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Patan's Patola A Labour of Love

A patola sari is a lifetime investment that endures for over 100 years! Besides the unique feature of the double ikat weave, the finished cloth is identical on the obverse and reserv

Patans Patola A Labour of Love
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Flamboyance and vibrant are the words that come to mind when talking of Gujarat – whether in the attire of its people, its festivals, its cuisine or crafts. This is more than true in relation to the much-coveted, world-famous Patola of Patan.

Patan is only one of three regions in the world that produce double Ikat fabric, the most complicated of all textile designs, Tenganan village in Bali and Okinawa in Japan being the other two. Amongst these, Patan alone enjoys the pride of weaving the longest measure of the material – a divinely beautiful 6 yards of unyielding labour!

What better time to visit Patan to watch the weavers give form to this exquisite fabric than during the annual International Kite Festival in January! We leave behind the broad city roads of Ahmedabad and travel on a state highway that is bulging with traffic and is flanked by vast emerald fields of greens, sunflower and cotton. A little over two hours we enter Patan, the ancient fortified town on the banks of the Saraswati River, founded by Vanraj Chavda in 745 CE and subsequently ruled by the powerful Solanki dynasty.

A melange of intricately sculpted balconies with balustrades, marble domes and lintels of havelis in a dilapidated state, jostle for space with several Jain temples. It is at once palpable from the ruins that Patan, the home of Hemchandra Acharya the Jain monk and polymath who gave the Gujarati language its first grammar, had enjoyed a glorious past.

We negotiate our vehicle through narrow alleyways to come upon the humble abodes of Patan's dwellers where the exotic patola is woven.

No whirring of machines, no noise, no smell of fuel or fumes here. The gentle, rhythmic and barely audible sound of a bamboo shuttle moving back and forth, greets us. A primitive hand-operated harness loom crafted from teak or rosewood, and bamboo strips, displays closely packed skeins of meticulously arranged thread. A sari is in the making. Even in its infant stage of weaving, the patola appears stunning. Its beauty is based on simple geometric patterns with an exuberant expression of colours set against a red background.

Textile connoisseurs consider patola as reflective of perfection in weaving because if even a single thread is displaced, the resulting design would be warped. The process of producing a patola piece is extremely complex and time-consuming, requiring a blend of mathematical precision and creativity.

The design to be woven is first drawn on graph paper and then copied onto the yarn. Narikunjar, ratanchawk, phul bhat, butta bhat, navaratna are some of the most popular patola patterns but changing times bring with them contemporary flavours. Motifs sculpted on Patan's stupendous Rani ki Vav stepwell, find themselves on patola saris.

Patola borrows its style partially from the intricate Bandhani art of tie and dye on the warp and weft (vana and tana in local parlance) separately before weaving.

The dyeing process is tedious and intricate, requiring each one of the warp threads to be tied and dyed according to the pattern selected. Since raw silk is thinner than human hair, eight silk strands are enmeshed to a single string before being bleached. Natural dyes like catechu, cochineal, indigo, turmeric, natural lac, harde, madder roots, manjistha, ratnajyot, katha, kesudo, pomegranate skin, henna and marigold flower, are used in patola-making. However, chemicals including alum, copper sulphate, ferrous sulphate, potassium dichromate and other mordents are also used in the dyeing process.

Tying, dyeing, untying and retying for further dyeing with different colours is an endless process. "It takes six hours of continuous work for only 10 inches of yarn getting dyed," reveals Ujjwal Salvi, one of the youngest generations of a Salvi family engaged in the art!

The pattern becomes visible once the dyed threads of the warp of different, repeat patterns are put together in a sequence on the loom. Weaving the threads is yet another cumbersome process that yields at best 10 inches of woven stuff at the end of 10 hours or a day's work by two weavers working on it. Needless to say, six yards of the fine fabric takes as many months to complete!

No wonder then, the price of a patola sari ranges from a hefty minimum of Rs 1 lakh to a whopping Rs 6 lakhs and above, depending on the intricacy of the design and use of dyes – natural or synthetic. According to the Salvis, it is true that 75% of the cost of a saree is attributed to labour with the cost of raw material accounting for a mere 25%. A patola sari is a lifetime investment that endures for over 100 years! Besides, the unique feature of the double ikat weave is that the finished cloth is identical on the obverse and reserve!

Historically speaking the art of double ikat patola weaving goes back several centuries as evidenced by paintings in Ajanta caves. Patola weavers known by the surname Salvi were patronised by Kumarpal the Solanki ruler who would offer daily worship at the temple, sporting a new patola outfit each day. He obtained the fabric from Jhalna in Southern Maharashtra which was then the centre of patola weaving. When Kumarpal discovered that the Jhalna exports were not new, but used as bedspread by its king, he was infuriated. He waged a war against the king and defeated him. 700 craftsmen of patola were then brought to Patan to ensure pure supply of the fabric for his worship. Kumarpal, a follower of the Jain faith it is believed, later converted the weaving community into Shwethamber Jains! This probably explains the presence of over hundred Jain temples in Patan.

Even after the decline of the Solanki dynasty, patola continued to enjoy the patronage of wealthy merchants of Gujarat for whom it became an established status symbol. Besides, it was also imported by the royal families of Indonesia. However, foreign demand for the fabric declined drastically in the years following the Second World War. The Salvis who struggled to make a livelihood from it moved to greener pastures. The craft steadily declined over the decades. Only four families are engaged in it today!

The Salvis have won several national and other awards for their remarkable creations. Two volumes of the book 'The Patola of Gujarat: Double Ikat in India', authored by Germans, Alfred Buhler and Eberhard Fischer, were published in 1979. The Government of India launched a postage stamp of Rs 5 on Patan ka Patola on November 15, 2002. Patola also enjoys the Geographical Indication (GI) tag. A couple of patola saris bought by Queen Elizabeth during one of her visits to India, enjoy the pride of place in museums in London and Switzerland. Sonia Gandhi is believed to have worn on the occasion of the closing ceremony of Commonwealth Games 2010, a patola sari handed down to her by Mrs Indira Gandhi.

While patola, undoubtedly enjoys a niche market and every piece is a made-to-order gorgeous splendour, it is equally true that the art is struggling for survival! The art which takes 8-10 years to learn and perfect, is laborious and time-consuming, has a restricted market, and involves an inordinately long payback time. These factors deter the younger generation from pursuing it. In such a scenario, it is heartening to see Ujjwal Salvi, equipped with degrees in Commerce, and Rahul Salvi, an architect by qualification, engaged in patola-weaving. The Salvi family of Patola House to which Rahul belongs is one of the four families that has carried forward this heritage art since the 11th century over roughly 35 generations. For them, as for the other three families, it is a tapasya or meditation of sorts to keep the rich heritage afloat.

As I leave the Salvis with their looms and creative narrations on an exotic fabric, I wonder if the glorious weave is an ode to the beauty of silk or vice versa! It is impossible to remain unmoved by this exquisite work of mankind which feeds and fans human vanity!
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