Friday, March 5, 2010

FABLED ART ON REVIVAL PATH : Recreating magic with muslin

Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay
(This story was published in the Kolkata Edition of ToI.)
Kolkata: The fabled muslin of Bengal,whose mention can be found in Ptolemys Geography,is slowly on its way to revival.The finely woven cotton and sometimes silk is gaining markets both in India and abroad.The incipient patronage is engineering a revival of the lost art a technique of creating finest yarn from kapas cotton and weaving the fabric.The revival is perhaps appropriately described by the conferring of the Sant Kabir Award on one of the finest muslin craftsman from Bengal,Rabindranath Saha,on March 18.
Saha,for the last few years,has been consistently producing 500 counts (MKS counts),yarn from kapas cotton and weaving magic fabric so fine that if you spread a full length muslin sari on grassy land,you find only the grass,not the sari.It is not that Saha is the only creator of 500-count muslin.In 1992,Nabadwip weavers managed to produce 500-count muslin on an experimental basis.But the cost of production was too high to make it commercially viable.
Armed with a dogged zeal,Saha,who hails from Kalna in Burdwan,stuck to its production and finally tasted success.I now sell them at Rs 1,600 per metre and there is no dearth of customers, said Saha from his Kalna home.
A full-length sari manufactured by Saha can be put inside a coconut shell.The art of weaving muslin never died.It lay dormant because of lack of patronage but is now rising like a phoenix, said Amrita Mukherjee of Sutra,who is working relentlessly to revive some of the lost traditions of Bengals textile.
The word muslin reminds me of my mother telling me the story from Abanindranath Tagores Khirer Putul,where muslin is described as akasher moto neel (as blue as the sky),hawar moto halka (as light as breeze) and which can passes through a ring.Muslin as a craft reached its zenith after Mughal emperors became its greatest patron and later European colonialists spread its fame all over the world, said Craft Council of India president Kasturi Gupta Menon,who,during her stint as development commissioner of handloom,took keen interest in its revival.
It is ironic that the Europeans,who helped spread its fame,also catalysed muslins decline.Till 1813,Dhaka muslin continued to sell in London with 75% profit and was cheaper than the British make.Alarmed at this competition,the British imposed 80% duty on the Indian product.But more than the duty,introduction of the machinemade yarn ruined the muslin trade,as by 1817,English mill-made thread was introduced in Dhaka at onefourth the price of the Indian yarn.
However,the machine-made textile robbed the sense of wonder the British had while touching a muslin textile.In 1840,Dr Taylor,a textile expert,wrote: Even in the present day,notwithstanding the great perfection that the mills have attained,the Dhaka muslin fabrics are unrivalled in transparency,beauty and delicacy of texture.
The count for the best variety of Dhaka muslin was 1,800 threads per inch,while the lesser varieties had about 1,400 threads per inch.
It has taken nearly 200 years to bring the magic of handloom back to Bengal.Dhaka was the hub of muslin manufacturing.Muslin used to be known as Dhakai muslin.Today,we need to import craftsmen from Bengal.Of course,we teach Bengal tantubayees the art of making jamdani, said Ruby Ghaznavi,a textile and natural dye expert from Dhaka.
In the town of Kalna,serious efforts are being made to revive the muslin textile industry.In 1947 and later in the 1970s,thousands of Hindu weavers from Bangladesh came to Bengal.
A man called Sujay Nag took the lead in establishing a muslin saree centre for weavers in Kalna town.Efforts have been made to coordinate with the muslin industry in Bangladesh,so that both India and its neighbour can reap the benefits,said sources at Weavers Service Centre in Kolkata.

Rabindranath Saha of Kalna has been weaving high-quality muslin for the past few years
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