Textiles of the World: Paithani

INTRODUCTION

Paithani is a sari textile dating back 2,000 years. It is from the Western state of Maharashtra, India. This sari is handwoven in silk and zari (metallic threads) and features traditional motifs including peacocks, florals, paisleys, and parrots. The allure of Paithani is that no one piece is the same and because of the weaving/tapestry techniques, the textile is mirrored so it is difficult to distinguish the front from the back. The use of gold thread results in the sari becoming heavy and quite expensive to wear, and so it is reserved for special occasions like religious ceremonies and weddings. Most Paithanis cost thousands of dollars. Today, in order for everyone to enjoy the textile, handloom houses have designed less expensive versions. However, they do not use the traditional silks or pure gold threads.

A folded Paithani lies on a bed. The main colour is off-white, and it has a gold and pink border around all edges, with gold paisley and small gold dots woven all over into the main part of the cloth.
An off-white and burgundy Paithani with gold paisleys and small gold embroidery

HISTORY

Paithani was first woven in the town of Paithan and the weavers were exclusively men. The reason women did not weave is because at the time, women were not allowed to work outside of the home. Additionally, the textiles were only worn by royalty. Today, there are training centers that encourage women weavers to learn and master the ancient weaving practice. The city of Yeola, Maharashtra is the primary location of Paithani loom houses, where several create one-of-a-kind pieces for clients worldwide.

One of the most traditional forms is called Maharani (Queen) Paithani. This particular sari was woven with pure gold threads. The Pallau (the end of the sari that is draped over the shoulder to showcase the design) in the Maharani Paithani usually features the peacock motif. The gold was so pure that Roman traders imported the textile in exchange for gold of the same amount. Today, the pure gold threads have been replaced by silver threads to be more accessible for the vast public. However, if you want to order a custom piece that uses pure gold, there are weavers that still practice the traditional use of pure gold threads. Weavers use different weights and colors of thread, alternating between weft and warp, to create a textile that will appear to have a kaleidoscope effect. The weaving of the textile usually takes between 18 and 24 months depending on the intricacy of the design.

A short video showing the weaving process of Paithani
A traditional Paithani draped so that we see most of the design. The colour is fuschia pink, with gold edging. It has a wide border  (pallau) at one end with a recurring motif of 2 peacocks at a fountain, woven in purple, red and green.
A traditional Paithani sari with a peacock motif

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PAITHANI

When first approached to contribute to this series, I wavered between writing a detailed process and history piece and writing a piece that reflects how a textile can evoke feelings and instantly transport the wearer to a different time or place. Can a textile have the power to encourage the wearer to chase their dreams and ambitions/ carve out their own path? I am fortunate in that I have access not only to the Paithani, but was able to interview two family members, my mother and cousin, about their particular pieces and the history behind the textiles. In the next few paragraphs, I will attempt to examine and understand why the Paithani holds such significance.

The wide border (pallau) of the off-white Paithani. It has geometric diamond motifs in red and green.
The Pallau of my mother’s off white and red Paithani

I began the interviews of my mother and cousin with the same set of questions:

When did you first learn or see a Paithani?

When did you buy/receive your piece?

How do you feel it symbolizes the culture?

How would like future generations to preserve/appreciate the Paithani?

My mother and I did a video call for this interview and the instant I mentioned the textile, her eyes lit up and she told me that she remembers both the year and season she first laid her eyes upon a traditional piece made of pure gold thread. It was June of 1969, and her sister-in-law (my aunt) was expecting a baby. A baby shower was planned and to celebrate, my aunt’s relative brought her a family Paithani for her to wear. My mother says she can see it like it was yesterday. The threads shone like a piece of jewellery in a showcase and the purple and maroon threads of the sari shimmered in the light. “She looked like a dream,” said my mother, who was so enamoured that after the shower, her sister-in-law said she should try it on as well. “The minute I wore that sari and spun around in front of the mirror, I felt transported to the age of kings and queens. I felt beautiful, elegant.” It was then that my mother dreamed of having her own, one day. She told me how, at the time, she hoped her future husband and his family would give her a vintage Paithani that she could wear , so embracing the generations before her. “It was really a sign of acceptance when you were given a Paithani by your in-laws.”

Traditionally, a bride is given a Paithani by her mother-in-law and the sari is passed on from daughter-in-law to daughter-in-law. It is a symbol of familial pride and considered both a symbol of status and an heirloom piece. At this point in the interview, I saw my mom had a faraway look in her eye.She turned to the camera and says,” I really wanted a Paithani, but life happened and your father’s side of the family didn’t really have the same appreciation of the tradition, so my dream remained a dream.”

Fast forward to 2005, my younger sister is getting married and it’s then that my mother decides that she’s not going to dream about the elusive textile any longer. My mother bought her own Paithani. No longer waiting for the piece to be given to her by family, or when the budget allowed. In that one simple act of doing something just for herself, my mother started her own tradition. “I was tired of waiting and dreaming. I knew if I didn’t buy one now, I would never see my dream come true. I needed to fulfill this for myself and it made me feel even prouder wearing the Paithani.”

