"Woven air." The words once used to describe the choice of fabric that would adorn the wardrobes of India's queens - Chanderi.
Originating from the town of Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, the fabric held its pride of place as the lightest muslins handwoven from handspun cotton.
The erstwhile Chanderi sarees had a plain body and a very narrow zari border. Weavers from the town were also known for their weaving prowess when it came to weaving extremely fine thin zari borders as selvage known as 'kinari' or piping.
The fabrics and sarees were handwoven in shuttle pit looms using the highly time-consuming technique called 'Naal Pherna'. The golden zari border as well the body of the saree would be handwoven using 2 shuttles for the golden border on both sides and 1 shuttle would be used for the body.
Classic Chanderis can be identified to this day by the border elements repeated twice (running parallelly) with narrow woven lines and buttis between them.
The earliest Chanderis were woven in pure white cotton and then washed in Saffron to give it the characteristic golden hue and fragrance. Different colors were only introduced in the 1950s.
Motifs were inspired by the surrounding architecture as well as the flora and fauna of the region. A source of inspiration we see repeated across other craft forms as well. The famous full 'Jaali' technique of weaving motifs was introduced in the 1940s. Some of the traditional handwoven buttas or motifs are the Ashrafi (gold coin), Churi (knife), Bundi (dotted), Keri (mango), Phul-patti (flowers and leaves), Akhrot (walnut), Paan (betel leaf) and Ghoongroo (anklets) to name a few.
Another lesser-known usage of Chanderi was for the making of Safas or turbans of the royalty and nobility, a trend that lost relevance with the demise of the princely state.
The import of mill-spun cotton from Manchester adversely affected the weavers of Chanderi and almost wiped out this most unique craft form.
Over the years the Chanderi is being revived and many designers have taken a liking to the fabric, the inherent richness of the fabric has now found its place in the wardrobes of handloom aficionados.
Today there are 3 types of Chanderi sarees and fabrics available in the market:
3) Chanderi cotton
The Silk and Silk-Cotton varieties were introduced in the 1930s when weavers from Chanderi gained access to Japanese silk yarn, these variants would go on to earn higher profits for the weavers and help improve their standard of living.
During our visit to Chanderi we were welcomed by the background score of handlooms at work, here's hoping the score only gets louder!