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Crafts of Patan: Patola and Paper

My car has rolled for 125 kilometres from Ahmedabad before halting in a town—one that appears deceptively ordinary at first glance—Patan. The city, founded by a king of the Chavada Dynasty in the eighth century CE, is popular for the historical architecture of Rani-ki-Vav, an elaborate step-well enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The small town of Patan in Gujarat is also a crafts hub, home to the rare art of Patan Patola weave and an obscure art of paper carving.

Historic Weave

In the Patan Patola Heritage Museum, Bharat Kanti Lal Salvi stands beside a hand-operated harness loom. It gives birth to sarees, each worth more than INR 1,50,000. Bharat and his nine family members are the only Salvis left who still use the traditional method of weaving the patola saree—a complex style of weaving warp and weft silk thread using a tie and dye technique with roots in the city of Patan.

Patan patola fabric, also known as double ikat, is indigenous to India, though other variants of double ikat are found in Japan, Guatemala, Bali and variants of single ikat are found in Indonesia, Thailand and Uzbekistan. It takes five to six months to weave one patola saree by a team of four to five people.

Originally belonging to Maharashtra and Karnataka, some 900 years ago the 700 Salvi families migrated to Anahilapata, the modern-day Patan in Gujarat, to weave for Kumarapala of the Solanki dynasty, the Jain king of Patan. The Salvis toiled hard to meet Kumarapala’s daily requirement of one new piece of patola fabric for worshipping God as it was considered auspicious. The popularity waned with time but this family is trying hard to preserve their culture in its true form.

Patan Patola artist Bharat Kantilal Salvi in his workshop. Photo courtesy: Tania and Sayan Banerjee
Patan Patola artist Bharat Kantilal Salvi in his workshop. Photo courtesy: Tania and Sayan Banerjee

Unlike the other Salvis operating in the region, Bharat’s family doesn’t hire outsiders to lend a helping hand. They don’t manufacture in bulk and only take up orders on request. Every year this family weaves five to six patola sarees and participate only in select international exhibitions.

“Others have switched to synthetic dyes, but we still use natural dyes,” says Bharat. Yellow is extracted from the marigold flower, blue from indigo, red from madder root and black from iron oxide. However, Bharat is reluctant to share the process of colour making. “It is our trade secret. We cannot share that knowledge. When synthetic dyes fiercely started capturing the market, we redeveloped our natural dyes for which my brother, Rohit Kantilal Salvi, was conferred the Shilp Guru award in 2009.”

The motifs unfurling in the canvas of the sarees are traditional ones, preferred by the wealthy clientele of the Salvis— Industrialists and NRIs. Twenty-two to 25 such designs sit in the Salvi household waiting for their turns.

If Papers Could Speak

The upper level of the museum surprises me with a craft of a different kind. Narendra Jadiya sits in a chair with eyes fixated on a thin sheet of paper on his table. With his left hand, he casually arrests the flight of the paper. The penknife in his right hand penetrates deep into the paper. Hindu mythological tales are being given shape. A scene from Krishnaleela is unfolding.

Paper cutting is also a form of expression for many in Patan. 63-year-old Narendra is the third generation paper-cutting artist. The walls of his humble workshop are graced by papers chiselled with repetitive perforations, which cluster together to form sentences in Hindi, as if the paper is speaking. Sometimes they take the shape of iconic temples and freedom fighters.

From inside a metal trunk, he pulls out his creations—carvings of a Tree of Life, Dilwara Temple, Ajanta-Ellora caves and a portrait of Bhagat Singh. “This is worth INR 22,000,” he says, pointing to a piece where Krishna is stealing butter. His artworks range in price from INR 15,000 to several lakhs. In today’s fast-paced world, it takes immense patience and perseverance to master something as delicate as the art of paper cutting.

First, the drawings are outlined with pencil on paper. Then the paper is put on top of four other sheets and carved simultaneously. “No matter how much I take care, the first and last sheet will fail invariably due to friction. The three middle sheets will however portray my expressions flawlessly,” says Narendra.

Depending on the intricacy of the work, it takes anywhere between one to six months to complete each piece. Narendra also conducts workshops in different cities of Gujarat to pass on his knowledge to those who are interested. In the sunset, the silhouettes of the two artists bid me adieu. I leave Patan with a camera loaded with crafty memories.

Text by Tania Banerjee

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