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Origin and history


The textile that has stolen millions of hearts around the world originates in a small town at the very heart of the country. The town of Chanderi in Ashok Nagar District of Madhya Pradesh is known for its historical importance as well as the world famous hand woven Chanderi sarees. While ancient texts speak of Madhya Pradesh as a famous centre for weaving between the 7th century and the 2nd century BC, it rose to prominence in the 11th century, when it became one of the most important trade routes in India because of its proximity to the arterial routes to the ancient ports of Gujarat, Malwa, Mewar, Central India and Deccan regions. Records show that hand looms wove Chanderi sarees for royalty between the 12th and the 13th centuries.

While some references to the Vedic period in Indian mythology suggest that Chanderi fabric was introduced by Lord Krishna’s cousin Shishupal, one can find its mention in Maasir-i-Alamgir (1658-1707), wherein it is stated that Aurangzeb ordered the use of a cloth embroidered with gold and silver for making khilat (a ceremonial robe or other gift given to someone by a superior as a mark of honour). The material was very expensive. The beauty of this fabric was its softness, transparency, and fringes embellished with heavy gold thread embroidery. According to the records of a Jesuit priest, who visited Marwar between 1740 and 1761, Chanderi fabric enjoyed royal patronage and was also exported overseas. A British visitor, RC Sterndal noted that Chanderi was the favoured fabric of Indian royal women because of its soft, light texture and transparency.

Though these various accounts make it hard to put a date on the birth of Chanderi sarees, it’s clear that the fabric has always had the patronage of the ruling class of the country because of its unique sheer texture and intricate embroidery with gold and silver.

Weaving process


The craft of weaving Chanderi has been practised in families for generations. This has created a long lineage of skilled and experienced weavers whose craft cannot be replaced by power loom versions, and hence needs to be revered for its sheer brilliance. Chanderi is one of the shining jewels of India’s textile industry and it isn’t a wonder that it holds a special place in our hearts like no other.

Originally, Chanderi fabric was woven with handspun cotton yarn which was as fine as 300 counts, making the fabric as famous as the Muslins of Dhaka. The fine count cotton for Chanderi was extracted from a special root called the Kolikanda. Light yet strong, it gave the fabric a glossy finish. Fine cotton from Chanderi had long been patronized by Mughals and Rajputs. The fabric is woven with warp (tana), stretched out set of threads, through which the weft (bana) is passed through in regular motion. Since the inception, till about 1920s, only white and off-white cloth was woven with its ends embellished with zari and golden thread. Only hand-spun cotton thread was used even in the warp though it was not strong enough to be held under tension. The thread count in the warp can vary from 4,000 to 17000, depending upon the quality required. In the weft, cotton, mercerized cotton, raw silk or kataan is used. In the borders and butis, mercerized cotton, silk and zari threads are used. The butis on Chanderi fabric were woven on the handloom with the use of needles. Separate needles were used to create different motifs. Weavers then coated these motifs with gold, silver or copper dust.

Today, raw silk, which is 20-22 deniers thick, is used in the warp in almost every saree. Silk not only impart a lustrous finish to the fabric, but is stronger, hence much easier to work with. Sometimes zari is used with silk in the warp to make a tissue saree. Earlier, the looms known as the throw-shuttle pit were in use. Weaving on this was a very tedious process and it required two weavers to sit side by side on the same loom. Nowadays, however, only fly-shuttle looms are in use and these are operated by a single weaver. The yarn for weaving was earlier coloured with only natural dyes, but today both natural and chemical dyes are in use. Many of the names of the colours used are derived from natural things like fruits, vegetables, flowers, birds, etc. Spinning a handwoven Chanderi saree takes over three days, sometimes more, depending on the complexity of the design.

