For Bengali women, at least those in the majority, their treasured collection of traditional Indian saris is sure to include one Baluchari among others like a Kanjeevaram and Dhakai Jamdani. It is a well-accepted fact that ‘particular’ saris are looked upon as heirlooms, to be handed down carefully from generation to generation. A Baluchari fits into that image quite perfectly, its silken sheen reflecting centuries’ old skills woven into its fabric. In present times the popular motifs are based on the immortal Radha- Krishna romance, the legendary wedding ceremony of Lord Rama and Sita, or even the love story of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala.

Traditional Indian legends like these have been woven into its intricately designed border and especially highlighted in the ‘pallu’ or the broad decorative end of a Baluchari sari. This richly designed coffee table book seems a fitting tribute to Bengal’s heritage textile. Jasleen Dhamija’s involvement with the Baluchari revival at Benares under the guidance of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was primary in the creation of this compilation. Carefully segregated into chapters that explore a particularly unique aspect by diverse contributors, the reader will be spellbound by the magnificent designs showcased. The cherry on the cake is undoubtedly rare information accompanying the visuals.

For those averse to reading, even mere browsing through the pages will be amply rewarding. Dhamija introduces the reader to the rich textiles of Bengal “known for its distinctive weaves due to the abundant availability of cotton and silk” in its fertile land. Elaborating, she writes, the “Europeans landed up in Bengal for trading purposes” and that “15,000 silk weavers lived in Murshidabad” at that point in time. Bahadurpur, an important centre in the latter half of 19th century was home to Dubraj Das, an eminent weaver. Although from a family of ‘chamars’ or leather workers, Dubraj apprenticed under a master Muslim weaver and learnt the art of ‘naksha’, and of weaving fine “pictorial saris” which he also “signed”. An exquisitely woven Baluchari sari featured on page 19 has a close capture of one such example where his name is clearly visible in a prominent colour.

As a matter of fact, there are numerous other such photographs where his name is clearly woven onto the edge of the ‘pallu’, establishing the fact that he was an eminent and skillful weaver with many clients. However, more than a century after Dubraj Das’ passing, this iconic textile is now ruled by an agreement on the trade-related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – the Geographic Indications Act (GI) with a GI having been granted to this weave in 2009. The question that arises is “while Baluchar as a place doesn’t exist anymore, having disappeared in the sand, and the ‘naksha’ technique no longer practised, can the GI definition be applied to the weaving in Bishnupur?” More on this has been explored for readers interested in aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

However, can textiles be the subject of history? This enigmatic question has been addressed by Kavita Singh in the Foreword. She writes that, like carpets, it is generally assumed that textiles too belong to that category of objects “about which history cannot be written.” Yet some assert that textiles are “minor” antiquities, worthy of a technical or sociological study, but “are not themselves deserving to be the subject of a history of art”. The unique Baluchari weaving tradition is, in reality, an illuminating story and a window to the socio-cultural set up of the 18th and 19th centuries; for it represents more than just a textile tradition. The transition from Nawabi to Colonial rule in Bengal has been beautifully captured through them. Exploring the conditions, inspirations, material, techniques and aesthetic qualities of this weaving tradition, this book showcases how this art form travelled from Murshidabad to Bishnupur, then to Benares as well as the museums around the world.

This weaving tradition dates back almost 200 years and is believed to have evolved from a village called Baluchar near the Bhagirathi river. The textiles were made from locally cultivated mulberry silk and naturally dyed threads were woven or traditional looms, or ‘jalas’. The pictorial representations on the ‘pallu’ or end of the sari added a unique identity to their designs. A characteristic motif was the ‘kalka’ or mango shape. This motif ultimately evolved into intricate designs when they were used in denser designs and along the border of a sari. A treasure trove on the history of this weaving tradition; its origin, evolution, decline and then its revival, this book comprises 16 chapters aside from Forewordand Epilogue; each respective section has been contributed by authorities closely associated with the subject. An interesting feature is the “transformation” of a Baluchari into modern-day haute couture by DKNY. It is astonishing to see how this traditional woven silk with its quintessential design in silk has now been reinvented to fit into the stylish 21st century. The flared mini-dress in red and black with traditional motifs and flaunted by an international model was specially designed by the New York-based fashion house for Vogue magazine.

Donna Karen, chief creator of DKNY had said, “It’s exciting to take something traditional and do something completely unexpected with it”. Conservative or orthodox Bengalis may not agree; however, keeping an open mind is essential help when looking at heritage in the process of reinvention. Among the nuggets of information that accompany pictures and maps is one on Murshidabad and its’ connect with Baluchars. Apparently, the regular flooding of this town had serious repercussions and eventually led to the complete destruction of the Baluchar village when a tributary of the Ganges was destroyed with all the weaving equipment used to create Baluchari saris. In 1970, a Baluchari revival took place in Bishnupur, and soon the subject matter of these iconic saris changed since “the design and manufacture moved from Murshidabad to Benares to Bishnupur”. And the revival continues to this day, with contemporary designs adding fresh flair and lustre to the sheen of an ancient Indian craft.