sanskrit sources that Banaras was an ancient centre for textile manufacture and there is some indication that cotton textiles were produced here in the 16th century. However, we find no mention of silk fabrics being produced here till the 19th century though there are legends to suggest the arrival of weavers from Gujarat in western India, fleeing to escape famines, floods and fires in the region during the medieval period between the 14th and 16th centuries (Ali 1990, Jayakar 1959, Irwin and Schwartz 1966, Mohanty 1984, Agrawal 2004, Jain 2008, Varadarajan 2008). Stylistic similarities between the Ashavali fabrics of Ahmedabad, Surat brocades and brocades from Banaras, all ornamented with zari (metallic threads of gold and silver wrapped around a cotton or silk core) lend credence to these legends despite lack of firm evidence. However, we do know that silk-zari brocades of very high quality were produced in Banaras for display at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, as specimens from this event are available at the Victoria and Albert Museum (see catalogue at www.vam.ac.uk). These pieces amply demonstrate the great skill of Banaras weavers in creating the finely detailed curvilinear patterning for which that tradition is now well known. It stands to reason that such highly developed skills could not have been achieved in the mid-19th century without the craft being present in that location for at least several generations.
Banaras’s location south of the Himalayas and on the banks of the river Ganga meant it lay at the intersection of local riverine trade circulation and also overland trade routes which connected the subcontinent with the Far East, West Asia and Europe and with the Silk Route to the north. This suggests possible connections with brocade-weaving centres in the regions of China and Malaysia as well as in West and Central Asia. Sanskrit sources, medieval travelogues and monographs of the colonial period suggest that while finely ornamented fabrics were produced in India, brocades were most likely produced in the Sultanate period during Muhammad Tughlaq’s reign in the 14th century. During this period, the subcontinent was in greater contact with Central Asia and it is believed that local weavers learnt the skill of brocading from Iranian craftsmen who arrived in the wake of political conquest by invaders from the region (Mohanty 1984:353). It is equally probable that some of these immigrant craftsmen settled in western and northern India as many weavers today describe themselves as descendants of these medieval immigrants, tracing their ancestry to Hazrat Khwaja Bahauddin. Bahauddin is believed to be the inventor of the naqsha, the key element in the creation of the Banarasi brocade and his mausoleum is in Bokhara (present-day Uzbekistan), which further provides support to the belief that the craft has Central Asian connections (Mohanty 1984:353).
In addition to its location on trade routes, Banaras’s position as an important ancient pilgrimage site has also contributed to the circulation of brocades. As a pre-eminent centre for Hindu rituals of rites of passage, particularly rituals related to death, Banaras, or Kashi as the holy city is also known, drew rich and poor Hindus from all over India as well as Buddhists who were drawn to Sarnath at its outskirts. This meant that Banaras produced textiles, cotton at first and later silk brocades, for ritual and personal use and visiting pilgrims carried them home to distant corners (Eck 1982: 311–12). Even today, weavers’ quarters are located parallel to the religious strip along the river and shops in the adjoining bazaar cater to diverse tastes and needs—from nine yards saris for South Indians to bridal wear and miniature costumes for idols in household shrines.
The naqsha and the naqshaband
At the heart of the Banarasi brocade is the naqsha, variously translated as plan, map, drawing, model, scheme or pattern; and the naqshaband or planner, cartographer, model maker. In more modern terms, the naqsha is the design and the naqshaband, the designer. The naqsha is not merely a visual rendering of the motif and the naqshaband is more than just a skilled draftsman. The former is at once a visual as well as a technical artifact that has the complete information required to render a design on the loom and create a brocade fabric. An incorrectly rendered naqsha results in a misshapen woven motif, appearing inappropriately on the finished fabric, leading to wasted material, time, effort and, ultimately, financial loss.
As mentioned earlier, naqshabands are believed to have migrated to India, and Banaras, from the region around Persia (present-day Iran) or even further north, from Central Asia. With them came not only the technique of brocade weaving but also the vocabulary of motifs and their style of rendering floral and animal images. For instance, a characteristic motif of Banaras brocades is the shikargah or hunting scene, typically illustrated with hunters on horseback or on elephants, wielding guns, and pursuing deer and tigers. This scene is the staple of medieval Persian decorative arts—found in carpets, fabrics, metal ware and ceramics—and can be seen on saris and yardage produced in Banaras. Adapted to the unique scheme of the sari, the hunting scene often forms the body of the garment with matching borders and pallu (one end of the sari which is finally draped over the shoulder after covering the lower body in pleats), integrated with other elements of Persianate origin such as the tree of life and pomegranate flowers. In other instances, the hunting scene detail is seen in the pallu alone, with the mounted hunter and animals tightly packed into a paisley and repeated along the width of the sari. Yet another rendering is the arrangement of animals and hunters in a lattice layout filling the body of the sari, bringing fresh drama while using familiar motifs. All this points to the knowledge world of the hereditary naqshaband—he was one who had a rich vocabulary of motifs as an inheritance, a knowledge of how exactly these motifs would be translated into the warp and weft through the insertion of extra patterning threads in silk or zari, simultaneously being aware of the wearer’s body and the cultural requirements of modesty, all the while bringing freshness into a traditional theme without being tediously repetitive. The Persian inheritance is not rigidly adhered to and we find that over time the Banaras naqshaband has imbibed elements from diverse sources such as Chinese and Ottoman brocades and European wallpaper designs, alert to the taste of patrons, yet pushing at traditions and setting trends (Agrawal 2004:94).
