Chanderi weaving has created some of India’s most elegant saris, shimmering gossamer-light cotton fabrics that are ideal as summer wear. Traditionally woven with pure, handspun cotton yarn, Chanderi saris were patronised extensively by royalty, since their fragile lightness, pastel hues and intricacy of motifs was unparalleled. Their motifs are inspired by nature and by the stunning temples of Chanderi town, Madhya Pradesh, where this weaving style is practiced.
Chanderi weaves today are produced using three raw materials: cotton, silk thread, and zari, or gold thread. None of there materials are available locally, and need to be imported from other Indian states, as well as from China, Japan, and Korea.
Chanderi is primarily a weavers town, located near the river Betwa in Guna district of Madhya Pradesh. According to official estimates, over sixty per cent of its population of 30,000, manufactures or trades in this fabric.
In royal Chanderi, the locality of weavers, women rule and men are their slaves...
(Local saying in Chanderi)
Chanderi saris are usually woven by women, and while some argue that this has empowered the women of Chanderi, others point out that this very fact has also kept them traditionally cloistered in their homes. As with most Indian handlooms and handicrafts, the skills of Chanderi weaving have also been passed down through generations in weaver families.
Traditionally, Chanderi weavers were mostly Muslim, while Hindus traded in the fabric. Weaving was and is carried out on traditional looms like pit looms, dobby, and jacquard looms.
Originally, Chanderi was always woven using handspun cotton warps and wefts. It was spun as fine as 300 counts, and was as prized amongst cotton fabrics as the famed muslins of Dhaka. However, the Industrial Revolution sounded the first death knell on this beautiful textile. The British imported cheaper 120 to 200 count cotton from Manchester, which greatly eroded the market for the more expensive Chanderi cloth. In the 1930s, Chanderi weavers discovered Japanese silk. They began substituting this in the warps in cotton saris, and also developed a silk-by-silk variety in which their profit margins were higher. As a result, today, it is difficult to find a genuine cotton-by-cotton Chanderi sari in retail establishments.
The problem of sourcing authentic Chanderi has been exacerbated by the development of many look-alikes available at cheaper rates.
Did You Know?
- Even though Chanderi has historically been such an important centre for weaving, it does not produce it's own yarn! In the old days, Chanderi lay on an important trading route between Gujarat, Mewar and the Deccan, so all the raw material for weaving –– cotton, silk and brocade –– came from outside.
- Most of the so-called Chanderi fabric available cheaply in the market today is fake.
- In the olden days, Chanderi fabric was dyed with flowers and saffron, which imparted fragrance as well as colour to it.
Chanderi fabrics are known for their sheer texture, light weight and a glossy transparency that sets them apart from textiles produced en masse in factories. Traditionally, the fabric was woven using very fine hand spun yarn, which accounted for its delicate texture.
Soft pastel shades characterize most Chanderi saris. Unlike the more flamboyant Kanjivaram saris of South India, or the Paithani saris of the West, most Chanderi saris display a remarkably subtle balance between the colours used on the body, and those on the borders. However, timeless combinations of bright colour borders on an off white base, or red on black, also exist. Interestingly, colour was introduced to Chanderi saris only fifty years ago. Until then, all Chanderi saris were woven in the natural white of cotton, and were then washed in saffron to give them their characteristic golden hue and fragrance. Some weavers also used natural dyes made from flowers, but usually on the woven product, not yarn. Today, Chanderi weavers prefer fast-acting chemical dyes.
Traditionally, the quality of the gold thread used distinguished Chanderi saris from cheaper imitations. Most Chanderis have a rich gold border and two lines of gold on the pallu. Some have gold checks or little motifs (known as Butis) all over.
Two unique methods are used to embellish Chanderi weaves – Minakari (inlay in the motifs) and Addedar Patela (jeweled cutwork)
Unlike the geometrical motifs of Maheshwari weaves, Chanderi motifs are usually drawn from the earth and sky. Swans (hamsa), gold coins (asharfi), trees, fruits, flowers and heavenly bodies, all found their way into the idiom of motifs in Chanderi.
Marketing Chanderi Saris
There are two modes of marketing Chanderi fabrics in India. Local traders and businessmen sell between eighty five and ninety per cent of the total fabric produced. Some of these businessmen provide yarn and designs to weavers, but the bulk of them just trade in the finished products.
Government agencies like M.P. Handloom Weavers' Co-operative Federation, M.P. Laghu Udyog Nigam, M.P. Handicraft Development Corporation & State Textile Corporation sell the remainder of fabric produced.
Unfortunately, weavers are unable to market their own products successfully in metros, or in trade fairs or exhibitions. As a result, their profit margins are eroded by the presence of traders, as is the unfortunate case with most Indian handicraft produced in remote areas.
Chanderi’s struggle for GI status
The production of Chanderi has been protected by India as a Geographic Indication (GI). This is a sign used on products with a specific geographical origin, which have certain qualities because of the place they have originated in. As a WTO member country, India passed the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and protection) Act in 1999, which enables the registration and better protection of GIs relating to products. India has petitioned the World Trade Organization for the recognition of Chanderi as a GI product at the international level as well.
The arguments in favour of Chanderi being declared a GI product are as follows --
More than 3600 weaver families live and work in Chanderi. Together, they engage in all aspects of the production of this fabric -- warping, colouring and weaving. Since the process is labour-intensive, each family produces only about two meters of fabric per day (which means a total of about 7200 meters of fabric in Chanderi). However, the demand, even locally, is much higher than this. It is met by the different varieties of spurious Chanderi produced cheaply on power looms, or by using cheaper synthetic yarns.
The pressures on Chanderi weavers are compounded by the fact that traders and businessmen eat away a large chunk of their profits. Weavers and master weavers do not have the financial resources to buy and store raw material or to do any r&d to improve their technical skills or designing abilities. Living in remote areas of Madhya Pradesh, they have an understandable lack of marketing abilities which makes their situation worse. As a result, many weaver families are eschewing their traditional occupation and opting for other types of work.
Weavers’ exploitation as well as the proliferation of spurious Chanderis in the market are jeopardizing the very future of Chanderi weaving.
In many ways, the problems that Chanderi faces are similar to problems most GI products face, especially in the developing world. It is, however, clear that there are few parallels the world over to the fabric of Chanderi. By labeling it and protecting it as a GI product, India and WTO might be able to assure its future.