A country as diverse as India is naturally a fertile ground for indigenous crafts; and every region has a thriving cultural legacy (with some enjoying more mainstream popularity than others). With Tant, Aterlier Pranay Baidya’s tant sari and textile revival project, the designer aims to give West Bengal’s handlooms its due place in the spotlight. “Every tant sari has a story to tell—it is representative of the finest and most ancient weaving technique that originated in Bengal in the 15th century. Its unique identity is the result of Mughal patronage, ancient Hindu influences and a Bengali flair for design,” says the Kolkata- and Delhi-based designer. “And Tant is a sustainable, homegrown initiative with an unclouded dedication to the region’s makers and weavers. I am confident that millennials will connect with it,” adds Baidya. Here, he speaks to Vogue exclusively for a 411 on the craft.
Talk to us about the origins of the tant sari.
Tant refers to the handlooms in West Bengal which are used to weave saris and textiles. The earliest record of sari weaving in Bengal can be traced back to the 15th century in the Shantipur district. The art continued to flourish during the Mughal rule, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, when it received extensive royal patronage alongside muslin and jamdani. After the partition of Bengal in 1947, several weavers from Bangladesh migrated to India and were rehabilitated in West Bengal. Phulia, close to Shantipur, became a new home for these weavers from Tangail (in Bangladesh), who also brought their ancestral weaving traditions with them. Other weaver communities were settled in the Hooghly and Bardhaman districts of West Bengal. Over the years, each region has developed its signature style and are most well-known for their varieties of tant saris.
What goes into the making of a tant sari?
They are woven with locally procured Bengal cotton. This fine handspun yarn results in soft, feather-light muslin and mulmul textiles that have been globally traded for ages now. Depending on the yarn quality, the sari is fine (combed cotton) or coarser (regular cotton). Textile innovations pave the way for new weaves and finishes. At Atelier Pranay Baidya, we are working on several improvisations of mercerised (a textile finishing treatment that improves dye uptake and tear strength of the yarn, reduces fabric shrinkage, and gives it a silk-like lustre) cotton interwoven with silk to impart these saris with a lustrous finish and nimble drape.
What are the popular motifs used?
A quintessential six-yard tant sari is characterised by a thick two-to-four-inch border and a decorative pallu. Woven using fine cotton yarn in a variety of floral, paisley and artistic motifs, each sari takes 7-10 days to come alive. Some of the most favoured time-honoured motifs include bhomra (bumblebee), tabij (amulet), rajmahal (a royal palace), ardha chandra (half-moon), chandmala (garland of moons), ansh (fish scales), hathi (elephant), nilambari (blue sky), ratan chokh (gem-eyed), benki (spiral), tara (star), kalka (paisley) and phool (flowers).
What drew you to tant in particular?
Since the inception of the label in 2015, we create a limited-edition range of heritage textiles every year. My grandmother had a vast collection of handloom saris from across India—and as a curious young boy, browsing through it educated me in Indian textiles at a young age. I find myself particularly attached to tant jamdani and Chanderi from Madhya Pradesh. Jamdani from Dhaka and tant jamdani from Shantipur are exceptionally lightweight, characterised by intricately designed motifs that seem to float on the surface of a translucent ultra-fine textile, giving it an almost mystical charm.
In my opinion, the hands that weave magic, need to be celebrated. So, we partner directly with weaver communities in the Santipur, Phulia, Nadia and Dhaniakhali in West Bengal. They, in turn bring together hundreds from their provincial fraternity. This huge circle of weavers along with sari shops make up our supply chain.
Why is now an important time to preserve tant?
As an economic trade and industrial activity, the ‘tantshilpa’ (art of weaving handloom saris) is second only to agriculture in providing a livelihood to the people of these communities. Typically, March and April are the busiest months, especially leading to up to Bengali New Year on April 14. But the ongoing pandemic and ensuing lockdown have led to insurmountable losses. The need of the hour is to mobilise retail for existing stock while also using e-commerce to boost business and revive endangered weaves and communities.
In the coming weeks, I will be hosting regular workshops with the weavers (currently through video calls), offering creative direction and textile design expertise in developing an ongoing collection of modern tant saris and textiles that can also be bought by yardage. Tant is a versatile fabric and also lends itself well to soft furnishings and home linen. The well-priced collection will be warehoused and catalogued in Kolkata, with funds going back directly to the weavers.
Why do you think that tant has not yet received the same mainstream recognition as weaves from other parts of India?
As a nation, we are obsessed with high-shine clothing, which explains our love for heavy silks and zari. Tant cotton, in comparison, is a modest choice. But that is also its true prowess. In fact, late former prime minister Indira Gandhi often wore a tant saris with minimal jewellery and her signature jacket or sweater blouses. After we overcome this period of global crisis, I strongly believe we will be increasingly drawn to indigenous authenticity with a focus on handmade, handloom, and traditional. ‘Make in India’ and ‘buy local’ is more relevant now than ever before, as each locally-made purchase directly supports homegrown fashion labels, regional weaves and in turn, funds its makers, that is, the weavers, tailors, embroiderers and craftsmen.