Even before reduce, reuse and recycle became the environmental watchwords, Birbhum, the district that Santiniketan falls under, had a tradition of recycled textiles. While Birbhum shares with many other areas of both West Bengal and Bangladesh the tradition of the “kantha” or the quilt made by layering old sarees, the tradition of “khesh” is quite unique to Birbhum and adjoining areas.
The khesh technique is weaving with old sarees by tearing them into thin strips. The warp uses new thread and the weft uses these strips of sarees. Since the weavers, first tear the sarees and keep them in a heap next to the loom, the weaving is with whatever strip the weaver happens to pick up from the pile while weaving.
When I first started to work with weavers around Santiniketan I used to be simply fascinated by how the colours of the old sarees chosen completely at random blended beautifully to produce a fabric, each meter of which was completely unique. However, all that weavers traditionally used this weaving technique was to create single bed covers. I convinced a few to make yardage out of which I fashioned bags, cushion covers, jackets and much more to sell out of a retail store I run in Santiniketan.
Maybe because traditionally the weavers produced only bedcovers, khesh was always woven with thick or double yarn. I was keen to experiment with thin yarn to make sarees or dress fabric. But most weavers that I spoke to said it would not be possible because the warp would tear if woven with the thick strips for the weft.
Finally an experienced weaver, Adhirbabu, agreed and we made our first batch of sarees. The body was plain and the pallu had khesh weaving. Each saree had unique colours and we instantly had a “boutique” product. Its been three years since and we have sold these sarees in thousands aided by many small household boutiques which bought from us and resold.
We then moved on to making dress fabric, curtains, etc with this thin yarn, but sarees continued to remain our mainstay. But I was beginning to get a trifle bored with a product introduced three years ago. But everytime I thought of discontinuing the product, buyers would come into the shop asking for more. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth we continued producing.
Last week I got a call from Adhirbabu sounding hugely agitated. “Everything is lost”, he said “sarbanash hoye geche”. “Our sarees have been duplicated,” he said still agitated. “A shop in Bolpur (the town adjacent to Santiniketan) is selling them. I haven’t seen them myself but I have reports from other weavers” he said.
What he thought was going to get me agitated as well, actually filled me with joy. If the sarees have indeed been duplicated and were indeed selling from mainstream saree shops, then maybe the khesh saree had found the status of a saree from this area. Instead of being sold from our shop to a niche clientele it could now join the ranks of traditional sarees. I explained this to the weaver and told him how he had brought me great news and how he should also celebrate as he would be remembered as a creator of a product which didn’t exist.
There was silence on the other end as Adhir babu digested this. “You have a point,” he said after some time, in a tone almost admonishing me for my stupidity. But what threw him was what came next. “Also Adhirbabau” I continued, “we have been milking one idea for a long time. Maybe this is God’s idea of telling us to stop being lazy and do some thinking on new products. I take the duplicates as a blessing”.
He said he would get back to me and disconnected.