Throughout history, Bengal has been famous for its iconic weaves. In West Bengal each district is home to its very own brand of artist and weaver communities. One such premier area is the tiny district of Murshidabad whose history is as varied as the textile it produces.
The story of Murshidabad dates back to the early 18th century when the then reigning Nawab of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan, shifted his capital to a small town on the eastern banks of Bhagirathi river – Maksudabad and renamed it after himself.
Along with him shifted his entire posse of artisans and weavers who were given a place of pride in the community. This was a very strategic move as he shrewdly identified the value of the premium mulberry silk cultivated in the region. This produced a rich cream colored base that took dyes easily and morphed into gorgeous weaves in hues of deep maroons, reds and purples. Black was avoided as it was considered inauspicious in the Hindu religion and was supplemented with shades of dark purple or brown. This combined with the extraordinary designing and weaving talents of the artisans quickly put the small village on the world map causing a Silk Rush.
Very soon an influx of polyglot communities like Gujrati and Marwari traders made this their home. Not wanting to be left out, international merchants from lands as far as Armenia, Arab states, France and Denmark quickly populated the town drawing on the existing rich silk industry.
Murshidabad silk is very fine, lightweight and easy to drape. The expert weavers, who were traditionally spinners, were proficient in creating complex and intricate patterns into the cloth that came to be renowned for the visual narratives it displayed. The elaborate designs were done on traditional looms using a “supplementary patterning weft”. The entire process involved reeling (extracting), degumming and twisting the raw silk which the weavers did with the sureness of skilled artisans.
The pictorial weaves showcased social life and traditions and quickly became celebrated. Motifs characterized the indigenous art of the region, echoed changes in the modes of travel, style of dress and the unmistakable interaction between the ruling class and the local population. The changes in the art depicted were constant with no specific code of designs. With some weaves showing steam engines and European heads of state enjoying their fix of hookah or daily wine, it quickly became a common belief that there is no motif that a Murshidabad sari pallav cannot hold.
By the end of the 19th century, the textile industry saw a steady decline due to a fall in the quality of raw silk brought about mainly by outdated production methods. Changing fashion preferences further fuelled this. The Bengal famine of 1943 was a major setback for production and trade.
All this has raised concerns among those in government and many khadi societies and village industries commissions are also doing their best to revive the dying craft. Earlier there were 112 silk factories in and around Murshidabad which could produce 2400000 pounds of silk and export it worldwide. Murshidabad is one of the six mega handloom clusters identified by the textile ministry that plans to provide up to Rs. 70 crores per mega cluster for five years. At present apart from lack of direct market access there are other worrying issues that the weavers have to deal with like low quality of cocoons, rise in prices of raw materials and insufficient bank finance.
Silk yarn spinning and fabric weaving under the same roof can only be seen in Murshidabad today. In spite of all this, the only people upholding the ailing trade are ironically artisans who are too sick to change professions. The present situation of the expert craftsmen engaged in this is dwindling due to low profitability. A regular sari takes around four days to weave with three to four weavers working the loom to earn a measly 400 rupees. That is an average of 100 rupees a day! The perennial problem of younger generations rejecting the family occupation also plagues the failing businesses.