Threads of history - Some women who shaped our arts - Hindustan Times
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Threads of history - Some women who shaped our arts

ByHindustan Times
Mar 08, 2023 12:36 PM IST

This article has been authored by Mini Menon, co-founder Peepul Tree and Editor, Live History India.

The beautiful and graceful Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur inspired a whole generation of well-heeled women across India, as they copied her signature style matching fine chiffon sarees with a simple string of pearls. But 200 years before Gayatri Devi, there was a queen who had an even more lasting impact on fashion in the subcontinent. The earthy, simple and low-profile Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Maheshwar was as unlike Gayatri Devi as possible, and she was savvy. One of the factors that allowed her to transform her kingdom - under her Malwa’s revenues grew manifold making it one of the richest kingdoms of the subcontinent in the 18th century, was a new fabric that she got done that was as light as cotton but as rich and lustrous as silk. The new weave, the Maheshwari (named after Ahilyabai’s capital) was ideal for India’s hot summers and not surprisingly, it soon became the textile of choice for royals and nobles across the Maratha confederacies from Pune and Kolhapur to Gwalior, Nagpur, and beyond.

Maharani Gayatri Devi was an epitome of unparalleled elegance and strength of character (Photo: Twitter) PREMIUM
Maharani Gayatri Devi was an epitome of unparalleled elegance and strength of character (Photo: Twitter)

Women like Ahilyabai have played an important role in shaping our arts but we rarely recognise their contributions. So, this Women’s Day, here is a look at some game changers from the past and present.

From Kalna in West Bengal to Lucknow, Agra and Srinagar, the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan’s legacy can still be seen, and felt. Records and lore talk about how she, one of the most powerful women of her time in India, left an imprint on arts that are still practiced today. The Jamdani for instance, which is a weave once done on the finest muslin from Bengal. This had always been a favorite of the Mughals but under Nur Jahan a new dimension was added - a range of new motifs that make the Jamdani so exquisite today. In Lucknow, it is claimed that it was the Empress who worked with embroiderers to create the Chikankari work that the city is still famous for. Few realise that the earliest example of the fine marble inlay work done on the Taj Mahal, and still practiced in Agra, was first done under Nur Jahan’s supervision as she oversaw the building of her father Itmad-ud-daulah’s mausoleum. Even the fine Sozni embroidery that you see in pashmina shawls is said to have been given a fillip by her. Nur Jahan’s refined taste helped shape how all these arts evolved. A lot of the templates she set are still followed centuries later.

What is the connection between the famous Indian film star Devika Rani who ruled the Indian silver screen in the 1930’s-40’s and the Kulu shawls that we see today?

In 1945 Devika Rani married Svetoslav Roerich, the artist whose father Nicholas Roerich had set base in Naggar in Himachal. While there, the story goes, that Devika Rani asked a local shawl weaver to incorporate the woven borders called the ‘Patti’ that was used as an element in the caps worn by local men and women, on her shawl. This added an interesting pop of colours and went on to become a signature element of the Kulu Shawl making it extremely popular in India and the west.

In more recent times, in 1995 social development activist Dr. Monisha Behal came up with an innovative solution to a widespread problem. Since the late 1970’s she had been working with women groups across rural India, especially in Assam where she is from, to research on women’s health issues and create awareness around it. Everywhere she went, she found one underlying challenge. The economic dependence of women which made them susceptible to abuse. In the village of Chizami, in Nagaland, Monisha decided to solve for that, by encouraging women to build on their weaving skills. Like elsewhere in the state, Naga women here worked on home-based loin looms to create shawls and wraps for their families. But an important element of this revival was to ensure that the Naga weave was adapted to modern tastes. For this she roped in a youngster from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and he helped the Chizami women reimagine their age-old craft. A range of new colours were added and old motifs and designs were given a contemporary makeover to revitalise the traditional weave. Today over 900 women from this village and the district it is in – Phek, are creating a range of modern-day products that are shipped across the world, from Nagaland.

As we add new arts and weaves to our repository of products and stories on Peepul Tree, we have come across so many women who are doing stellar work, with artisans and weaves, helping them reimagine the traditional and adapt their work to modern times so that they can thrive. So be it a young NIFT graduate like Alisha Maindoliya, who has created a brand of sustainable eco-dyed fabrics using discarded flowers in Dehradun, working with women self-help groups or even Pabi Ben, a recent Shark Tank India star who used her love of colour to reimagine the traditional embroidery of her Rabari community and ensure incomes for so many like her, the lesson I draw is that it is the keen eye that these women bring, that adds an important dimension essential for success

Reviving India’s arts and crafts requires the Head – a clear strategy, Heart – i.e., passion and love for our crafts and a little more – Style and Innovation, that ensures that our handmade products are exquisite and aspirational. This magic formula allowed each of these women to leave and make a lasting impact on the art and the numerous artisans who worked on it. This ‘Network’ effect needs to be replicated manyfold.

History shows that this is the winning combination that these women have used to leave a mark, by not only preserving the traditional arts, but also innovating and adapting them to suit the demands of their world through the eras.

This article has been authored by Mini Menon, co-founder Peepul Tree and Editor, Live History India.

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