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Durries Outshine the Carpets

The durrie began life as a poor relation of the carpet. It lacked all that a carpet had-class, luxury, visual appeal. Till 1947, the durrie was strictly a utility item. It formed the bottom layer of a bedding, making the bed smoother to lie on. It was used as floor covering too, but seldom for aesthetic reasons, for durries those came in terribly pedestrian designs and the colours had a tendency to ‘bleed’.

Came the Partition of India in 1947 and through sheer chance, the people displaced from Hyderabad (Sind), Jhang and Multan were allotted land in and around Panipat and most of them happened to be skilled weavers. They lost no time setting up looms and getting down to their ancestral craft, only to realize that they were up against stiff competition from mills producing the same type of durries much faster and much cheaper.

To counter the challenge, weavers of handloom durries began to experiment with colour and design. Here and there zebra stripes began to give way to floral and geometrical motifs. Stock blues and reds made rooms for rich Indian colours. Slowly the new kind of durrie caught on. And from cotton to woolen durries was but a natural transition, Panipat being one of the largest markets of raw wool in north India.

Today the Panipat-Ambala durrie belt is famous all over the country and has various outlets, at home and abroad. One notable outlet that serves admirably both local and foreign markets is Fabindia, which is Delhi based. The Central Cottage Industries Emporium and other state emporia also sell durries.

A durrie is different from a carpet in that is has no pile. Unlike a carpet, it has no backing either, for which reason it is reversible. While carpets are produced by knotting pile yarn to warp, durries are made by interweaving weft and warp. Panja durries are made on small or medium sized weaving frames. With deft fingers the weaver picks up a specified number of threads on the wrap and insert the coloured yarn that forms the weft, firmly ramming it down in palace with the help of a panja or heavy, multipronged metal fork. This is a traditional type of durrie, originally made by village women around Panipat and was perhaps intended to from part of their daughters’ dowries.

The handloom durrie, a more recent development, is woven on a loom which is much larger than weaving frame. Here the weft is wound on a shuttle and expertly slid across the warp. Both panja and handloom durries are made in wool or cotton or a mixture of the two. Sometimes jute fibre is also added to the thread. The panja durrie is preferred by some because it is firmer and thicker and the motifs stand out in bold relief.

A fairly new type of durrie on the Indian market is the chindi durrie or rag rug. Probably the creation of some thrifty householder, it was originally made from scraps of old apparel, the warp being stout cotton thread. Cotton still forms the warp, but the scraps have long since changed character. Now they come in bulk, right out of the garment manufacturing units that have mushroomed in recent years and that is why the chindi durrie appears in all colours of the rainbow. An innovation on the same theme is the leather scrap durrie. With the thriving leather industry at Agra, Kanpur and other places, leather scrap is no problem and this is being fashioned into elegant and unusual rugs.

Durries are woven in various other parts of the country as well. Each region has its own distinctive motifs and colour combinations. The designs on durries woven by the Bhutias of Darjeeling, for example, have a strong Tibetan influence. Dragons are a favourite motif, so are clouds. In south India, durries are woven in the bright colours that one usually associates with fabrics from the part of the country. Among the most picturesque are the durries of Navalgund, a small place in the Dharwar district of Karnataka. The Bhawani durries of Coimbatore district in Tamil Nadu are at least a couple of centuries old. Duries from Madhya Pradesh are known for their sturdy character and delightful colours. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, all make distinctive types of durries in wool or cotton or both.

The latter half of the sixties saw the rise of a major talent in the field of designer durries-Shyam Ahuja. For a few years after partition, Ahuja worked with his father, an exporter of wool. When the vogue for synthetics caused wool exports to slump, Ahuja turned to manufacturing and exporting woolen carpets, but only with marginal success.

Ahuja’s lucky break came when the American carpet designer Irwin Carey asked him to manufacture durries for him. The first sample was done in wool, in a design created by Ahuja himself on the basis of traditional Islamic patterns and worked in soft pastels. The piece was a sensation. Order began to flow in, particularly export orders. The designer durrie had come into its own.

