It is said that when Buddha attained Nirvana, his body was wrapped in Banaras fabric, which emitted rays of dazzling blue, red and yellow. Indian fabrics enjoyed undisputed supremacy all over the world for over 2000 years. Even the Rig Veda refers to hiranyadrapi or a shining, gold-woven cloth; the Mahabharata to manichera and Valmiki's Ramayana describes Ravana, the demon king, as donning a gold fabric. Pali literature mentions the kaseyyaka (silk of Banaras) worth a hundred pieces of silver.

The Tradition

Brocade weaving, especially with gold and silver, has been an age-old tradition in India.

There are two broad classes of brocades. Brocades of pure silk or silk and cotton blends and zari brocades with gold and silver threads.

The most important material in brocade weaving is silk. It facilitates lovely weaves, is durable, strong, fine and smooth. There are several varieties of raw silk of which the chief ones used for brocades are Tanduri, Banaka and Mukta. Tanduri is imported from Malda and other places in Bengal.

Banaka is thinner and finer variety and is mostly used to weave soft fabrics such as turbans and handkerchiefs. Mukta is a coarse and durable silk used for kimkhabs, as fine silk would not withstand heavy gold patterns.

Refining Silk For Brocade Making

Raw silk is specially treated for brocades. It is first twisted (called 'silk throwing') after which the threads undergo reeling and checking for uniformity and roundness. When the yarn has been processed, it is bleached and "degummed", as raw silk has a gum-like substance (sericin) in its composition. This has to be removed in order to bring out the sheen and softness and to enable penetration of the dye. The task has to be done with great care as the fibers can weaken or get damaged. The silk is boiled in soap water for a certain duration and then sent for dying.

Importance Of Color

Color plays a vital part in weaving brocade. The charm and subtle beauty of the brocade depends upon color synchronization. Colors are surcharged with nuances of mood and poetic association in fabrics and weaving as much as in painting.

Red - the color of love. The three tones of red evoke the three states of love.
Yellow - is the color of vasant (spring), of young blossoms, southern winds and swarms of bees.
Nila (indigo) - the color of Lord Krishna who is likened to a rain-filled cloud.
Hari nila - the color of water in which the sky is reflected.
Gerwa (saffron) - the color of the earth and of the yogi the wandering minstrel, the seer, the poet who renounces the world.

Earlier, vegetable dyes were used during weaving. These produced fast colors, lasted for almost a generation, and remained as beautiful and vivid as ever. Nowadays aniline dyes have gained popularity as they are cheaper, less time-consuming and produce a larger variety of colors.

Making Nakshas (Designs) On Brocades

Making of nakshas (designs) forms an important part of brocade weaving. Banaras is the main center where the nakshabandha (designer) tradition prevails. The skill and imagination of nakshabandha plays a prominent part in making of designs. Designs are associated with legends and symbolism. The most popular motifs are drawn from nature.

In Banaras, it is said that nakshabandha families were brought to this country during the reign of Muhammed Tughlak (1325-1350 A.D.). They were supreme masters of the art of tying designs into the loom. Local artisans and weavers learned this art from these great craftsmen.

Some of these craftsmen were also great poets-perhaps they wove their poetry into their designs. One such renowned poet was Ghias-I-Naqsband, mentioned in Abul Fazl's 'Ain-I-Akbari'.

The nakshas are first worked on paper. This part of the work is called likhai (writing). The nakshabandha then makes a little pattern of it in a framework of cotton threads like a graph. This pattern gives guidance to the working of that design into weaving.

Current Scenario

Today brocades are still used by some for curtains and upholstery. Brocaded zari saris and lehengas (long skirts) are still in demand for marriages, religious ceremonies and other auspicious and social occasions. Indian brocades are also in great demand abroad and foreign designers are fashioning garments of this material that lends itself so well to the creation of fantasies.

Looking back a hundred years, one is amazed to find that in spite of rapid industrialization, most of the age-old centers of handloom textiles still continue to produce beautifully woven fabrics. The main centers besides Banaras are Ahmedabad and Surat where saris of the finest silk, gauze and gold with lively color schemes are woven. Murshidabad in Bengal was a reputed center for kimkhab during the 19th century. Paithan and Aurangabad are other centers of brocade manufacture. In the south, Triuchirapalli and Tanjore produce a variety of kimkhabs known as gulbadan in which gold wire is used profusely.

Brocade weaving, a craft that was on the decline, is again showing a very promising trend. Most of the credit for this goes to the village handloom weavers, designers and dyers who, with their combined efforts, have kept alive our tradition of weaving.