Special features


Referred to as ‘woven air’ because of its transparency and the sheer texture of the fabric, Chanderi sarees are set apart by their light weight and glossy texture that is different from any other textile woven or produced in mass in the country. The sarees owe this quality to the high-quality and extra fine yarns that are used in weaving the Chanderi fabric. The yarn used to weave Chanderi fabric doesn’t go through the degumming process to prevent breakage during weaving, giving the fabric its unique shine and texture. The other distinguishing factor is the use of motifs such as peacocks, lotuses, coins, celestial figures, geometric patterns, artistic intertwining lines and figures of animals.


The Bundela Rajputs captured the city in 1586, and it was held by Ram Sab, a son of Raja Madhukar of Orchha. In 1680 Devi Singh Bundela was made governor of the city, and Chanderi remained in the hands of his family until it was annexed in 1811 by Jean Baptiste Filose for the Maratha ruler Daulat Rao Sindhia of Gwalior. The city was transferred to the British in 1844. The British lost control of the city during the Revolt of 1857, and the city was recaptured by Hugh Rose on 14 March 1858. Richard Harte Keatinge led the assault, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. The city was transferred back to the Sindhias of Gwalior in 1861, and became part of Isagarh District of Gwalior state.

Colours


Chanderi sarees are known for their use of soft pastel hues, however with changing times, vibrant combinations of red and black, turquoise, navy blue, fuchsia and white also exist.

Motifs


Inspired by the Banarasi sarees, some of the motifs used in Chanderi sarees are ashrafi or gold coin, churi, bundi, keri, phul-patti, phul-buta, akhrot, paan, eent, suraj buti, meena buti, kalgi and ghoongra among others. The asharfi buti, once the favourite of the royalty, is the most popular buti design on Chanderi sarees. When these motifs are bigger in size, they are referred to as butas. Some motifs exclusive to Chanderi weaves comprise nalferma, dandidar, chatai, jangla, mehndi wale haath. These delicate hand woven motifs on extra wefts sets the Chanderi a class apart and perhaps this is what made it an absolute favourite of the elite.

The 1970s saw a revolution of sorts in the designs of Chanderi sarees. Innovative borders such as the Ganga Jamani, Mehndi Range Haath, Sada Saubhagyawati Bhava became extremely popular with women from all across the country.

The borders popular today include the adda border which consists of a highly intricate design, the nakshi is similar except for the outline of the border which is done with a different coloured thread and the plain zari patela border. Piping border has one colour interspersed with thin strips of another colour.

Varieties


Traditionally, Chanderi sarees came in a white cotton saree heavily worked in gold, a broad striped gold embroidered saree, a chequered embroidered saree, a white silver chanderi, a gold small chequered silk Chanderi saree and a gold chequered Chanderi saree. Today, the three most popular fabrics used to weave a Chanderi saree are pure silk, chanderi cotton and silk cotton.

Current state of the art


Chanderi sarees are protected under the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, and they cannot be copied because of their exclusive design and the special silk yarn that goes into their making. There are over 3,500 looms working today and thousands are dependent on this craft, directly or indirectly, for their living. The Government of India has also petitioned to the World Trade Organization for the recognition of this textile on an international level. Today, because of the use of different cost effective raw materials, finding a genuine cotton by cotton Chanderi has become difficult. Most retail establishments do not source these as they are priced marginally higher than the mixed material variety. However, Chanderi is now one of the most protected crafts in the country. Not only the government, but renowned designers, fashion houses and Bollywood stars endorse this beautiful fabric on a regular basis.

When Kareena Kapoor was spotted in a black and gold traditional Chanderi, hearts fluttered at the natural elegance and beauty of this fabric. Soham Dave, a leading fashion designer works exclusively with Indian handlooms and Chanderi is one of his favourites. Some fashion houses have reintroduced the value of this ancient fabric, and today we see youngsters proudly wearing their heritage, not just in the form of Chanderi sarees, but also scarves, tunics, kurtis and more. The versatility of this fabric and its easy adaptability to new styles makes it an experimental favourite for fashion lovers all over the world.

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