For all his commercial success and international celebrity status, what comes through most powerfully is Shyam Ahuja the artist. Very early in life, Ahuja showed an aptitude for drawing. To that has been added a deep and abiding interest in fashioning textile. He has had no formal training in this field, yet the design direction of S.A. Pvt. Ltd. (Shyam Ahuja Private Limited) is entirely his own.

Anand Sagar Khera and son Madhukar run the Bharat Carpet Manufacturing Co. at Panipat and are one of the major suppliers of export quality durries to Fabindia. Khera Sr. is an alumnus of the Mayo School of Art, Lahore. Well into his seventies, he stil retains a lively interest in drawing and paining and traveling. Madhukar is a traveller too and an expert weaver in his own right and both excel at designing durries. The Kheras have a number of firsts to their credit. Theirs was the first hand-knotted carpet manufacturing unit to be established at Pantipat. In 1966 they switched to durries. And today their designs have caught on as far a field as Assam and in several foreign countries as well. They are among the first to have introduced steel structures for weaving durries and fitting them wit little inputs like hand levers to facilitate the work of the weaver. And they are trail blazers in that their unit is housed in large, open, well ventilated halls where the air is clean andnot choked with dust sand fibre. Once an employee attains a certain degree of expertise and is so inclined, the Kheras help him set up his own independent unit, in direct contract with buyers. Amazingly, the Kheras refuse to expand beyond a pint because too much business might lead to lower standards of production. It might also cut into the time available for their other interests.

One of the latest entrants in the field of the designer durrie is a soft-spoken young woman, Neeru Kumar. A graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Kumar is, like Ahuja and the Kheras, primarily an artist-creating for the joy of it.

All three-Ahuja, the Kheras and Kumar-are agreed on one point: basically the story of the designer durrie is nothing but the colour story. What forms the main selling point in this business is the highly imaginative, clever use of coloour. Ahuja rises to poetic heights on the subject, saying that most durries are bough on an impulse because the customer has fallen in love with a particular blend of colours. He himself is famed far and wide for the use of soft pastels.

The Kheras maintain that the naturals are their strength and their ability to blend naturals, an assets. Natural wool colours-brown, black, off-white and beige, do not show up dust that easily and are equally popular at home and abroad. These are blended with traditional Indian colours, according to exigencies of design and the ruling tastes. Neeru Kumar also believes in rich, warm, Indian colours blended to advantage with naturals. These are far more practical than pastels in the dust laden atmosphere of an average Indian home.

Where does a designer get the designs for his durries? Well, like all inspiration, most of the time they just come. But not idea or design is a disembodied product of the human mind. It has to take off from somewhere. In Ahuja’s case it is his deep tooted respect for traditional, classic design. He changes these and adds something of his own to make them relevant in the present context. He has an inbuilt feeling for design. A design is either right or wrong. If right, Ahuja pursues it. If wrong, he simply leaves it out. There are no in betweens. Ahuja has the whole thing programmed. All his designs are on record, down to the minutest detail, including colour combinations. As such it is possible to repeat any piece on demand, be it Cardoba, Textile, Valencia, Kismet or Kavita.

At Fabindia the designing is often a group effort between the staff, professional designers (which is where the Kheras come in), customers and weavers. The motifs used are adaptation from old books and Kaleens. A master sample is retained but the weaver is allowed a free hand so long as the finished product is appealing to the eye. Neeru Kumar relies on modern designs, chiefly geometrical figures and grids. Since she does not have the size of organization required to mass produce, her durries tend to be one of a kind and this, to some buyers, is a plus point.

Shyam Ahuja’s durries are not for those who function on a slim budget. But the maintain that they are still very reasonably priced in relation to hand-made durries the world over, if we take into account the consistently high quality of raw material and workmanship. Neeru Kumar’s durries are within reach of a middle class buyer, while Fabindia has a glorious range to suit almost every pocket.

The hand-made designer durries, in cotton, wool or silk, have come on the textile scene like a breath of fresh air. Here at last is promise of a beautiful interior that does not cost the earth. Durries are cheaper than carpets. They are also lighter and easier to maintain being, in most cases, washable. And with the added bonus of reversibility, you have two for the price of one.

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