Remember your childhood Bengali aunty in the neighborhood? The one who always seemed
elegantly turned out in her breezy cotton saris in delicate pastel colors, despite the scorching
summer heat? Chances are, she used to wear cotton jamdani to carry her through. Every Bengali
lady worth her style and comfort quotient will have at least a couple of these beautiful drapes in her
Jamdani comes from the Persian words – Jam and Dani and it is generally believed that it was
derived from the intricate designs on the wine jugs used by the Mughal emperors. The origin of
Jamdani as a woven muslin material came much earlier, though. Some claim it was mentioned in
Kautiliya’s Arthasashtra. Scholars say that it found an entry in the records of Arab, Chinese and Italian
travelers to the Indian subcontinent. So, it’s obviously a fact that it was woven and used in the
Bengal region many years from today.
The weavers of Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) and the adjoining areas were the wizards of the craft.
For this reason, it is still known as Dhakai Jamdani and it’s an accepted fact that the best and
exclusive pieces are still created there. However, craftsmen in Bengal do a mean job as well and you
will find some remarkable saris in little-known saree shops all over Kolkata.
Jamdani is woven on the finest of cotton and involves an intricate double weft. Here, there is a basic
weft holding up the main fine fabric and a supplementary weft with thicker threads that the weaver
uses to create magical geometrical designs. Note, that the designs are not drawn on the fabric but
created using a template held beneath the fabric. As weaving progresses, these designs grow and
flower on a shimmering, almost translucent surface, eventually covering the entire nine yards. Think
white or grey on white, vermillion red on white, gold and red on white and many more. A lot of
modern infusions have brought about a burst of colors on this canvas and these days, you will find
black and gold, bottle green and gold and plenty of avant-garde motifs.
The Jamdani saw a serious decline during the British Empire when the rulers ordered the use of
cheaper and affordable yarn brought in from England. The Muslim and Bengali Hindu royals, who
favored the craft had fallen on hard times and could not afford it like earlier. Craftsmen had no
work and the looms fell silent. It was only post-independence and growing awareness over the
years, that the craft of Jamdani weaving slowly revived and the saris found their way back into
women’s wish lists.
If you guessed this is a time-consuming and labor-intensive art that requires talented craftsmen,
you’re quite right. Usually, a team of tantis (weavers) works together to create the sarees, under a
master weaver or Ostad. For this reason alone, Jamdani sarees were earlier favored by and could
be afforded by the womenfolk of royal families and aristocrats of Bengal. Thankfully, we live in better
times and an authentic Jamdani saree is well within reach of most modern Indian women, though
they are still priced on the higher side.
So, next time you are in the city, ask your local friend to take you to a good store selling Bengal
handloom and ask for the range Jamdani Sari there. Spend some happy time selecting a couple. They
are slightly prohibitively priced but make for deeply cherished gifts.