In the period immediately after independence the government of India established Weavers Service Centres in different parts of the country to support craftsmen in creating new patterns and motifs for a modernizing public (Sribhas Supakar, personal communication, Banaras, November 28, 2015). One such centre was also established in Banaras and it infused new energy into its time-honoured weaving traditions. In the following decades we find experimentation with motifs, asymmetrical layouts and non-traditional imagery, such as winged angels. There is even borrowing of visual elements from other textile traditions such as tie-and-dye as well as simulating the look of fabrics from diverse regions.
Materials, craft skills and trade
Just as the techniques and motifs came from outside Banaras in the medieval period, so did the materials. Silk yarn was never indigenous to the town or its adjoining areas and came from Bengal, Central Asia and China instead. Locally made zari was supplemented with supplies from Paris. Thus trade networks flourished through the supply of raw materials and the subsequent transportation of the finished fabrics to buyers in different parts of the subcontinent and beyond to Europe, West Africa and Tibet. Gaddidars (traders) belonging to the Gujarati merchant community have been influential in the sub continental trade of raw materials for brocades as well as the sale of finished fabrics since late medieval times (Mukund Lal, Prabha Traders, personal communication, Banaras, November 29, 2015). They were in close contact with both the elite clientele and the bazaar and not only financed the craft but were astute observers of the tastes of customers, observing regional preferences and suggesting new design directions to naqshabands based on their business acumen. They continue to dominate the brocade trade even today.
This circulation pattern of medieval and colonial times continues to this day with new networks and geographies. Today Bengal, Kashmir, Karnataka, Japan and China are suppliers of silk; zari continues to be manufactured locally and procured from Surat. Saris and yardage find their way all over India and abroad, into the studios of European and American designers and sometimes even in the most unexpected of places. For instance, saris from Banaras are sought after in Nigeria and go by the name ‘Sari George’ (Lutz 2000:128). Usually, they are further embellished with beads, sequins and embroidery and fashioned into dresses and head-wraps for Nigerian women. Gujarati traders continue to dominate the trade, although other communities participate as well, including Nigerian businessmen.
While the naqshabands, with their aesthetic sensibilities and intimate knowledge of the processes of weaving, are the custodians of the skills of visualization of motifs and their placement and repetitions on the fabric, a multitude of other skills come into play in the creation of brocades (see Mohanty 1984, Agrawal 2004 and Jain 2008 for detailed studies on techniques, materials and motifs). Equivalent to the critical conceptual role of the naqshaband is the contribution of the weaver who converts these designs into textiles. Originally fully handcrafted, Banarasi brocades have been mostly produced by Muslim weavers (and a smaller number of Hindu weavers) on pit looms. The famous painting of the 15th century weaver-saint of Banaras, Kabir, depicts the pit loom, which is still in use.
Before the weaving activity begins, there are other craftsmen who look after the degumming, bleaching and dyeing according to the naqshaband’s specifications following which the warp is prepared by the womenfolk of the weavers’ families. Weavers are assisted by apprentices, often boys from their own family or caste/jamaat, who lift selected warp threads as required by the design while the weaver inserts the extra threads as required, following the naqshaband’s sketch placed beneath the warp threads. The womenfolk are then responsible for cutting away superfluous threads from the fabric, making tassels if required or adding beads or sequins. Finally, after completion of weaving and finishing, comes the contribution of calenderers who enhanced the rich sheen of the woven fabrics. Each of these processes is performed by specialist craftsmen belonging to specific castes with skills that have been handed down from father to son in an inter-generational transmission common to many handicrafts all over the subcontinent. Thus, the Banaras brocade is the collaborative creation of a number of separate craft-skills held by different communities.
