A silk sari of jewel colours, intricate design, zari work and painstaking labour – the Paithani sari of Maharashtra is all this and more. Paithani saris tell us of a people who were willing to spend lavishly to clothe their womenfolk in nine yards of the traditional silk and spun gold, crafted by indigenous weavers. No Maharashtrian wedding trousseau was complete without the Paithani sari and shela or stole, the best the family could afford. They then became treasured heirlooms which could be preserved and worn by three generations of women.
Ask any Maharashtrian and she will tell you that the art of weaving Paithani saris is 2000 years old, developed in the city of Pratishthan. This city was ruled by the legendary Shalivahana (now Paithan by the Godavari in Marathwada, some 50 km from Aurangabad). In the far past it had been an international trade centre for silk and zari.
During the 17th century, Aurangzeb patronized the weavers and the designs in this era came to be known as “Aurangzebi”. Yeola is another place where Paithani is still alive, although few families practice the art now. The Peshwa rulers were patrons of this art and had a special love for Paithani – while the men wore the stole over their dhoti and kurta, the women were resplendent in Paithani saris at weddings, festivals and special occasions.
It is believed that the Nizam of Hyderabad was also attracted to the Paithanis and made several trips to the small town of Paithan. Niloufer, daughter-in-law of the late Nizam of Hyderabad, was one of the last of the erstwhile royals to be fascinated by the Paithani magic.
As with most of the traditional arts and crafts of India, Paithani too suffered a decline under the British Raj. Once there were over 500 families practicing this hereditary art which required high technical skill and aesthetic sense. Their migrations began with Muslim aggressions. The khatri community of weavers got scattered in search of work and settled down to whatever they found.
by Chandana Banerjee