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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Bengal beauties

Bengal beauties

A show of Baluchar silks revives memories of pre-colonial Murshidabad

Details from a sari showcased at the exhibition.Premium
Details from a sari showcased at the exhibition.

Bengalis, wherever they may live in the world, would need no rhetoric on the Baluchar. But the term that means a sandbank in Bengali, and stands for the woven mulberry silks of Murshidabad in textile history, may not evoke as clear a visual for others. Now, an exhibition aims to revive its historical memories, vibrant colours (never black) and fantastical motifs that include nawabs in fine attire, European sahibs sitting on decorated elephants and courtesans smoking the hookah.

Titled Sahib, Bibi, Nawab: Baluchar Silks Of Bengal, 1750-1900, the exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai displays 33 of 66 Baluchar textile pieces from the Textiles and Art of the People of India (Tapi) Collection.

Tapi is a private collection, with hundreds of ancient and modern Indian textiles, carpets, shawls and artisanal works, as well as rare inclusions from Turkey, Indonesia and Afghanistan. Housed in Surat, it’s owned by Praful Shah, chairman and managing director of Garden Vareli Group of Companies, and his collector wife Shilpa Shah. From time to time, segments of this collection are thematically curated and put out for public viewing.

Shilpa is also one of the three authors of the exhibition catalogue that is available for visitors. The other two are Tulsi Vatsal and Eva-Maria Rakob. In 1993, the latter researched Baluchar silks as part of her PhD. Emphasizing that this is the first major exhibition of these silks in India since a 1961 one at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata, and that it took three years to put it together, Shilpa says the provocation came from three saris with motifs of a lady smoking the hookah. “We are all too familiar with the trope of bashful, timorous women in conservative 19th century Bengali society, tip-toeing under the watchful gaze of controlling mothers-in-law. Then who were these women smoking so self-assuredly, that the Bengali weaver had in mind when he wove these pricey silk saris?" she asks.

“Not only were our 18th and 19th century women smoking but there were takers for saris woven with these patterns, as well as those with other male figures—nawabs, turbaned men and European sahibs! It was time to explore this intriguing group of Bengali silks, made at a time and place where India’s history was being rewritten," she says, describing these saris as woven archives.

Since the 17th century, Murshidabad had been home to merchants from the East India Company, the French Compagnie de l’Inde and the Dutch East India Company, as well as Armenian, Jewish and Persian traders. The next two centuries would see Baluchar become a prosperous centre of Murshidabad, with Malda silk textiles woven from indigenous mulberry silks.

The catalogue states that the primary showpiece of Baluchar textiles was the sari, woven without any zari and known for intricate butas (motifs), the presiding motif being the kalka (the paisley) and deep colours like deep purple, blue, red, crimson and banesh (chocolate). The exhibition, however, doesn’t limit itself to saris, including shawls in the showcase.

Interestingly, black is rare or absent in an original Baluchari sari. “Apart from the non-availability of an authentic black vegetable dye in those days, black is regarded by Hindus as an inauspicious colour, not suitable for religious or festive occasions," says the catalogue.

Those visiting the exhibition may want to observe how the Baluchars visually documented the lives of labour and leisure of the Bibis, or courtesans, of that era; women who lived with the Englishmen as their common-law wives.

An eye-catching piece is a Vishnupur Baluchar (known for mythological scenes, unlike the Murshidabad weaves) from the 1970s, showing Draupadi’s swayamvar from the Mahabharat.

Sahib, Bibi And Nawab is on till 14 January, 10.15am-6pm, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai.

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Published: 13 Dec 2014, 12:57 AM IST
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