Portrait of Lakshmibai, the Ranee of Jhansi - by Royal Artist of Jhansi Ratan Kushwah
© British library "Images Online Collection"
Many figures in history have turned saree into a tool for political assertion. In the 19th century, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, an Indian queen who became a symbol of the resistance to the British raj, made saree, hung in Maharashtrian Nauvari style completed with a scarf folded over her head, an image of revolt and valiance in her battle against the foes.
The significance of the sari in India’s political landscape has only grown over the years, with each politician’s appropriation of the weaves, translating their own ethos. Post-autonomy, India's first and only female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, made her presence felt not just through fiery speeches but also her sartorial choices. For West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, the white sari with a blue border became a part of her personal brand.
The message born by the spinning wheel was, perhaps, much wider than its circumference. The saree has adapted to economic, religious, cultural, industrial and even employment specific situations: this iconic unstitched garment transcends purely sartorial choices.
It has been synonymous with empowerment for women in power at the frontline, as well as for those unsung heroes who found freedom & sustenance in the yarns of the spinning wheels.
Redefining the loom
In this perspective, Tilfi celebrates the first woman weaver of the house, Madina Ali. In her early twenties, she became a symbol of change & independence thanks to an unwavering willingness to pursue the craft of weaving. Her family and husband proved to be a source of inspiration and encouragement that led her to embrace this unique heritage.
Madina Bibi was introduced to the art of weaving by her husband, Mushtaq Ali, whom she assisted earlier. She started working with him with their traditional pit loom, at home, surrounded by a whole community of weavers: this allowed her to pursue an interest in the loom that had been sparked much earlier in her life, as the daughter of a family of weavers living in a village on the outskirts of Banaras. With a strong zeal to learn & vigorous support from her husband, she has now decided to specialise in the Kadhua weave, and has become an apprentice to a master kadhua weaver: she wishes to master the art of weaving alongside her fellow male weavers.
Throughout history, women have played a vital, yet largely invisible role in the craft of weaving. They handle most of the pre-weaving work such as preparation of the yarn, spinning the yarn, preparing bobbins for weaving, and embellishing sarees by hand knotting tassels etc. Even if women are usually not weaving, they are a part of this allied workforce that involves the entire family, and their dedication to the crafts shows with awe-inspiring stories like Madina’s.
In traditional textile clusters such as Varanasi persist strong cultural taboos for women owning their own looms. They still have a long way to go to have their place recognized in this industry, yet Rome was not built in a day and each stone that is set represents a step forward.
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