The early History
The earliest mention of the origin of Jamdani and its development as an industry is found in Kautilya's book of economics (about 300 AD) where it is stated that this fine cloth used to be made in Bengal and Pundra. Its mention is also found in the book of Periplus of the Eritrean Sea and in the accounts of Arab, Chinese and Italian travelers and traders. Four kinds of fine cloth used to be made in Bengal and Pundra in those days, viz khouma, dukul, pattrorna and karpasi. From various historical accounts, folklore and slokas, it may be assumed that very fine fabrics were available in Bengal as far back as the first decade before Christ. Cotton fabrics like dukul and muslin did not develop in a day. Dukul textile appears to have evolved into muslin. Jamdani designs and muslin developed simultaneously. The fine fabric that used to be made at Mosul in Iraq was called mosuli or mosulin In his 9th century book Sril Silat-ut-Tawarikh the Arab geographer Solaiman mentions the fine fabric produced in a state called Rumy, which according to many, is the old name of the territory now known as Bangladesh. In the 14th century, Ibn Batuta profusely praised the quality of cotton textiles of Sonargaon. Towards the end of the 16th century the English traveler Ralph Fitch and historian Abul Fazl also praised the muslin made at Sonargaon.
The name Jamdani is of Persian origin and is strongly suggestive of Mughal influence. It is a compound word wherein “jam” means flower and “dani” means vase. The name is suggestive of the beautiful floral motifs that adorn these gorgeous sarees. The Bengali version of the name, Dhakai, comes from the place of its origin — Dhaka in Bangladesh. Interestingly, the earliest mention of Jamdani sarees can be found in Chanakya’s Arthashastra, dating back to the 3rd century BC! The book refers to it as some fine cloth from “Bangla” and “Pundra” region. Significant mentions of Jamdani can also be found in the book of Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, besides the accounts of Arab, Chinese and Italian travellers and traders. In the first half of the 19th century, James Taylor described the flowered Jamdani. The late 19th century saw the Anglicization of rooted Indian concepts and consequently, TN Mukharji referred to this fabric as Jamdani muslin.
Though Jamdani has enjoyed immense popularity right from the beginning, the art form bloomed during the Mughal period. However, colonisation by the British saw a decline in the production of this fabric. Export of cheaper yarn from European countries in the 19th century was one of the primary reasons for the decline of Jamdani. Also, with the decline of Mughal rule in India, producers of Jamdani were deprived of their most influential patrons. Villages like Madhurapur and Jangalbadi, once famous for the intricate Jamdani industry, faded into oblivion. Post the partition, many weavers migrated to present day West Bengal, and that marked the beginning of the art form in India.
The base fabric for Jamdani is unbleached cotton yarn and the design is woven using bleached cotton yarns so that a light-and-dark effect is created. The process is extremely time consuming as it involves a tedious form of hand looming. The making of Jamdani involves the supplementary weft technique along with the standard weft technique. With the latter, the base sheer material is made on which thicker threads on used to create designs. Each of the supplementary weft motif is then added manually by interlacing the weft threads with fine bamboo sticks using individual spools. This process results in the vibrant patterns that appear to float on a shimmering surface, which is a feature unique to Jamdani sarees.
Jamdani weaving is somewhat like tapestry work, where small shuttles of colored, gold or silver threads are passed through the weft. Designs range from the “butidar”, where the entire saree is scattered with floral sprays, to diagonally-striped floral sprays or the “tercha” and a network of floral motifs called “jhalar”. Today, however, price constraints have forced weavers to simplify their designs. The most remarkable part of this technique is that the pattern is not sketched or outlined on the fabric. Instead, it is drawn on a translucent graph paper and placed underneath the warp. The fabric is not just limited to sarees; scarves, handkerchiefs and dupattas made out of this fine muslin are also extremely popular.
One of the most laborious forms of handloom weaves, it’s no surprise that it is considered to be one of the most prized fabrics in the world. Jamdani weaving is time-consuming and labour-intensive because of the richness of its motifs, which are created directly on the loom using the discontinuous weft technique. Threads of gold and silver are usually woven together with these sarees to create a variety of patterns and motifs on a brocade loom. It has the supplementary weft technique along with the standard weft technique. The standard weft creates a fine, sheer fabric while the supplementary weft with thicker threads adds the intricate patterns to it. Each of the supplementary weft motif is manually added by interlacing the weft threads with fine bamboo sticks using individual spools. It gives an illusion of the designs floating on a shimmering surface, a characteristic of Jamdani weaves.