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The women of Paithan, a small town near Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, spin a dream world of exotic weaves that is reminiscent of a bygone era of opulence and elegance. (Credit: Surekha Kadapa-Bose\WFS)
The women of Paithan, a small town near Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, spin a dream world of exotic weaves that is reminiscent of a bygone era of opulence and elegance. (Credit: Surekha Kadapa-Bose\WFS)

Impoverished Women Spin Exotic Weaves

[By Surekha Kadapa Bose]

Aurungabad(WFS) – Bent on their looms for hours, days and months, the women of Paithan, a small town near Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, spin a dream world. Lush paddy fields, swaying palms, blooming lotus flowers, beautiful peacocks, parrots and blue-tailed birds in flight are created on a rich silk background with a dhoop-chaanv (light and shade) effect and the painstakingly woven motifs conjure up a bygone era of opulence and elegance.

Little wonder then that the popular Marathi saying, ‘Rajachi Rani Hoshil/Paithani Nessun Yeshil (You will be the queen of a king/when you come wearing a Paithani)’, truly describes the feeling the sari evokes in the woman who dons it.

For centuries, the Paithani sari has been one of the most essential and prized part of a Maharashtrian girl’s marriage trousseau. In fact, no wedding is complete without the “indulgence” of a Paithani. After all, an authentic, intricately-woven Paithani costs anywhere between a whopping Rs 25,000 to Rs 5,00,000 or more depending on the detailing of the work. Naturally, there are cheaper imitations available for Rs 3,000 onwards but they are definitely not the real deal.

However grand the saris may be, the existence of those who handcraft them is tough and deprived. Thirty-something Kavita Arun Dhawala, a weaver of Paithani saris for the last 12 years, says,

“No doubt it’s real hard work to make a sari. But it gives us joy to see the designs slowly come alive before us. But leave aside everything, the money we earn doing this work is indispensable as it enable us to keep our family going.

Dhawala, along with other 100 weavers, is employed on piece wage basis at the Marathi Paithani Center and Handicraft Organisation in Paithan, situated on the banks of the River Godavari. Incidentally, apart from its most famous handicraft the town is well-known for being the resting place of the revered 16th century Marathi saint Eknath, who was responsible for the rediscovery of the great works of Saint Dnyaneshwar. The shrine attracts thousands of visitors every year during the Paithan Yatra, celebrated on the Nath Shashti day in the second week of March.

Of course, like most handlooms in India, the Paithani sari, as also its talented weavers, has gone through its share of troubled times. During the pre-Independence days, the weave had all but disappeared and it’s through the efforts of the Maharashtra Small Scale Industries Development Corporation (MSSIDC) that this craft has not only got a new lease of life but been able to survive the modern times. Since 1973, their centre at Paithan has been providing training to weavers and supporting them to keep the tradition going.

Indeed, operations that started with just two weavers and two looms have increased to 100 weavers, of which 96 are women, and 204 looms.

Over the years, N.R. Jogdand, manager at the centre, who is on the verge of retirement, has seen several weavers put in great hard work and sweat to create the delicate fabric. He points out,

“On an average, a weaver makes Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 a month by working for eight hours a day. Compared to the amount of hard work they put in the money they earn may sound paltry. But then that is the fate of most handloom weavers.

At least the centre has managed to revive the craft and given these people some form of financial support.”

Kavita and her friend, Jyoti Kandivani, who has been weaving for nearly 10 years, admit,

“It’s not easy to get well paying jobs in a place like Paithan. Our men can rarely earn enough to run the family. Farming isn’t very lucrative and depends heavily on the monsoon. So, it becomes necessary for the women to step up and chip in. This centre helps us to earn some extra amount.”

In this group of weavers, comprising both Hindus and Muslims, there are some who have been employed for many years now and have even roped in their next generation. These days, Zarina Baig, who is in her fifties, comes here everyday with her 30-year-old son, Anwar. Then there is Meenakshi Waval, who was introduced to this craft and the weaving centre by her mother-in-law, Laxmibai, around 13 years back. The duo works together in perfect synergy at the centre as well as at home.

It only takes nine months of training at this centre – during which a small monthly stipend of Rs 1,700 is provided – after which the trainees are ready to get into the workforce. Almost all of them install a loom or two in their own home, too, to supplement their household income by taking private orders from shopkeepers in and around Aurangabad. After their duty hours they get back on to the loom at home. Nearly every home in Paithan has a loom, the purchase of which is facilitated by the officers at the centre – it costs around Rs 50,000.

Compared to the hard work put in by the women to weave the Paithani, the money they earn is paltry but it is indispensable as it enables them to keep their family going. (Credit: Surekha Kadapa-Bose\WFS)

Compared to the hard work put in by the women to weave the Paithani, the money they earn is paltry but it is indispensable as it enables them to keep their family going. (Credit: Surekha Kadapa-Bose\WFS)

Most weavers are either school drop outs or have just passed their Senior School Certificate exams. Take Anwar, who left studies after clearing Class Nine and is content with his present career. After his mother and he finish up at the centre he makes it a point to find time to sit at the loom at home.

“My mother can’t work at home anymore as she gets really tired after her duty,”

he shares. It’s no surprise that Zarina is not up to spending all her time bent over the loom any longer. Health problems plague most of her friends and acquaintances. After running a loom for a decade or two, they all develop severe back problems, carpel tunnel syndrome or a tennis elbow. Sitting for hours on end puts additional strain on their knees and joints but with no other alternative at hand, they simply forge on.

Besides their already impoverished existence, the vagaries of nature do not let them rest easy. Like the time a few years back, when the gates of the Jayakwadi Dam on the Godavari had to be opened when the river was in spate. As the waters came rushing into town, the weavers’ homes were flooded and they lost their property, possessions and even the half-woven saris. The paltry compensation paid by the government didn’t help the already burdened weavers.

A lot needs to be done to give a much needed boost to the industrious Paithani weavers. Fortunately, the transformation has already begun.

For starters, contemporising their craft can work wonders. Till the last century, the Paithani sari was mostly woven in the same old style and size – 16 arms length (nine-yards) and four arms in width, weighing around 3,300 grams. Those days, the sari was worn in a typical dhoti style. At present, to suit the modern woman’s lifestyle, the length of the sari has been reduced from nine to six yards and weight has been reduced as well. Made purely from silk sourced from Karnataka and zari from Surat in Gujarat, a Paithani has 200 to 350 grams zari and around 700 grams of silk (including wastage) and weighs between 800 and 900 grams.

The use of Paithani fabric in the high street fashion creations by designers such as Vaishali Shahdungale, Swapanil Shinde and others, has been another shot in the arm. Moving away from traditional wear the weave is generously being used in Western and fusion outfits, like kurtis, kurtas, shirts, gowns, lehengas, skirts, short dresses, vests, jackets and ties.

Interestingly, Paithanis have received the pride of place at Mumbai’s Chttarapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahlaya, where 150 heirlooms creations are on display. As Marathi poetess Shanta Shelke has famously described Paithani: There are moments when I hold the Paithani/ Close to my heart as close can be /And its soft and silken caress/Brings my Grandma back to me…

Memories, legacy, style… the Paithani is all that and more.

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