When it comes to traditional textiles, one of the biggest tragedies is that little has been done to document their histories. Varanasi, for instance, has only recently started a centre dedicated to showcasing its centuries-old fine weaving techniques. Kancheepuram still doesn’t have a full-fledged museum to present the refined skills of weavers in Tamil Nadu. This, when the textiles of these regions have long been topics of conversation, both nationally and internationally.
In such a scenario, Paithan is largely missing from the history book of textiles. The ancient town, some 50km from Maharashtra’s Aurangabad city, is known for its Paithani, a trophy textile of the Deccan that’s synonymous with the sartorial culture of Maratha royalty from the 18th-early 20th centuries. So integral is the Paithani sari—eye-catching with its jewel tones in fine silks and embellished with floral and bird-inspired motifs brought alive traditionally in real gold zari—to the state that it is often the go-to outfit of Maharashtrian brides. Even celebrities in the state flaunt it on festivals and special occasions. But what’s the history of Paithani?
Kāth Padar—Paithani & Beyond, an exhibition scheduled to be held in Paithan from 20 October, attempts to unravel just this. Presented by Maharashtra’s Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, in association with TVAM Foundation, which works to raise awareness about the Deccan’s textile traditions, the show will feature 20 historical Paithani pieces, including saris, shelas (shawls) and a draped headdress, from the 17th-20th centuries. These are drawn from the collections of the Shri Chhatrapatti Shivaji Maharaj Museum in Satara, the Shri Bhavani Museum and Library, Aundh, the Nagpur Central Museum in Nagpur, as well as those of private owners.
The textiles of the Deccan region have received comparatively less attention, says the independent researcher and show curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul, discussing how TVAM’s founder-chair, Rasika Mhalgi Wakalkar, and he started conceptualising the show over three years ago. “This is despite the fact that Paithani is an important part of contemporary culture and fashion today and an important source of identity in the region. Even the Paithan museum doesn’t have an old Paithan textile.”
The capital of the Satavahana kingdom some 2,000 years ago, Paithan was famous for its textiles in silk and cotton, and had flourishing trading relations with the Roman empire. According to the textile historian Rahul Jain, says Kaul, “It is possible to pick up our understanding of the fabric produced in Paithan in the early 17th century, with the patronage of textiles from this town by rulers of the Deccan."
However, adds Kaul, "while numerous references to the fabric industry in Paithan exist in the interim period, none help us in defining with any clarity what such cloth could have been from the technical or design perspectives, beyond its use of cotton, silk and metallic yarns.”
As they met erstwhile royal Maratha families and visited museums in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the historical pieces Kaul and Wakalkar found looked very different from the contemporary versions, in bright colours like neons and pinks, made today by around 300 weavers in Paithan and neighbouring Yeola. For, Paithani is suffering the same blows as most other traditional techniques: the ubiquitous power loom, and the exit of weavers from the profession because they can’t earn enough.
The samples of historical borders estimated to be from the early 18th to mid- 20th centuries, for instance, depict lotuses that look painted, highlighting the use of the interlock tapestry weaving technique to bring out colour tones. The use of deep indigo shades in saris and safas seems synonymous with historical Paithanis of high-quality craftsmanship. “We also found that Paithani was part of the men’s attire...” says Wakalkar.
So why does the Paithani exist today only in the form of saris? “Because handloom revival in the post-independence era was led by the need to reproduce textiles in the form of a more marketable commodity,” explains Kaul. “While men’s attire changed a lot...it became more Westernised, women’s clothes remained largely the same, in the form of the sari.”
They decided to hold the exhibition in Paithan mainly for two reasons.
“One of the things that has happened recently is that culture has become far too divorced from people because it has been museumified and put in a big city in an institution,” says Kaul. “The primary audience should be local. Also, we are producing a catalogue which will have images to help weavers replicate the traditional Paithani patterns.”
Another reason, adds Wakalkar, is that “the samples (traditional pieces) often leave the weaving centre and never return. Future generations never get to see the whole piece; they have to work with swatches, which don’t give the full idea. Plus, given Paithan is a site of archaeological importance, we are hoping this small exhibition will help Paithan attract more attention for research and exploration, textile and beyond.”
Kāth Padar—Paithani & Beyond will be held from 20-28 October , 11am-5pm, at the Shri Balasaheb Patil Government Museum, Paithan, Aurangabad. Visitors can opt for a tour of Paithani weaving centres as well. For details, visit Tvamfoundation.com.