Textile Craft

In the history of human civilization, while cave paintings and stone carvings found way into temples as a tangibly dominant medium of storytelling in India or elsewhere, and even for propagandization of ideas in some places, our Bihari folks, mostly women are known to be weaving stories through arts and crafts on textile. At some places textile crafts were passed down from women to the younger generation, while somewhere these thrived as family businesses like in Patwa Toli (village of weavers) in the Manpur block of Gaya district where manufacture of cotton fabrics on loom followed by dyeing has been the core source of economy for almost each household.
Abundance of cotton and silk production in Bihar also paved ways for textile crafts over the years. The art has been the core of common living since ages in Bihar, at least since the fifteenth century as on record. Travel documents dating to the British era, and museums have records that silk and cotton clothes made in Bhagalpur, Patna, Nalanda, and Purnia were both simple and designer. These fabrics from Bihar were known for their richness, intricate designs, and softness. Textile craft is still the daily craft work in Bihar thriving in households to cottage industries to weavers' communities to village women – all known for its special motifs and carrying the essence of different geographical regions.

As per a report of a working group on Textiles and Jute industry for the eleventh five-year plan (2007-12) by the Ministry of Textiles, Bihar and Jharkhand (part of Bihar till November 15, 2000) have been Tasar silk producing states traditionally. The ministry's report suggests that Tasar silk culture is practiced in altogether 31 districts of both the states, adjoining the Tasar culture regions of Madhya Pradesh and Odisha (neighbouring states of jharkhand). East and West Singhbhum, Santhal Pargana division, Ranchi and Giridih – now in Jharkhand – and Bhagalpur in Bihar are some of the prominent centers of Tasar silk production. Silk sarees, kurtas and other outfits made from Bhagalpur's silk holds high demand in both national and overseas markets. The cloth is mainly produced on power looms.

While the divided Bihar ended up having only Bhagalpur region for Tasar production, the other areas on the banks of the Ganges such as Patna, Begusarai, Katihar as well as Purnia, which is located further north of Katihar, saw people growing castor for another income source through eri culture. Castor is cultivated on the banks of the Ganges and other rivers, and the silkworm through which Eri silk is produced feeds mainly on castor leaves. These are the main eri rearing districts of Bihar, while Bhagalpur also serves as the main weaving centre for eri silk fabrics. Eri silk produced here in Bhagalpur is the main silk weaving centre. Other silk weaving centres are Godda, W. Singhbhum and Dumka in the undivided state and Nawada district in the divided Bihar. Handlooms are mainly used for silk weaving at all these centers. Eri silk fabrics produced here are widely used in making upholstery items.

The history of silk industry of Bihar can be traced back to the 14th century when the epic poet and scholar Amir Khusrow is said to have spoken highly of the silk produced in the state of Bihar. The industry particularly got a push during the Mughal period when in the l7th century, Patna was an important centre of silk production in addition to Ahmedabad and Kashmir. The research report points out that both the British and Dutch set up their factories at Patna to produce silk.

The letter of Robert Hughes, established the first English factory at Patna, reveals that besides the renowned Tasar, Taffeta was another silk cloth manufactured in Bihar in that era and was considerably of better quality than that of Kasimbazar (West Bengal). Colourful dyeing of silk is also said to have started in the same period. Production of glossy strands of silk thread which was used for embroidery in England also found its way in the region.
Another branch of textile production in Bihar during the 17th century was carpet weaving. Obra, Karaipur, and Daudnagar in the district of Gaya were the main centers for producing high-quality carpets. The manufacturers were mainly the descendants of the Persian artisans brought from Delhi, Agra, and Mirzapur. Areas such as Sultanganj, Pirhahar, and Chauk in Patna were the main centres of carpet weaving till the l9th century, the thesis notes.
Another and most important branch of textile production in Bihar has been cotton cloth since that era. During the 17th century, individual weavers produced cotton on their looms that required two people to operate – often a man and a woman, who assists in winding and wrapping of the fabric. For almost two centuries, 17 and 18, Patna and its adjacent regions, including Purnea, Gaya, Bhagalpur, and Shahabad were renowned for producing high volume of cotton fabrics. The produce was of both cheap and fine quality. These fabrics were used in exports as well, thanks to the extensive cultivation of cotton in the region. It is said that the quality of cotton fabrics produced in Patna was finer than that of Western India.

The designs on these textiles varied from minimal patterns produced on the loom with coloured yarns to those printed with wooden block and painted ones. These printed cotton fabrics are commonly called chintz. The thesis suggests that between 1768 and 1771, chintz was manufactured only in places near Patna in Bihar and were famous as Patna Chintzes. The Patna chintz was not only cheaper but also of finer quality than that of Coromandel and Gujarat. Though Patna chintz was coarser than that of Lucknow and Calcutta, it was more in demand by the Armenians and Portuguese. Chintz was also more common among men of lower classes while women of that era rarely wore outfits of it.

Muslins which are light-weight cotton cloth were also high in production in the region. The textile craft done over muslin fabrics again included printing or stamping of gold and silver flowers. The process included stamping the cloth with common glue, followed by pasting gold and silver leaf over it. Due to its delicate design, such clothes could not be washed as water would do away the effect of glue and take off the motifs. These richly crafted clothing were used as occasion wears, unlike the coarse cotton ones that were more like an everyday wear.

