i have grown up around these light, floaty, slightly see through sarees in beautiful colours, or a typical ivoryish off white with woven borders, sometimes little bootis or motifs all over them, sometimes plain.
sarees of the loom. for hundreds of years and more – shantipur goes back 500 years i read – across weaving centres in bengal, both west and east (now bangladesh) cotton sarees have been woven by hand by ordinary people, no designers they, the taanti… or the weaver. each area had and still has its own speciality. they used different techniques and created stuff that had sultans and nawabs happy and the bengali woman dressed in a rather lovely array of shantipuris, tangails, dhakais, dhonekhalis, jamdani, muslin…
usually the tangail, shantipuri, and dhonekhali sarees would have thicker, more opaque borders and really fine bases or jomee as i remember my grandmother and mother call the body of the saree. jomee or zameen in hindi also means ground, earth. and while the jomee had to be really fine, it also had to be tightly woven so that it was khappi, dense. every summer, my maternal grandmother would come to calcutta from delhi to visit her family. her sister would buy a stack of taanter sharee and keep it ready for my grandmother to take back. it was her year’s shopping for sarees she’d use for daily wear. the sisters would avidly discuss the quality of the sarees, find it most wanting compared to how they used to be, there’d be talk of thread count and price, etc.
i took these sarees entirely for granted, never paying them much attention. i was about eighteen i think, when i chose for myself a tangail sharee. tangail is in bangladesh, not too far from dhaka. during partition, as millions of people crossed borders and made a choice they just had to, many hindu weavers from tangail came to india and settled down close to shantipur in nadia district, in a place called phulia. experts at crafting dhakai jamdanis and other weaves of tangail, they soon integrated the styles of shantipur and started making the wide range of phulia tangails.
it must have been a phulia tangail, that first maroon and green taant of mine. those are the colours of a football team in calcutta… the mohun bagan athletic club. that year they were making sarees in the colours of the two great rivals mohun bagan and east bengal, i think. taantis have their own take on fashion and trend; during the huge buying spree of pujo, when the whole of bengal celebrates the advent of the goddess durga, the newest designs in sarees come out. you can get the same design at various price ranges, from high to medium to pretty bad quality, since everyone wants the latest look.
what amazes me is how fine and gossamer the weave often is and how elegant the sarees look, yet you needn’t spend a fortune every time to get one. the last saree i swiped from my mother has an off white base, a purple border with gold zaree and small pretty bootis in purple, green, and gold. it cost rs 650 or so in 2007. if i match it with a good looking blouse, i could wear it to a wedding and it would look just fine amongst the benarasis and kanjeevarams and zardosi embroidered silks and chiffons.
this saree, which my friend from china happily agreed to wear and be photographed in, is the classic red border and white base saree of bengal, shada sharee lal paar (the r of the sharee and the r of the paar, a funny d/r sound, no equivalent in the eng alphabet). it’s almost cliche in fact, always present in the list of of things bengali: like roshogolla, ami tomake bhalobashi, maachher jhol, and the bengali’s obsession with bowel movement.
but it’s really still utterly gorgeous. i went hunting for a good laal paar sharee a couple of years ago and found this one with its subtle design on the border and fine base with delicate checks of off white on off white at meera basu, one of the boutiques that came up in the late seventies. they often operated from people’s homes and were run by the women of the family. there was kundahaar, tuntuni, meera basu off landsdowne road, kanishka opened a proper shop in gariahat. there were others. they brought in select sarees from the taantis, even designed or got “exculsive” batches. i was delighted to find this one, it’s a phulia tangail.
actually the history of bengal can be told via these five and a half metre pieces of cloth, the dhonekhalis are six metres long. one story sticks in my mind. i was at a bangladeshi friend’s place for eid, i’d worn a tangail with mooga checks and a bold orange and mooga border. a bangladeshi girl i’d met the previous year at the same friend’s place for the same occasion, said she loved the saree… what was it.
without thinking too much i said, oh this? it’s a mooga check tangail.
tangail? she looked at me archly. huh, how can you have tangail sarees from india, tangail’s in bangladesh.
i was gobsmacked. no ready answer. seething inside. tangail is our saree, yours and mine i wanted to say, but at that moment, i couldn’t say a thing. some day if we meet again, maybe we’ll talk about phulia, shantipur, bengal this side and that… just as all china doesn’t come from china, all tangails are not made in tangail. i hope you enjoyed my ramble through the taanter sharee (the n of the taanter has a soft nasal sound).
sarees tell stories | white saree with red border phulia tangail in 2010/11 from meera basu, calcutta.