Jamdani: the fabulous finesse

by Tajnim Imami

JAMDANI is a subject of awe and inspiration across the world. For the last ten centuries, Dhaka and its surrounding areas like the villages of Rupgonj, Sonargaon and Siddhirgonj have excelled in the weaving of jamdani. It is believed that the term jamdani arose from the Persian words ‘jama’ meaning cloth and ‘dana’ meaning woven motif. It might also refer to the Persian words for ‘jam’ as in flowers and ‘dani’ indicating its coinage as the ‘flowered muslin’.
The fine cotton harvested in Bengal gave way to the production of the legendary muslin fabric. There were many types of muslins the flowered muslin with woven motifs has now survived as jamdani. Although Chanakya’s Arthashastra provides evidence for many forms of muslin that had been prized and traded across the world since 3rd century BC, the patronization by the Mughal Empire saw the height of muslin’s flourish, especially during the reigns of Emperor Akbar and Jahangir. In his book Textile Manufactures and Costumes of the People of India published in 1866, Forbes Watson stated that the figured or flowered muslins were always considered the most prized and expensive production of Dhaka’s hand loom creations because of their elegant designs.

The variety of cotton used for muslin was known as phuti karapsh which is now believed to be extinct. The development of the fine fabrics of Bengal can be credited to the growth of high quality cotton, the skills of weavers and the climate and quality of water in the area. The best time to spin the yarn was in the early hours of the day or late afternoon when the humidity and temperature complemented the weaving process.
Many political and environmental factors have played into the demise of muslin and subsequently the quality of jamdani. With the advent of the British Empire, the domestic market was introduced to imported machines and lower quality yarns. Even though the British traded a huge amount of muslin during its rule in the Indian subcontinent, it was unsustainable and did not emulate the same kind of patronization from the Mughal era. Their introduction of a species of American cotton eventually took over the Indian market.
The water of the river Shitalakshya used to provide the unique chemical composition essential for muslin production. However, through the years the river lost its distinct composition due to relentless pollution and neglect leading to another reason of the disappearance of muslin. Now, the jamdani making area along the river also faces serious threats from the industrial waste dumped in the river produced by factories and human settlements. The long, delicate and arduous process of jamdani weaving demands a particular climatic and geographical combination that is slowly disappearing. The labour spent on making jamdani also requires a higher wage without which it is untenable for the weavers to continue.
The process of hand looming jamdani involves both standard and supplementary weft technique. The standard technique is used to make the fine, sheer base material often with unbleached yarn. It is later manually woven with thicker threads, sometimes bleached, using the supplementary weft technique to create designs. This is done by interlacing the weft threads into the warp with thin bamboo sticks using individual spools of thread. Coloured, silver, or gold threads are inserted with bamboo shuttles between the upper and lower warp to lend the motifs their vivid colours while the combination of bleached and unbleached yarns give the fabric its light and shadow effect. The finished product has an illusory texture where the beautiful patterns seem to float on a fine, shimmery surface.
Jamdani has always been loved for its fabulous floral and geometric motifs. These patterns include panna hajar or thousand emeralds style, kalka, small flowers known as butidar, flowers arranged in straight rows called fulwar, tersa or diagonal pattern, jalar motifs that evenly cover the whole sari, duria or polka dots, charkona or rectangular motifs and many more. The designs are never drawn on the actual fabric. The weavers do it from memory or place a translucent graph paper under the warp.
The regional variations in jamdani include Dhakai, Tangail, Shantipur and Dhaniakhali jamdani. Dhakai jamdani happens to be the original fabric that boasts the finest craftsmanship. Tangail jamdani is traditionally decorated with broad borders that feature lotus, lamp and fish. Shantipur and Dhanikhali jamdani are the Indian variety of the fabric made in West Bengal. The former is similar to Tangail jamdani with smooth texture and striped motifs while the latter is marked by tighter weave and bold colours. Today’s jamdani also has many variations in its mix such as half- silk, full silk, cotton and nylon that make its price vary. While the thread count of muslin used to go far beyond 400, today’s highest quality jamdani tends to have a thread count of around 84 to 100.
This celebrated and sophisticated textile became the first Bangladeshi product to bear GI or Global Index logo in 2016. It was also placed in the Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013. Yet, given the current situation, much has to be done if Bangladesh intends to preserve this proud specimen of culture and identity in future.

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