The story of the classic Paithani sari goes back two thousand years and despite the pressures of change, still survives, embodying the values of traditional pride, artistic dedication, indigenous culture and the eternal values of perfection.
Hold the fabric of this sari in your hands and feel it with your heart and you will realize its magic – woven with resplendent colours which glisten and dance like the feathers of a peacock. The flowers and patterns on its pallav seem to float on a river of molten gold, transporting you back to long ago times as far back as 200 B.C. when it was considered precious in the then splendid city of Pratishthan ruled by the legendary Shalivahana (now Paithan by the Godavari in Marathawada, about fifty kilometers from Aurangabad). At that time, the city was actually a trade centre for silk and zari (gold yarn) and even exported cottons and silks to the Roman Empire. This fabric known as Paithani drew its name from the city.
At that time and after, the Paithani was exported to many countries and was traded in exchange for gold and precious stones. This tells us that the fabric was considered to be very precious. In fact, it was so special that it even found mention in some holy texts. There is a story in the `Mahabharata’ that when Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas, cut her finger accidentally, Lord Krishna, did not think twice before tearing a piece of his expensive `pitambara’ just to tie her bleeding finger, a proof of how much he loved Draupadi.
Because of its preciousness, the fabric and the tradition survived, supported along the way. During the time of the Moghuls, the art of weaving this sari was encouraged and patronized by Aurangzeb, around the 17thcentury. In fact the `aurangzebi’ designs that were specially developed for him are used even today.
After the Mughals, it was the Great Peshwas who encouraged this fascinating art. It is said that Madhavrao Peshwe, had special motifs and colour combinations designed exclusively for himself. He wore the fabric as a stole across his shoulders. Other Peshwas royalty also ensured that Paithani weaving flourished. Under their patronage, even Yeola, a small town near Nashik, became as important as Paithan. It was the Peshwas who encouraged a feeling of pride in Paithani among Maharashtrians.
Gradually, the magic of the Paithani slowly spread to neighbouring regions and even the Nizam of Hyderabad came under its spell. Special motifs were created to suit the tastes of the Paithani’s new found admirers.
With the coming of the British Raj the art of the Paithani suffered a setback perhaps in the same way that numerous other traditional arts and crafts in the country. But the tradition persisted in its own way. The weavers from Yeola kept this art alive by developing their own weaving techniques, similar to the Paithani weave. The `yeola shaloo’ or the bridal sari, was created by these weavers. This was the slightly cheaper version of the Paithani. The craftsmen from Paithan too slowly migrated to Yeola and set up looms there.
It is because of the dedication and faith of weavers that this tradition has been kept alive for more than two thousand years. Today, Yeola has become the main centre for Paithani weaving, although the sari has still retained the name that it derived from its birthplace. A garment for ladies and the Pitambara, the yellow cloth are the two types in which the Paithani is made today.
Originally woven with cotton yarn, the Paithani was produced as required. Because of this, each piece was embellished with motifs that were chosen by the individual for a specific occasion. Then, as the demand and admiration for this sari increased, silk yarn was introduced for the borders and pallavs. In the earlier times the zari was drawn from pure gold. This gave it a classic dignity and saved it from garishness. However, nowadays, silver has become the affordable substitute. The zari comes from Surat, the resham(silk) from Bangalore.
Even today, the typical Paithani sari is made only with the finest quality silk yarn with pure zari interwoven in its borders and pallav(end piece). The two tone three dimensional effect in the main body of the sari is achieved by using two different colours in the lengthwise (warp) and width (weft) wise weaving.
What really sets the Paithani apart is its unique weaving technique. The entire process, from dyeing of the yarn to weaving, is done by hand. Dyes are mostly vegetable based and are extracted from sources like flowers, tree bark and leaves. Hand looms are used to weave the main body of the sari. The weaving process of the pallav and borders is similar to the tapestry weaving technique, which is one of the most ancient weaving techniques in the world. And of course because of the uniqueness of the sari, the silk that is used is extremely fine and delicate.
The process of creating designs and motifs is also unusual. The motifs are created by interlocking and tying the coloured threads to the warp (lengthwise threads) on the loom. In fact, the reverse side of the design is almost identical to the right side. These patterns literally seem as if they have been inlaid into the main fabric.
The designs are first drawn by the master craftsman on graph paper in exactly the same way that it had been done for centuries. This is why the patterns seen geometrical in nature. Each weaver refers to this paper and expresses this design on the sari. Every craftsman has own style of weaving that is as unique as his own thumbprint, thus adding to the character of this beautiful sari.
Each motif and every colour requires the weaver to use a separate `kakda’ (Spool). This process is tedious and time consuming. So, sometimes, a single sari can sometimes take up to two years to weave.
