Knotted Livelihoods : Bandhani

Indus Valley Civilization, with its richly profound cultural history has cradled not just India’s civilisational past but also birthed an enduring range of cultural traditions which are massively prevalent till today. It should not surprise us that even the textile tradition of Bandhani amongst other ancient textile crafts saw an active presence during 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, the period of Indus Civilization’s socio- cultural and economic hustle-bustle. Bandhani or as it is called in its other regional variations-  Bandhej, Piliya, and Madrasi Sungudi in Tamil, constitutes innovative tying techniques like Mothra, Ekdali and Shikari. Even the finished bandhani textile products are identified with unique regional names including Khombi, Ghar Chola, and Chandrokhani.

Written references by Ibn Batuta, a Moroccan traveler from the 14th century, regarding a piece of silk dyed in many colors during Mohammad Tughlaq’s reign (1325-1351AD) in India, mentions of the royal bridal odhani (veil) in the ancient work of  Harshacharita (606-648 AD), the history of the King Harshavardan, miniature paintings of women’s odhanis in muslin and Rajput kings’ leheriya turbans from the sixteenth century, indicate towards the historical continuity of the Bandhani craft.

Illustrations have been found on the  wall paintings of Ajanta (sixth century) wherein maids are shown clad in  blouses with tie-dye designs featuring bright dots and rings on a dark fabric. We also find an array of images in Jain scriptures from the 12th century of women donning this ancient craft. In Gujarat, relics of silk bandhani used by Jain monks to insert in between manuscript pages during the medieval times & in the eighteenth -early nineteenth centuries, the prevalent use and export of  tied and dyed silk handkerchief from Bengal to London by the  English East India Company; hint towards the globally expanding consciousness of the Bandhani craft. These Indian ‘rumaals’ were actively featured in many British artworks then onwards. Bandhani along with other Indian cultural elements like the Indian cuisine including chapati, samosa, chai etc was also transported to other British colonies such as the West Indies and East Africa.

Significantly, it is the Khatri community who is the prestigious historic practitioner of the craft of Bandhej in India. Jamnagar, is a city renowned for its bright red dyes amidst an effervescent Bandhani commerce. Kachchh is the primary hub for such intricacy imbued textile traditions amids a rich color yielding river ecosystem.

In Rajasthan, Bandhej is intrinsic to the identity and being of its natives, and is greatly produced in Jaipur, Udaipur and Bikaner.  Bandhani dupattas are symbolic of the spirit of Indian womanhood, especially  marriage. Bandhej as a bridal wear is also a common inspiration for many Indian folk songs themed upon weddings and marriage.

The craft :

The fabric chosen for dyeing is tied tightly at different points in knots and dyed with a myriad of vibrant colors wherein these threads or knots don’t let that portion catch color, thereby retaining the original color  of the cloth ( Resist Dyeing). It is then kept for drying in open air.

Bandhej work and its versatility can be envisioned on majorly all fabrics based on the innovative zeal of the designer, be it on sarees, kurtas, suits, lehenga cholis, turbans, home decor etc. The designs feature Ekdali (single knot), Trikunti (three knots), Chaubandi (four knots), Laddu Jalebi (Indian sweet delicacies), Dungar Shahi (mountain pattern), and Boond (small dot with a darker center). Leheriya, or a wave shaped design is also vigorously used in turbans and sarees. It is created when the fabric is rolled diagonally and tied by binding the threads before dyeing.

Some natural dye sources employed by the artisans are -Madder root(red), Turmeric roots (yellow), pomegranate peel (mustard), scrap metal (black), Indigo leaves (blue), Onion skins (orange), Mehendi (gold). They are still actively used along with the popular usage of synthetic dyes which are found to be quick setting and easier to work with. But it is the use of natural dyes wherein the true essence of Bandhani’s legacy resides.

Today, we find that the doom of screen printing and notions of economic viability even at the cost of sabotaging the historic worth of the craft is becoming a norm to an extent that it has hindered the economic stability of the craftsmen and their communities, whose generations have thrived on the cultural merits of Bandhej.

We, at Gulabchand Prints have grown in tandem with the communities of such craftsmen and artisans for over ninety years and have sincerely endeavoured towards committing our craftsmanship to the highest tenets of authentic and organic textile production with Bandhej being one amongst many such traditional textile crafts.

(Authored by – Vandana Bhatia )

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