PAITHANI The oldest weaving technique for the creation of multicolored woven patterns was the tapestry technique, using noncontinuous weft threads. Known in India as Paithani, after the city of Paithan, the technique uses multicolored silk weft threads to create intricate patterns on a gold background. The overall effect is similar to that of meenakari, enameling on gold jewelry. This ancient weaving technique was used throughout the world, in the Coptic textiles of Egypt, in the pre-Columbian textiles of Latin America, and in China's intricate silk hangings (ko'sseu). Central Asia's nomadic weavers created gelims with this technique on simple mobile looms from ancient times. The technique was possibly brought to India by migrations from Central Asia in the ancient past. Examples can be seen in the cotton gelims of North India, as well as in the intricately woven Navalgund jamkhans of Karnataka in South India. It is possible that the technique was adapted for the weaving of intricate borders and cross borders of saris for royalty.
Paithani weaving was centered in the western region of Maharashtra, where women wore long 9-yard (8.2 m) saris. The technique was named after the ancient city of Paithan, the capital of the powerful Satavahanas (c. 300 b.c.–a.d. 230).
Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh produced fine-quality cotton saris with borders woven in Paithani technique. Saris from the collections of royal houses reveal intricate Paithani borders and cross borders in silk and gold thread. They carry complex patterns of shikar-gah (hunting), as well as the tree of life, shrubs, and curvilinear flowering creepers, often woven separately and attached. The royal families who patronized these saris extended from Madhya Pradesh to Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh. Men wore the patka, a Paithani sash tied at the waist, and the ends of their turbans were adorned with gold and silk Paithani borders.
The Paithani saris were woven in heavy silk with borders carrying extra warp patterns; only the cross border was worked in gold using the Paithani technique of multiple weft silks, in interlocking tapestry. The design of the cross border had a rich gold surface, enclosed by borders woven in the tapestry technique; sometimes the central section had extra weft silk patterns of mango or shrub motifs.
Paithani textiles were later patronized by the Golconda court and by the ruling house of Hyderabad. These used a heavier silk and were renowned for the excellent quality of their kalabatun, or gold thread. Old examples of Paithani saris and patkas have gold threads that still shine like a mirror.
Other centers where Paithani technique was used were Yeola in Maharashtra and Gadwal in Andhra Pradesh. Yeola saris were woven in silk, but they were not as complex in their patterning as those of Hyderabad. The Gadwal saris were woven in cotton, often with intricate check patterns, with a silk border having extra warp gold thread patterns; the cross borders were in some cases woven in the Paithani technique.
The technique of weaving was simple, but the process painstaking, laborious, and complex. The main loom was a pit loom; the weave was a plain weave and was warp faced, so that the multiple weft threads would be dominant on the face of the fabric. When the borders were woven separately, the loom had no heddles. The multiple threads were wound on fine bamboo needles, which were inserted by hand and interlocked with the next thread, and the thread was then reversed. Hundreds of bobbins rested on the woven section, and the weavers created the pattern by following a graph design on paper. This process required great skill, and only seasoned masters could weave these patterns.
The colonial influences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries changed the demands of the royal houses. Women of the royal households began to wear imported chiffon and georgette saris, lowering demand for the heavy cotton and silk 9-yard saris. Most centers weaving in the Paithani technique discontinued the practice. The only place where it survived was in Paithan. The Nizam of Hyderabad patronized the technique himself, setting up a center for weaving saris, veils, turbans, and sashes at Paithan. It was also mandatory for his courtiers to wear Paithani turbans when presenting themselves at court. Paithani weavers also copied floral patterns painted inside the Buddhist caves at Ajanta. The curvilinear motifs of lotus flower and bird were well suited to the Paithani technique and were woven into borders, which were stitched to georgette saris, creating a new fashion. European visitors to the Ajanta caves also were happy to buy the intricately woven panels as souvenirs.
In the early 1950s, when Kamaladevi Chattopadhya initiated India's movement for the revival of traditional handicraft skills, she visited Paithan with the author. The old craftsmen, who were weaving panels, were encouraged to weave saris in silk with traditional patterns. An exhibition was arranged to promote the saris, and it was probably then that the term Paithani came to be applied to the technique. Later traditional examples of Hyderabad and Gadwal saris were also revived through a government center at Wanaparti, in Andhra Pradesh, and elaborate saris with rich tapestry cross borders were once again brought back into the market. The government of Maharashtra began a program for reviving the Yeola tradition at the encouragement of Shilpi Kendra, a non-government organization in Mumbai. By 1970 Yeola saris with Paithani cross borders had returned to the market.
Chanderi, where the finest examples were once woven, could not revive the Paithani technique, as none of its surviving weavers knew the technique. A private center, near Hyderabad, run by Suraiya Hasan Bose, brought two of the best workers from Paithan and reproduced some of the Chanderi border designs, weaving cotton saris with traditional tapestry borders and cross borders. They also trained young women from the village in the Paithani weave, which had earlier been the domain of men. Meera Mehta, a former student of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, began work on improving the Yeola saris, and thanks to her intervention, weavers there are producing extremely refined Paithanis.
Chattopadhya, Kamaladevi. Handicrafts of India. New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 1975.
Dhamija, Jasleen. Indian Folk Arts and Crafts. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1970.
——. "Paithani Weaves: An Ancient Tapestry Art." In The Woven Silks of India, edited by Jasleen Dhamija. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1995.
Morwanchikar, R. S. Paithani: A Romance in Brocade. Delhi: Bharatiya, 1993.