Gujarat prides itself on its rich repository of indigenous weaves, which would be incomplete without the mention of mashru. However, this fabric goes beyond being a mere textile to signify the convergence of two profound, longstanding traditions.
The use of mashru proliferated somewhere in the 19th century, in Islamic nations as well as the Indian subcontinent.
Linguistically, “mashru” is believed to have been derived from both Arabic and Sanskrit. While in the former, it means “allowed’, in Sanskrit, the word stands for a merger of elements, and rightly so – it is an amalgam of silk and cotton. So seamlessly are both the fibres blended together that it almost, at once, feels like a mirage to the onlooker.
The genesis of the textile can be traced back to archaic Islamic communities across the globe, whose religion forbade them to wear pure silk since it involved the killing of both the silkworm and its cocoon. In keeping with this, they started weaving a fabric whose insides consisted of cotton, while the exterior remained that of silk. This arrangement is said to have been “permitted” by the sacred law as the silk did not touch the skin of the wearer.
Mashru also served another purpose – the cotton on its underside helped to keep one cool during scorching summers, while its silken outside managed to be a source of elegance and resplendence in equal parts.
It is this versatility and utilitarian quality of the fabric that lured the artisans of India, as a result of which the art of weaving mashru later boomed throughout the Deccan region, West Bengal and Gujarat. As time progressed, mashru went from being the chosen fabric of the Muslim high society to one that transcended class, caste and continents. However, the recent years have witnessed a steady decline in the number of mashru-makers across India, with Patan, Anjar and Mandvi in Gujarat remaining as strongholds today. Historically, it was widely woven by the rabaris (cattle herders) of Kutch, who even enhanced it with embroidered motifs and mirror work. Mashru is enshrouded in unparalleled enigma, as its vibrancy sits in startling contrast with the arid, wind-beaten terrains of these regions.
The journey of traditionally crafting mashru is as intriguing as the final weave itself. The silk yarn is placed as the warp (usually measuring 63 yards) while the cotton yarn is attached as the weft to the bobbin, both mounted on the handloom in an interlocking pattern. Each silk yarn goes beneath the cotton warp once, and over it for about eight times, in order to fetch the desired glistening effect.
Post weaving, the fabric is slathered with a wheat flour paste, which lends it a polished finish. Before and after the application of the paste, the weave is slightly flogged with a wooden tool.
The textile also derives its dynamicity from the fact that it can be weaved with more patterns than one – from the sparingly used dots to the widely used stripes and even fine Ikat along with prints such as ajrakh and kalamkari.
Modern-day design maestros have been increasingly making use of the timeless weave to elevate not just festive wear but also daily ensembles. At Amazon India Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2016, celebrated designer Sanjay Garg had centred an entire collection on the weave. Fittingly titled “Mashru”, the collection comprised billowy ghagras, dupattas and salwars in vibrant hues of gold, reds, greens and more. Following which, at Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2016, Garg reinterpreted the sari as shirts, pants and skirts woven with rich silks, one of which was mashru.
More recently, at the fashion week’s Sustainable Fashion Day 2019, Aneeth Arora, the lady behind Péro, one of the most beloved sustainable clothing labels of India, launched a diversified line-up of fuzzy woollen wear accentuated by handwoven mashru stripes alongside upcycled accessories and local kushi trimmings from Kullu.
The recent times, however, have witnessed a shift in style, demand and taste, due to which mashru is increasingly woven with either plain cotton or cotton mixed with rayon. In some cases, weavers have now begun to make the fabric on power looms which proves to be more cost-effective.