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Paithani Saris


Among the most gorgeous of Indian saris is the pithani, woven in the western state of Maharashtra. Exemplifying the merger of the aesthetic with the symbolic, they are today a prized possession and a family heirloom.

The art of fine weaving and the complex processes of bleaching and dyeing and the arts of hand and loom embroidery were perfected by the people of India long before conditions in the textile industry were modernized. These crafts were mostly hereditary and the qualities required of a true artisan were apprenticeship, devotion to duty and co-operation. The knowledge of the arts and crafts was imparted from one generation to the next.

References in ancient history indicate that an amazing variety of costumes made of cotton and silk fabrics were used in India. The Rig Veda mentions a golden woven fabric and the Greek records tal kof gorgeous paithani fabrics from the great ancient trading and industrial centres, Pratishan or Paithan in Maharashtra.

Even today Maharashtra is the home of the most celebrated textile—the paithani, gold embroidered zari sari with its wonderful designs and woven borders. Even during the medieval period, the interaction between the Hindu and Muslim rulers gave rise to new styles. The Marathas extended their patronage to textile activities. Some centres became renowned for their textiles and the fabric frequently derived its name from the place of origin. For example, paithani came from Paithan, shahagadi from Shagad etc. The Peshwas in the 18th century had a special love for paithani textiles and it is believed that Madhavrao Peshwa even asked for the supply of asavali dupattas in red, green, saffron, pomegranate and pink colours.

It is believed that the Nizam of Hyderabad was also attracted to the paithanis and made several trips to the small town of Paithan. His daughter-in-law, Niloufer, is believed to have introduced new motifs to the border and pallav (outer end of the sari) designs.

Naina Jhaveri of Swayam Siddha, Bombay, is one of the best known designers and an authority on paithani saris in Mharashtra.

“The speciality of the paithani is its border and pallav. Earlier just 2-3 colours were popular which were integrated in the sari in the dhup chaon pattern which, when translated, means light and shade.” In 1990 Naina’s interest in the paithani sari turned into an obsession prompting her to do directly to the weavers in Paithan to create her own exclusive designs. Today Naina has nearly 200 designs, the largest selection of paithani in Maharashtra.

The price of a paithani sari starts from Rs. 4,000/- and can move up to Rs. 1,50,000/-. “The paithani sari is an entirely handwoven item. Depending on the intricacy of the design, it takes anything from one month to a year to weave,” explains Naina. The traditional paithani used to be a plain sari with a heavy zari border and ornamental pallav. “But today paithanis with motifs are in vogue: stars, circles, peacocks, flowers and paisleys. The paithani borders and pallavs are heavily adorned with these motifs and the sari is given the name after the design on it. Tota-maina (parrot), bangdi-mor (peacock with round design), asavali (flower and vine), narli (coconut), are all descriptive of paithanis. For inspiration, the weavers turn to the myriad birds and flowers around them,” informs Naina.

In the olden days the zari used in making paithanis was drawn from pure gold. But today silver is substituted for gold thus making the paithanis more affordable to many people. Every six months Naina creates at least 2-3 new designs and at any given time there are about 10 different designs available (four styles per colour). Fourteen weavers are exclusively working for Naina and she has nearly 40 colours for her customers to choose from. Besides retailing from her residence, Naina holds periodic exhibitions in Bombay and in different parts of India. “Buying a paithani is not an impulsive decision. A lot of planning and thought must go into it since it is so expensive. But once bought, at least three generations can wear it if it is preserved properly,” she advises.

Naina’s innovations for a paithani sari include enlarging an 18 inch to 25 inch pallav into a 39 inch one and in heavier saris she provides 2-3 matching blouse pieces so that more than one member of the family can wear the sari.

The basic weave of the paithani sari is simple. It is a tabby weave but more recently even the modern jacquard has been incorporated by Naina. The speciality lies in the design which is woven without the assistance of a mechanical contriance like a jala. Multiple spindles are used to produce the linear design. The border as well as the pallav carry creeper and floral motifs on a background of gold. Such saris are worn by brides. “A paithani is a must in a bride’s trousseau today and the red-white version called the panetar is the wedding sari for the Gujarati community.”

The paithani became very popular during the Maratha period. At that time the favourite motif was the asavali, a kind of flower and hence the saris were also known as asavali paithanis.

“Before weaving the sari the raw silk which is obtained from Bangalore is cleaned with caustic soda. Then it is dyed into the different colours required. The silk threads are then separated by the women and then they are ready to be woven. The whole family is involved in the weaving of the sari.”

Although the paithani sari is costly it has become a popular item in the marriage ceremonies of the rich and the not-so-rich. Besides Paithan, the saris are woven in Yeola, known for the mango motif pallavs and in Pune, Nashik, and Malegaon in Maharashtra. Thus the paithani sari has played a significant role in weaving together the cultural fabric of Maharashtra.

Initially Naina did experience some resistance from the weavers who were not open to weaving the saris in more contemporary designs. “But once they realized that I knew the subject well they were eager to try,” she says with triumph in her voice. Naina has even made paithani fabrics for salwar-kameezes and ghagra-cholis. These are priced around Rs. 5,500/-. “They are specially created for persons who do not wear saris but would still like to wear the paithani fabric in some form or the other,” she adds. Today traditional weaving may be on the decline, “but during the past three years there has been an awakening to the beauty of the paithani sari. It is like a beautiful dream. Its classic beauty fascinates the connoisseur and since the paithani weaver hands over his skills to his children, it goes on like a precious heirloom.”

Human skills may have been replaced by machines. However, no machine-made fabric can compare with the hand-made beauty of the paithani sari by the master craftsmen of Maharashtra.

Preserving for your paithani sari:

The price tag on the paithani demands that utmost care be taken to preserve the fabric and its luster. The sari should not be kept in a cardboard box or plastic bags. Also, if possible, it should not be hung on a hanger. The best way is to keep it is wrapped in a muslin cloth. No perfume should be applied directly onto the sari, neither should menthol balls be packed with the paithani sari. The sari should be roll pressed and dry cleaned. There is no need to polish the zari often since it will weaken the sari.