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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 4 January 27, 2024

Weaving Threads of Salvation with Pashmina, Par and Vrindavani Vastra | Swaswati Borkataki

Saturday 27 January 2024


This is the story of three kinds of weaves that articulate three distinct yet overlapping traditions of spirituality. They come from three diverse spatial backgrounds: the Pashmina shawl from Kashmir and its adjoining areas, the Vrindavani Vastra from Assam and the Par from Rajasthan. Elements of faith and tradition in them is dealt with as well as the deracination of the arts with the passage of time.

FAITH COMES IN different forms and manifestations. It sometimes comes in the form of threads too, woven meticulously into patterns of spiritual ecstasy and trance, speckled by different hues, derived from various dyes. While it involves some rough mathematical patchwork, it fuses in it, the passion for salvation – a salvation that does not necessarily lead to tangible enlightenment, but connects the Karigar or workman with the cosmic ‘garden’ of heaven.

This connect is irrespective of religion, and more about spirituality – a connect that the workman has with the Divine that is made possible by the dedication put forth by the workman or the artiste on the one hand and the idea of surrender on the other that would again be encased in an emotion of selfless passion.

I had researched and written about the Pashmina shawl and the Vrindavani Vastra last year (in an article for livewire). Delving deeper into the area led my interest to the Pabuji epic, a story of the hero, Pabuji that is woven in the form of a ‘cloth epic’. It is embellished by various colourful passages from the life of Pabuji on to the cloth that is known as Par. There are certain essential elements that bind the three kinds of textile experiences despite fundamental differences in origin and context.

In the Epic of Pabuji, the author, John D Smith, writes about the cumulative waning of the tradition. John Smith is a former professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge University. His studies have primarily focused on topics in the language,literature and the cultural traditions of of Rajasthan. He writes extensively on an early member of the Jodhpur royal family, a man called Pabuji and the weaving tradition his story harboured. This seventeenth century figure generated several legends, is worshipped as a herdsmen’s deity and recorded in a certain kind of textile by skilled weavers and narrated by balladeers called the Bhopos.

Smith writes about the changed situation in the early 1990s as opposed to the 1970s when he first carried out his research in the area. In the ’90s, Smith says, the Bhopos had become tired of carrying on with the profession and instead resorted to other means of income, as it pays less and demands tremendous time and labour, much like the Najmabadis who have almost given up on their Kalaa (art) since it also pays extremely meagre amounts and demands extremely strenuous work, especially for the eyes. Many of the descendants of the Najmabadi Rafugars (textile repair workers) have taken up other professions that require less effort and are more lucrative than rafugari. One of them that I met in Delhi, told me that he has started his own business that deals in hardware and that he does not know rafugari at all, and in fact many of his generation have given up on it.

The Vrindavani Vastra has also long been forgotten in the defunct clouds of time. No one practices weaving or narrating stories through this kind of textile anymore. It is as if it has been dead for centuries now.
With regard to Pabuji, one reason for the loss of popularity is the change in lifestyle – as Pabuji is associated with pastoralism, so the change in lifestyle has also brought about a ‘deracination’ in his worship and adherence.

The Pabuji epic is an oral epic, performed by bards and entertainers called Bhopos in Rajasthan. These gems often form part of the social fabric of a community, learned and sustained from generation to generation, often forming an essential part of the life and soul of the community. One significant aspect of the worship of Pabuji is that he is revered mainly by people belonging to the ‘lower rungs’ of the society.

Like the ‘pat’ in Odisha, the ‘Par’ or the cloth in which the epic is painted is a sacred object, almost like a ‘mobile temple’. The Bhopo who acts as the ‘Sutradhar’ places the epic in a suitable place after nightfall. This again attaches importance to the whole idea of ‘Muhurat’ or the right time of conducting auspicious rituals. Another interesting fact is the participation of the ‘Bhopi’ or the Bhopo’s wife, who stands alongside him as he performs and sometimes holds a lantern for him to see the epic as he recites.

The hero of the epic, Pabuji was a Rathor, and his kingdom was Kolu (but Kolu was at that time nothing better than a tiny village). Interesting is the fact that Pabuji assumes a divine status and is a Plebeian deity.

The entire epic is a pictographic representation of Pabuji’s story. This is much like Vrindavani Vastra that weaves stories from the life of Krishna into a rhythm of Divine melody. While the Vrindavani Vastra now adorns the British museum and there are projects here and there to revive the art, but the masters of the art are no longer there to produce the artwork with authenticity. Hence, even if the projects are successful, the work produced would at best be close replicas of the original.

The main element that binds the three types of weaves together is the element of Shiddat, loosely translated as passion, on the part of the artiste-artisans who create such amusements with the level of precision that is manifested in the minute details in the artwork produced.

While the artistes behind the majestic art are slowly receding into the background and the artwork vanishing, one can only wonder if the production of such masterpieces could be revived through co-operatives and other initiatives, taken by the government and the society together.

(Author: Swaswati Borkataki is a PhD Research Scholar in JNU, New Delhi)

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