Nestled in the Hooghly district of West Bengal is Dhaniakhali, a village, which has grown to become synonymous with the much-coveted Dhaniakhali sari. Lightweight and dreamlike in its constitution, the sari prides itself on bearing the Geographical Indication (GI) tag.
The origins of the sari can roughly be traced back to 1935, when Dhaniakhali was on its way to becoming a fertile ground of handloom textiles, of which the most prominent was – and still is – the eponymous sari, as well as Bangla tant weaves.
Traditionally, the sari is crafted from pure cotton with a yarn count of 100S (in both the warp and weft portions), which explains its paper-thin texture. While most saris constitute a 5.5 metredrape, Dhaniakhali saris have a drape that goes up to six metres. Another distinguishing factor of the sari is that it is starched rather profusely, with a mixture of sago seeds, wheat, puffed paddy rice, and more. A bamboo reed, colloquially known as ”sar” reed, is a crucial component in the weaving of the sari, and is used to control and direct the threads, thus helping the weave attain the required texture.
The conventional colour palette involved in the weaving of the sari speaks of greys, whites, and blacks; however, adapting to changing times, weavers have now started to incorporate bright yellows, pinks, reds, and greens—among many other shades—to lend the sari vibrancy. The yarn used for the weaving of the sari is usually dyed with natural components, a process that first travelled to Dhaniakhali back in 1942. The sari also boasts an extra warp with elaborate motifs sewn onto it. It is further characterised by its thick dobby border—usually fashioned from different silks or zari— which is adorned with numerous designs such as stripes, flowers, geometrical shapes, and everything in between. These dobby borders, known as ”Maathapaar” or “Beluaaripaar”, function as a defining feature of the sari, and sit in perfect proportion to the overall cloth—this lends the weave a simplistic yet elegant look. Dhaniakhali saris comprise yet another special feature called ”khejur chori”, a dual-coloured arrangement of weft yarns, woven in a twisted manner across the pallu.
In addition to Dhaniakhali, the sari is also woven in other villages and divisions in Hooghly, namely Dwarhata, Gurap, Antpur, Haripal, Ramnagar, and more. Today, however, the younger generation of weavers is leaving the profession as it is not yielding enough financial returns. In fact, Dhaniakhali was home to about 733 working weavers in 2007–2008, a number that sizably came down to 333 in 2013–2014. Apart from meagre pay, other issues that incessantly plague the handloom industry of Dhaniakhali span a range of aspects including production and logistics to workforce and marketing.
In a bid to revitalise the industry, weaving co-operatives in the village are taking conscious steps to amalgamate the weave with other textiles such as muga silk, and techniques including jacquard and tie-dye. The sari has also been receiving an impetus from Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, who sports it with great pride, time and again.
Moreover, the village also boasts of the Dhaniakhali Sari Museum, an establishment which is into the wholesale and retail trade of Dhaniakhali tant saris, woven on handlooms.