Born in the 15th century in the village of Shantipur in the Nadia district of West Bengal, the Bangalar Tant saris have seen India from the Mughal reign through the colonial times and survived it all despite attempts at suppression by the British. So successful was the Tant during this period that the British tried to lower its production in order to safeguard their own cotton industry back in Manchester. Yet, this craft held its own through all the ups and downs.
Highly endorsed by aristocracy, Bangalar Tant refers to hand-woven cotton saris that were worn by commoners in the Mughal era. To this date, they are a preferred category of saris for day-to-day use, owing to their light and breezy nature which makes them perfect for the Indian summer. Tant weaving is practised by rural artisans of Bengal who are known to have migrated from Bangladesh during the partition in 1947 and rehabilitated in different parts of West Bengal like Shantipur, Hoogly and Burdwan. Each district has its own distinct style that makes this art form so diverse.
The process of weaving Tant saris is elaborate and requires planning. First the cotton threads are washed, bleached, re-washed, sun-dried and then dyed to achieve the desired colour. They are then starched and processed in order to make the yarns finer. To weave it, the patterns of the border, pallu and the body are sketched out on cardboard and perforated in order to suspend from the loom to guide the weaving process. A few years prior to India’s independence, the jacquard loom was introduced into the Bangalar Tant technique and was so well-accepted that it is preferred even today! But today, a vast portion of the handlooms have been replaced by power looms to increase productivity and income of the weavers. The Bangalar Tant style of weaving can be characterised by their wide borders and intricate pallus which are adorned with traditional floral motifs and paisleys. Some of the other commonly found motifs are the bee, amulet, elephant, the royal palace and a garland of moons. In order to ensure sturdiness, the borders are woven thicker than the rest of the sari. What is interesting is that Tant saris are a little bigger than the traditional saris. They go up to 6 metres in length rather than 5.5 metres. A simple sari would take up to 12 hours but a more complex one might take a week. Besides saris, this technique is also used in dhotis and loin-cloths for men.
In order to generate a more contemporary look, one will often find some interesting elements in the modern Bangalar Tant saris. From hand-painted to printed and embroidered, the canvas is very large. In fact, a very recent trend is the juxtaposition of Tant saris with the Benaras silk sari where the Bangalar Tant is woven with Benaras brocade inspired patterns using zari thread on the border and the pallu.