The motifs that are used to embellish the borders and the pallavsare inspired by the traditional forms. Due to Paithani’s proximity to the Ajanta caves, some motifs like to the lotus, the triple bird and the seated Buddha seem to have been inspired by their paintings. The Buddha motif is perhaps the only human motif used in the pallav and that is surprising as Pathani saris were first used for the decoration of Hindu gods and then taken up by the Hindu women.
Many of these designs are found on the border and pallav in different shapes and sizes. Nowadays, the most popular ones are the mor (peacock) bangadi mor (peacock in a bangle), kairi (paisley), asavali (flowering creeper), kamal (lotus), panja and tota maina , muniya (parrot). The names of certain Paithanis are also based on their colours. A black Paithani with a red border is called `Kalichandrakala’, the `Raghu’ is a parrot green sari and the gorgeous pure white Paithani is the `Shirodak’.
The harmony between the design of the borders and the overall colour is important, so this influences the combination to be used even before the creation starts. The main traditional colours used are neeligunji (blue), pasila (red and green), gujri (black and white), mirani( black and red), motiya (pink), kusumbi (purplish red) and pophali (yellow). Interestingly these combinations have remained the same over the last two hundred years.
The main body of the sari is decorated with `buttis’ (small motifs) like circles, stars, paisley, chandrakor (half moon) `mor’ (peacocks), tara (s tar), popat (parrot), kuyri (mango), rui phool (flower), paisa (coin), pankha (fan), kalas pakli (urn and petal), kamal (lotus), chandrakor (moon), narli (coconut). The denser these motifs, the longer the weaver takes to complete the sari. Sometimes nearly as many as nine hundred such buttis are woven along the entire length of the sari.
The charm of the Paithani sari lies in its pallav or end piece. The unique fact about the pallav is that it is `reversible’ ,with the same design seen on both sides unlike in other saris where the pallav has only one side. It is woven entirely in gold and silk threads that are packed so close together that when worn; it seems as if sheet of beaten gold is draped on the shoulder.
However, it is the slow weaving process and the rising gold prices that could be the nemesis of the Paithani. In the face of mechanization and the changing economic situation, this tradition has to fight for survival. And the fight has not been an easy one, with change dramatically affecting Paithani weavers. Over the years the weaving activity has grown weaker. In fact, many of the second generation weavers have taken up other professions or have migrated, and have adopted the styles and techniques of the places they have settled in.
The price of Paithanis range from five thousand to five lakh rupees. The more expensive saris are woven only on demand. So in order to produce affordable saris, weavers use cheaper silk and artificial zari. Designs are made by `jacquard’ and `dobby’ weaving techniques which are both cheaper and faster. Unfortunately, in the process, the original Paithani has been overtaken by poor imitations and so the laypersons no longer knows what the authentic Paithani looks like. The market is flooded with spurious fabric, as cheap as two thousand rupees, which lacks quality, texture and durability and most of all the classic spirit.
In order to revive this craft, the Paithani Training and Production Centre was established at Paithan in 1968 by the MSSIDC (Maharashtra State Small Scale Industry Development Corporation) with an intention to promote the weaving of the Paithani. Designers now help weavers to diversify their art in order to attract new admires for the Paithani. Wall hangings, dress fabric, shawls, stoles, sari borders are also being made using basic Paithani techniques. These products are sold at various Government run retail stores in areas which attract tourists. One hopes that these effort coupled with the enduring grace of the Paithani will surely help to keep the tradition alive.
The Paihtani of Maharashtra is not a just silk sari of gorgeous colours, intricate design and painstaking labour. Such is the love for the Paithani that not a single Maharashtrian brides’ trousseau is complete without a Paithani sari and a shela (stole), the best that the family can afford. It is passed on from generation to generation and cherished as an heirloom. When the new bride drapes this heirloom on her shoulders, she feels a connection with her ancestors and is reassured that their blessings are with her. The magic has been passed on.
Although they seem fragile, Paithanis are extremely durable. Some are known to last for up to two hundred years. And even when the silk finally wears out, the border and the pallavof a true Paithani may be burned to leave a ball of solid gold…..the parting gift of a gracious sari.
The story of this fabric is alive with traditional pride, artistic dedication, indigenous culture and the eternal values of perfection. It speaks in the language of aesthetics which has been nurtured by centuries of artistic experience alive with a magical glow of inspiration.
Pictured above is our radiant bride Nikita Kirloskar Mohite. She is wearing a traditional yellow Paithani that all maharashtrian brides wear at the time of the wedding muhurat. The Paithani has a border of ‘bangadi mor ‘ and had ‘paisa butti ‘ all over the main body. On her shoulders is a ‘shela’ or a stole that is given to her by the groom’s family, symbolising the bride being welcomed into his family. The shela has a border of flowers and creepers ( asavali motif) .