When asked about how her Paithani reflects our culture, she was eager to share that, while in the past the Paithani may have been worn only by royals, any person from the state of Maharashtra can instantly recognize and be proud of what the textile stands for. The appreciation of handloom, handmade and weaving done only under the watchful eye of experienced artisans is a reflection of the respect people have for remembering where they came from and how our ancestors believed in artistry. Art that was intended to be worn and passed on from generation to generation so that each one will remember to appreciate the intricacies of life. Anything handmade is a thing of beauty, whether it is a textile, a piece of jewellery, or a family keepsake. It requires patience and love. The Paithani should be cherished and not considered disposable or “fast fashion”.

For my mother, her Paithanis may not be vintage, but they hold great emotion because she was able to fulfill her dreams of not only wearing it to her “baby’s” wedding, but as also as a form of independence. The notion that it needed to be “passed down” no longer applied. She could start her own tradition, share her love of the textile and its history with her daughters in hope that the state and country she left so many years ago is never forgotten.

A further view of the off-whte and red Paithani, draped over a couch, showing off the red and green pallau, the off-white section with it's gold dot motifs, and the red and gold border.
A draped off white and red Paithani featuring the heavily adorned Pallau and small golden threaded circle motifs

My second interview was with my cousin in India. I asked her the same questions and noticed immediately that my cousin regards the Paithani with the same awe and cultural pride. However, where my mom relished in describing how the Paithani made her feel beautiful and regal, my cousin viewed her sari as more of an art piece. She sent me gorgeous pictures and told me a lovely story of how she first learned of the textile when she was twelve years old. She had gone on a school field trip to a famous museum, the Raja Kelkar Museum, where original Paithanis worn by royals are displayed. There, she told me, she saw the pure gold threads up close. She went on to explain that her love of history made her appreciate the textile even more as she was growing up, not necessarily feeling the need or desire to wear one. For her, the Paithani is a reflection of the grandeur and strength the royals of the state of Maharashtra possessed. She told me how each time she would see or read of the sari, she would envision women in palaces walking through their majestic hallways with their heads held high knowing that they were representing the values and ideals of their state.

A purple Paithani showing a red and gold border and the featured silver pallau panel with it's geometric motifs in purple, pink and green.
A close up of my cousin’s Paithani. The Pallau features gold paisleys

“My maternal aunt gave me this sari and I love it, but can I tell you something? I’ve never worn it,” my cousin tells me. I was floored. “Why haven’t you worn it,” I asked. Her answer was simple. She explained that for her, it’s a beautiful piece and she admires the history behind it. However, as a textile, she finds that handloom saris in cotton are easier to wear and that she has always had an affinity for cotton. So, although the silk is gorgeous and the colors are vibrant, she prefers her Paithani as keepsake art. Her wish is that future generations learn the history behind the weaving and craftsmanship. Even if her daughters never wear a Paithani, she wants them to know not only the history, but the craftsmanship behind the textile.

The body of the purple Paithani showing the body of the piece with it's small all-over silver paisley pattern.
Small paisleys on a shimmering purple Paithani.

After both interviews, and reviewing my notes, I came to see and understand that textiles, and the Paithani in particular, hold much more than physical beauty. A textile tells a story of time-honoured traditions. It can be a window into how society worked or how genders were viewed and respected. The techniques and weaving that date back centuries are still being practiced today with the same meticulous attention to detail. Materials may change, but the strong sense of cultural pride remains true and encourages future generations to carry forward the artistry of Paithani.

In the case of my mother, the Paithani and our interview gave her an opportunity to reflect and reminisce of her youth in India. Cherished memories of a textile spun itself into a story about fulfilling your dreams, even if life took you on a different path. For her, it was about the sense of belonging more than the textile. She wanted the traditions she had seen around her, and although the Paithani may have not followed the timeline she had envisioned, when the much loved textile did find it’s way to her, not only was a dream fulfilled, so was a sense of new-found independence. My mother raised her two daughters to be free-thinkers and not get caught up in what society or culture deemed “appropriate”. To follow your dream, no matter what that dream was. It was an obligation to ourselves and to our spirits to pursue those dreams. I am proud of my mother and I am even prouder of the culture I come from.

So, to answer my initial questions, can a textile be more than a process or technique, can a fabric have the power to evoke more than feelings of “oooh, so pretty”? My answer is a resounding YES! The Paithani, steeped rich in both history and artistry, can symbolize aesthetics, emotions, and independence.


Nandita is an avid maker who loves textiles and prints. Her love of sewing and fabric has taken her on amazing adventures. Her zeal to share her culture is reflected in her makes. You can see and learn more about Nandita on Instagram @divineditata


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