The Maheshwari sari is one of India’s finest cotton-silk handloom fabrics which originated in Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. It is characterized by a delicate weave resulting in a gossamer-like fabric rather like Chanderi (also from Madhya Pradesh). However, unlike the Chanderi weave, Maheshwari fabrics are characterized by geometrical motifs.
The Maheshwari sari is made of either pure cotton – ie, cotton wefts on cotton warps, or is mixed – ie fine silk warps and cotton weft. They are characterized by a narrow coloured border embellished with gold (zari) and small checks, narrow stripes, or solid colour in the body.
As long back as the 2nd century, Madhya Pradesh was known as a famous centre of weaving. Maheshwari weaving, however, began much later.
The story goes that the ruler of Indore, Ahilya Bai Holkar designed the first Maheshwari sari. She wanted exquisite nine-yard saris to present to the Peshwa kings, and commissioned weavers from Surat, Burhanpur, Varanasi and Malwa to weave them. Since she was not partial to floral motifs, the austere queen commanded the weavers to design only geometrical motifs. The weavers drew inspiration from the detailing on Maheshwar Fort, and wove intricately patterned fabrics in pure cotton that came to be known all over the world as Maheshwari weaves.
The Maheshwari fabric is known for its lightness, elasticity and fine thread count. In sharp contrast to the rich and heavy silken weaves of Kanjivaram, the silk and cotton mix of Maheshwaris is perfect to wear in the summer.
Originally, Maheshwari saris were woven in earthy shades like maroon, red, green, purple and black. Weavers used only natural dyes for the yarn. Today, Maheshwari fabrics are woven in many jewel tones which are derived from chemicals rather than from flowers, roots and leaves. Popular colours today include shades of blue, mauve, pink, yellow and orange, mixed with gold or silver thread. Subtle colours and textures are created by using different shades in the warp and weft. Gold thread or zari is also used in Maheshwari saris to weave elegant motifs on the body, border and pallu (the width of the sari that is draped over the shoulder) of the sari.
The one trait of Maheshwari fabrics that has stood the test of time is its motifs. Even today, they are mostly geometric. The most common ones include chatai (woven mat pattern), Iinth (brick pattern), hira (diamond pattern) and chameli ki phool (the chameli flower) – all of which may be traced back to the detailing on the walls, niches and cornices of Maheshwar Fort.
The borders of Maheshwari saris are reversible, and are embellished with intricate designs. Its pallu is also quite distinctive. It commonly has five stripes, three coloured alternating with two white, in the Maharastrian style. Nowadays, Maheshwari fabrics are available in many other designs as well.
The Maheshwari weavers
Maheshwari saris were traditinally woven by Hindu weavers, mostly women from the local Maru community. Under the patronage of the royal family of Indore, these weavers wove fine textiles for the elite.
After Independence, the royal patronage of Maheshwari saris came to an end. This marked the beginning of the end of this beautiful craft. While in their prime, Maheshwari weavers got silk yarn from China, zari (gold thread) from Surat and some dyes from Germany, all this became financially unviable when their market declined. Between 1950 and 1970, the market for their products dwindled with the advent of cheaper mill cloth. The weavers of Maheshwar began moving to other professions, but since the bulk of them were women, their options were limited.
Maheshwari weavers also received a setback when yarns and dyes became even more difficult to procure during World War II. By the 1960s, their numbers had dwindled to less than 300. The few who were left tried to cut production costs by using cheaper yarn and dyes, but ended up weaving sub-standard saris.
The government-run state emporium, Mrignayani, provided further marketing support. As a result, today, this art has been partially revived again.
Steps to revive the Maheshwari weaving tradition
Hovering on the brink of extinction, Maheshwari sari received a new lease of life when the scions of the Holkar family, Richard Shivaji Rao and Sally Holkar, intervened. They began an NGO, Rehwa to promote and revive this dying craft. They started with a government grant, and also up with a unique idea of asking people to sponsor looms. One of the first to do so was actor-social activist Shabana Azmi. More importantly, they provided the weavers with good yarn, designs, training and marketing backup.
Thanks to their effort, today 130 weavers today produce over 100,000 metres of fine fabrics a year. Rehwa has also employed designers to use Maheshwari craft techniques to creat other products such as shawls and dhurries. Their welfare projects focus on providing health facilities and education opportunities to the weavers, placing special emphasis on encouraging women weavers.For further information on how to directly aid Maheshwari weavers, go to Rehwa
Several organisations are promoting Maheshwari products by marketing them through different channels. These include Fab India, Sewa Trade Facilitation Centres and the state government emporium,Mrignayani