‘Padi Patole bhaat, phate pan fitey nahin’. As per this famous Gujarati saying patola cloth may tear, but the design and colour never fades. It aptly describes the true nature of the 11-century craft of ‘patola’ – a double-ikat woven sari usually made from silk in Gujarat’s Patan town.
The process of double ikat develops a design on the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) sides, thus locking the colours in a way that they never wane.
The word patola derives from the Sanskrit word ‘pattakulla’, which means a silk fabric. Though patola has strong connections with Gujarat, the earliest mentions can be found in South India as per the religious text, Narasimha Purana. It mentions women wore it for holy ceremonies.
Patola entered Gujarat in the 11th century via Maharashtra’s Jalna district.
The fabric was a symbol of wealth and faith for King Kumarpal of Solanki dynasty in Patan (the then capital of Gujarat). Upon learning that the king of Jalna used patola as bedsheets before selling them, he bought 700 families to Patan to restore its previous glory. However, the real reason could be that he did not want to use a second-hand patola.
Kumarpal saw patola in the highest regard as he believed it kept devil and bad health at bay. Since it takes a minimum of six months of rigorous work to make one hand-woven patola (measured 5 metres), he hired all the 700 families for himself just so that he could wear a new patola daily on his temple visits.
That’s how the Patan became a hub of a highly prized craft that prospered between 11th and the 13th century.
However, over the centuries, the highly talented weavers chartered in other professions and today only a handful of them posses the intricate craft of double ikat.
The Salvi family is one of them.
It is the only family in Patan and probably the whole of India that boasts of weaving patolas from completely natural dyes like indigo, turmeric, madder roots, pomegranate skin and marigold flower.
In 2014, the family set up Patan Patola Heritage (PPH), an ingeniously curated museum comprising oldest pieces of patola. There are a 200-year-old frock, old family saris and samples of ikat textiles from countries like Thailand, Uzbekistan, Philippines and Indonesia at the display.
At present only ten members of the family, including the eldest, Bharat, and Rohit Salvi and youngest Savan and Rahul Salvi are running the entire show, from live demonstrations at the museum to weaving patolas that cost a minimum of Rs 1 Lakh.
If this art is dying, then why not shed the exclusive inheritance of learning and teach other weavers to expand their operations?
“Since it showcases the rich history and cultural significance, there is no room for mass production. It is a labour-intensive work that requires utmost precision and undivided focus to create a masterpiece that will last at least for 300 years. Very few have that kind of passion and allegiance towards patola. Thus, it is a guarded tradition,” Rahul, a Master Weaver, tells The Better India.
The respect for the artwork is such that Rahul (42), an architect by profession, did not think twice before quitting his job in 2000 on his father’s request. Likewise, other family members who are engineers or doctors dedicate a few hours daily to carry forward the legacy.
Rahul and Rohit are the only weavers in the family who can ace the doubt ikat craft.
Significance of Patola
Under historical significance, patola was considered to be a powerful symbol as only the rich and affluent class purchased them. In the 13th century, the sacred heirloom was offered to the aristocratic class by the merchants to gain trading rights.
In the cultural context, patola has an auspicious connection in certain Gujarati communities like Jains, Vohra Muslims, Nagar Brahmin and Kutchi Bhatias.
Each community has its peculiar taste and variety. For instance in Hindu Gujarati weddings, the bride or her mother dorns bright red Patola sari with elephant and parrot designs.
Chelaji Re is a popular folk song that is generally played in Gujarati wedding where a bride is describing the perfect patola she desires.
Mare Hatu Patan Thi Patola Mongha Lavjo (Get me Patola from Patan)
Ema Ruda Re Moraliya Chitravjo (make a Peacock’s design)
Rang Ratumbal Kor Kasumbal Palav Praan Bichavjo Re (Ensure the saree is red andborders are bright)
Jains prefer abstract designs and geometric patterns and Vohra’s have flower motifs with white zari strip.
The Salvi family offers varieties like Pan Bhat (peepal leaf), Chandra Bhat (Moon), Rudraksha Bhat (a dried seed from the Himalayas), Nari Kunjar (elephant), Popat Bhat (parrot) and so on.
The Process That Makes Patola Priceless
Patola is probably the only artwork done in reverse order as the threads are dyed first according to the pattern. It is only during the weaving process that dye marks align forming a pattern on the cloth. No wonder it is often referred to as the ‘mother of all ikats’.
It requires precise calculations as each square, line or pattern has to settle correctly. The set is wasted even if a single yarn is misaligned.
A sword-shaped stick, called ‘Vi’, made from rosewood is an essential part that is used to adjust the yarns. Interestingly ‘Salvi’ name is derived from ‘Sal’ (Sanskrit for the loom) and ‘Vi’ (rosewood).
“After dying, threads of warp of different repeats of a pattern are put together in a sequence on the loom so that design is visible. Weft threads are wound on bobbins and kept in the bamboo shuttle for the weaving process. Patola is weaved on a hand-operated harness loom made of rosewood and bamboo strips. The bamboo shuttle is made to move to and fro through warp shades. Each warp is carefully matched with weft while weaving,” explains Rahul.
The process of tie-dyed design on warp and weft threads takes 3-4 months for a sari of six yards. It takes eight Salvis (weavers) to work for five days a week to complete the process within six months.
One of their longest creations lasted for 3.5 years. It was for a government event where the family worked round the clock to make nine pieces of Shikaar (hunt) Bhat. The marvellous pieces had elephants, horses, king and soldiers in a procession on it.
The final product is reversible, which means it looks the same from both sides. The precision of the Salvi family is such that it becomes difficult for even them also to distinguish.
The Salvi family only uses natural dyes and pure mulberry silk so that patola can hold the colour for a longer period.
“For a brief period after the partition, our family switched to chemical dyes and bleaches. This was at the same time when the business was suffering. So, we decided to revive both ancient practices and business with natural ones. It took years of research to crack the formulas of using vegetable ingredients to obtain various shades. Thankfully our ancestors had left some journals,” says Rahul.
The meticulous labour work and authentic ingredients explain why patola is considered to be an exquisite fabric which is as precious as gold.
Did you know the price of patola (Rs 120) in the 1930s was higher than gold (Rs 18 per tola)?
At present, the prices of saris begin at Rs 1 Lakh and depending on the intricate work; they can even touch Rs 10 Lakh.
The Salvi family does not have a showroom or an outlet as it sells directly to customers via their website or Whatsapp. The average waiting period to receive your patola is two years!
So if you find a PPH sari anywhere but in Salvi’s house, you know its fake.
However, for someone who is not a patola connoisseur, Rahul explains how to identify a fake one, “The colour shouldn’t fade, patola is only made of silk, and the sari should not weigh more than 450 grams.”
This one-of-its-kind heirloom is not just a piece of fabric; it is a promise that the Salvis have kept preserving their ancestor’s painstaking weaving techniques. Not to forget the countless connections of love that form by exchanging a piece of fabric.
All the images are sourced from Patan Patola Heritage. Get in touch with the Salvi family here
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)