A weaving technique that produces a self-design covering the fabric, the tanchoi is famed for the small, intricate patterns it creates. This meticulous craft involves a single or double warp and multiple (two to five) coloured wefts, often of the same or very close shades. The most important quality of the tanchoi weave is the absence of long, loose floats on the back of the fabric, even in more complex designs.
While the tanchoi is closely connected to Banaras and its ancient tradition of silk weaving, its roots can be traced back to China. The most commonly-held belief is that this mesmerising weaving technique made its way to India through Parsi traders travelling the renowned silk route.
Chinese silks had been traded for centuries across the Indian subcontinent. According to historical records, silk textiles were being sold by Chinese traders to India from the early years of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) to the period of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), and in return, Indian traders sold cotton to China.
The Parsis of the Indian west coast became dominant players in the Indo-Chinese trade during the late 18th century. They exported opium and cotton, and bought silk from China. Such economic and socio-cultural factors contributed to substantial changes in the lifestyle of their community. A display of this Chinese connection had become a status symbol in society at that time. Wonderfully woven silks and brocades from China were treasured and people included such fabrics and garments in their wardrobes.
According to prevailing belief, in the mid 19th century, three weavers from a traditional weaving family (Joshis) in Surat travelled to China under the patronage of Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a Parsi merchant. Their goal was to learn the art of weaving silk like the Chinese, who seemed to have mastered the craft. On returning to India, the brothers adopted the name of their Chinese teacher, Chhoi, who had taught them the ins and outs of the craft. ‘Tan’ refers to the three brothers, close to the Gujarati word tran, which means ‘three’. And that is how the silk they learned to weave came to be known as ‘Tanchoi’.
It has been observed that the earliest tanchois had only two colours - the colour of the warp was the ground, and that of the weft created the design on the right side of the cloth. The back of the fabric was perceived as the exact opposite - the colour of the weft became the ground and the patterns appeared in the warp colour. The warp and weft alone formed the finished design in a striking saree.
19th-century tanchois had large pallus ornamented with small and large paisley motifs at both ends, and bootis or diamond patterns on the body of the drape. Every so often, zari was used to highlight a certain part of the motifs. The tanchoi was also used as fabric by the yard for different purposes. Parsi women showed great preference towards blouses tailored from soft tanchoi textiles. Moreover, Tanchoi sarees gained popularity among these women and were quickly considered an essential part of the Parsi bride’s trousseau. Besides crafting garments, women of affluent Parsi families also used tanchoi fabric to make footwear. They had acquired this sense of style from China.
Emulating the Swadeshi movement, a master weaver by the name of Kaikhushro S. Joshi, who was a descendant of the Joshi family, attempted to revive tanchoi weaving, but had to end operations due to lack of support from customers.
Unfortunately, the craft of tanchoi weaving lost its charm by the early 20th century. Chinese styles were overshadowed by European fashion and power looms were introduced. There was another shift in lifestyle for the Parsis, who had been the chief patrons of tanchoi. Silks were replaced by georgettes, lacy materials and lighter fabrics, and Surat ceased to manufacture tanchois, but weavers from Banaras (Varanasi) revived the art.
The manufacture of tanchoi sarees went on till the 1940s - 1950s in Bombay, and motifs were inspired by Chinese designs, which included floral and faunal patterns. It was around the same time that weavers from Banaras learned tanchoi weaving and started producing the fabric with intricate Banarasi designs and opulent zari. The most popular version of tanchoi that we see today includes mostly paisley motifs, inspired by the Jamawars of Kashmir. Flora and fauna are some additional common motifs that are woven in Banarasi Tanchoi sarees.
Tanchoi’s Silk Route to India has contributed to numerous changes in people’s style preferences. As time passed, this weaving technique dwindled on the west coast but provided Banaras’ weavers with an incredible opportunity to hone their handloom skills and expand their craft, resulting in exquisite artistry; so much so that ‘Tanchoi’ is now synonymous with Banarasi weaving.
- Godrej, Pheroza J., and Punthakey Mistree Firoza. (2002) - A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion and Culture
- Sarda, Kritika. (2017) - Tanchoi’s Silk Route to India