Have you been to the Ajanta caves? If you have and you are a hardcore textile enthusiast, chances are you noticed the exquisite weaves depicted in the frescoes there. They bear an uncanny resemblance to the prized double ikat weaves known as the Patan Patola. These rich weaves that were once worn only by royalty and the aristocracy used to be exclusively made in Patan, the former capital of Gujarat. Even today, you have to shell out a tidy sum to own one of these beauties.
The double ikat patola weave, like many other handicrafts is a closely guarded secret known only to a very few families. The tradition is handed down through the sons in each family. Each strand for the warp and the weft in a patola sari is individually resist-dyed before weaving. Two weavers working together could take more than a week to weave a single six yard patola sari. The warp and weft are matched perfectly to form regularly spaced exquisite motifs. With the advanced skill, time and intense labor involved in the production of these sarees, each one a masterpiece, no wonder the patola is considered the Queen of Ikats and the most expensive of the ikat weaves.
A less intricate but visually appealing single ikat patola was invented to cater to those unable to pay the high prices for the original double ikat patola, but still wanted one to complete their wardrobe.
Now for a bit of history. Sometime during the 12th century CE, King Kumar Pal of the Solanki dynasty conquered parts of Maharashtra. Enamoured by the skill of the weavers of southern Maharashtra, who belonged to the Salvi (Sal – Loom) clan, he moved them from southern Maharashtra to Patola in north Gujarat. It is interesting to note that the famous weaving communities in South India are also descendants of this clan, from the branches that settled down south.
Traditionally, the patola is woven with four distinct pattern styles. The Jain and Hindu communities, went with designs of parrots, flowers, elephants, kalash, and dancing figures while the Muslim communities preferred geometric designs and flower patterns. These were typically woven for weddings and special occasions. The saris woven for the Marathi Brahmin community can be distinguished by their plain bodies, dark coloured borders, and a bird design called Nari Kunj.
Enjoying a pride of place in a woman’s dowry, the patola saris are considered auspicious and seen as harbingers of good luck as prosperity. They are prized heirlooms passed down through generations and they retain their rich colour and grandeur over centuries.
Like most traditional craftsmen, the weavers of the exquisite patola also battle the challenges of extinction, loss of originality, and consumerism. Unless steps are taken to preserve this craft and the craftsmen who have devoted their lives to this craft, the beautiful patola might not be the same anymore.