Pit looms can be seen even today, though jacquard attachments with punched cards (an early 19th-century French invention) have been incorporated to speed up production. Simultaneously, powerlooms, which run on electricity, are also in use. These facts point to the weaving community’s openness to both visual vocabularies and technologies from outside. Similarly, artificial silk, lurex zari and chemical dyes have found their way to Banaras, expanding the colour palette and making the brocades more affordable thereby democratizing a fabric that was once accessible only to an elite group of people. Modern materials have also been accompanied by new technologies such as metallic transfer-printing and ‘brasso’ (devorée), which were introduced in the latter half of the 20th century. The fabrics produced with these materials and processes seek to mimic the Banarasi look—they self-consciously borrow motifs and colours—in a contemporary way. In the shrines dotting the banks of river Ganga, one can spot gods and goddesses clothed in offerings of metallic printed fabrics, almost suggesting divine approval for technological innovations!
The Banarasi sari at international exhibitions and in popular culture
The Banarasi brocades displayed at the Great Exhibition of London in 1851 were selected to showcase the high caliber of Indian manufactures of that time. Brocade fabrics were similarly shown at several such exhibitions in Europe throughout the 19th century. The trend continued after independence when Banarasi brocades were a part of the ‘Textiles and Ornaments of India’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1955. Later a series of Banarasi saris was specially commissioned for display as part of the Festival of India series of exhibitions, particularly the Vishwakarma (Master Weavers) exhibition in London in 1982. While the naqshabands and designers in the Weavers Service Centre were experimenting with new forms and layouts, these exhibitions continued to privilege Persianate motifs in an attempt to build the image of the classical ‘authentic’ brocade. However, many Indian consumers received the new innovations by the naqshabands and designers with enthusiasm.
Curiously, in the mid-1940s, Banarasi brocades became popular in the west, fashioned by designers such as Mainbocher into ‘sari dresses’, which adapted the fabric with borders into western-style women’s frocks. One of these was even sported by the Oscar-winning actress Ruth Gordon. The trend continued with the New York retailer, Filcol, launching red and gold Banarasi brocade sari dresses to coincide with the opening of the MoMA exhibition in 1955. Just as in India, the average American woman could not afford imported silks embellished with brocading in gold or silver thread, and was offered ready-to-wear dresses in metallic printed cotton fabrics available through mail order catalogues and department stores or sew-it-yourself options through patterns published in magazines like Vogue and McCalls (Martin and Koda 1994:36-48).
Indian designers regularly cater to their elite clientele, including those from the film industry, with wedding outfits and party wear fashioned with Banarasi brocades, either in their traditional form as saris and lehengas, or as contemporary short skirts and jackets. Interestingly, films played an unanticipated role in the popularization of the red Banarasi sari raising it to iconic status through its depiction as a symbol of bridal splendour, particularly in Bengali films. The image spoke so deeply to audiences that the red-gold Banarasi sari became a popular choice for Bengali brides who wore these during the main religious wedding ritual.Gradually, the red sari was used as cinematic symbol for conjugal yearning, unrequited love, marital happiness and disappointment. By the late 20th century, this kind of sari increasingly began to appear in wedding trousseaus across the subcontinent, despite the various regional variations in traditions. Quite unsurprisingly, it is also one of four costumes adopted by Indian-bride Barbie dolls made by Mattel for young Indian girls.
The Banarasi brocade today
While handcrafted brocade continues to be produced in Banaras, it is accompanied, and often challenged, by fabrics produced on powerlooms and look-alike offerings produced by traditional khari blockprinting and modern metallic-print processes. The most recent provocation is from Chinese saris, which are virtually indistinguishable from the Banarasi. Simultaneously, the versatile and skilled Banarasi naqshaband and weaver together easily produce brocades in all regional techniques too: Jamdanis, Balucharis, Kanjeevarams, and Chanderis. In the midst of this landscape, in 2009, a group of weavers associations from the region around Banaras secured Geographical Indication (GI) rights for the ‘Banaras Brocades and Sarees’ (Dr Rajani Kant, Human Welfare Association, personal communication, Banaras, November 29, 2015). While the certification secures intellectual property rights and has implications for artisans’ livelihoods, it remains to be seen how it will be advantageous to the handcrafted brocade industry in a competitive market where the traditional and modern, the authentic and the artificial, the indigenous and the foreign have come to occupy such adversarial positions.
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 Company-style miniature painting of Kabir as a weaver, c.1825, from the Central Museum in Jaipur can be viewed here.
 Brasso is similar to the French process devorée, which was developed at the turn of 19th/20th century to mimic lace. In India, the treatment is used to mimic jamdani-like brocades.
 This can seen in the saris on loan from personal collections exhibited at ‘Atoot Dor/Unbroken Thread: Banarasi Brocade Saris at Home and in the World’ at the National Museum Delhi in 2016.