In his book "Mogul India" (1653-1708), author Niccolao Manucci calls the Muslins of Patna "a very fine white cotton cloth" that were "very plentiful" in Bihar. According to Manucci, the muslin cotton was a "strong, close-made and well-conditioned cloth, unbleached and having no faults other than narrowness, the narrowness being the price of its durability." While by the third decade of the nineteenth century, the cotton and silk craft is said to have been almost declined in Bihar, the coming decades and centuries saw proliferation of various forms of kashida embroidery (needlework) in the textile crafts of Bihar.
In her book "Traditional Embroideries of India", Shailaja D. Naik explains that Bihar's textile crafts abound in embroidery done on clothes as well as upholstery items. And unlike the Kashida of Kashmir, the Bihar's version has mostly women doing it.

Sujani Craft in Bihar

As a long-established craft practiced among women in Bihar, Sujani is a derivative name for a quilt made in rural areas. The origin of this textile craft 'Sujani' can be traced back to 18th century and the literary accounts of the era suggest that cotton and silk quilts made in different parts of Bihar such as Bhagalpur, Purnia, Nalanda and Patna were very attractive and popular.

Traditionally, the rags of old saris and dhotis of different colours are sewn together at the time of baby's birth with a running stitch to make it look and feel like a quilt called Sujani. Stitching old cloth into Sujani has specific significance; it gives the newborn a comfortable feeling of being enveloped by mother's embracement. In fact, the word Sujani itself demonstrates this meaning – 'su' means easy and comforting, while 'jani' means birth.
Two well-known traditions of folk embroidery in Bihar are Kashidakari and Sujani. While the Kashidakari involves the use of cross-stitch on new and vibrant color material to embroider caps for a newly-born child, blouses for the bride and such like, Sujani deals with rags and frayed-cloth. Along with quilt for newborn, other useful articles made of Sujani are cushion covers, bedspreads, Dupattas, Stoles, Sarees and ladies kurta yokes. Sometimes, the bed-sheets made of Sujani are stuffed with other rags to add thickness, offering more motherly comfort to the new-born. Sujani resembles the 'Kantha' art of Bengal, a stitching technique used to make simple quilts in West Bengal, commonly known as Nakshi Kantha.

Sujani craft is said to have originated in Bhusura in Ghaighatti block of Muzaffarpur district in Bihar. Currently, Sujani embroidery is made mainly in about 15 small craft-clusters spread across the adjoining areas such as Hasna, Ramnagar, Durganagar, Dahiya, Kothiya, Chidaila, Jarang of Muzaffarpur district and in some pockets of Madhubani.

The narrative elements in its embroidery lend uniqueness to this craft. The artisans narrate their lifestyle, experience, sorrows and happiness with the help of needles and thread on Sujani. The Sujini craft is characterized by its transformation of a traditional craft into a channel for expressing contemporary issues too. Its narrative elements portray realities that range from religious to secular. However, today, one may observe some experiments in its narratives that include contemporary issues such as drunkenness, child marriage, or dowry menace among others.

Sujani is perhaps the most popular thread work of the state having originated from the Bhusura village in the 18th century. In this embroidery pattern, women use only fine running and chain stitches in straight line to make designs and motifs varying from representations of flowers to animals, birds and epic tales of Ramayana and Mahabharta to folk tales and even patterns portraying social messages. In older times and in fact, initially,
Sujani craft was considered a form of quilting for the new born wherein pieces of soft, old cotton clothes were stitched together in layers and adorned with simple embroidery motifs. Vaishali, Muzaffarpur, Bhojpur and Danapur are the main centers of Sujani craft. Women from over 15 villages in these regions are involved in the craft.

Khatwa, the applique patchwork of Bihar is most commonly found on canopies in weddings but also has found its way to fashion. In this textile craft, the fabric pieces of contrasting colours are cut in desired pattern/shapes and stiched on to the base cloth through hemming to form a design. The applique motifs used for adorning tents at ceremonies mostly include trees, flowers, birds or the Mughal Empire-inspired designs. Because of the time and labour involved in making these Khatwa clothes, the price of the outfits having applique craft are comparatively high.

Another most essential and traditional textile craft of Bihar is Bawan Buti (52 motifs). Originated in the villages of Nepura and Baswan Bigha in nalanda district, this craft is inspired by a legend of Lord Vishnu's dwarf incarnation Vamana, who is believed to have covered the Universe in just three steps. Likewise, weavers of Bawan Buti craft make handloom silk sarees, bed sheets and curtains creating designs depicting legends in just 52 motifs. Silk stoles and scarves are also famous products. Common motifs used in designs include Mahabodhi Temple, Stupas of Nalanda, Rajgir and other symbols related to Buddhism. The craft is done on cotton and silk cloth.

The Nepura village is known for its Tussar Silk weavers. According to Nalanda University, of the 250 families of the village, 50 are weavers. They still practice pit loom weaving and thigh reeling. Basawan Bigha is known for its cotton weaves and weavers mainly make curtains. 'Rashtrapati Bhawan designs' on curtains are quite famous here as the weavers from this village had made curtains and supplied fabric to the Rashtrapati Bhawan for the first president of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad.

Abundance of cotton and silk production in Bihar paved ways for textile crafts over the years. The art has been the core of common living since ages in Bihar, at least since the fifteenth century as on record. Travel documents dating to the British era, and museums have records that silk and cotton clothes made in Bhagalpur, Patna, Nalanda, and Purnia were both simple and designer. These fabrics from Bihar were known for their richness, intricate designs, and softness.