If you judge a book by its cover, you might give the Weaver’s Service Centre a miss. Set amidst the bustle and glitter of Mumbai’s diamond district in Opera House, the Centre is a quiet, shy anomaly that attracts little attention and is unaware of its own charm. To make matters worse, its rather laidback nature is further obscured by the newly-opulent Roxy cinema next door.
In fact, the entrance to the Centre could be mistaken for that of a government office — a nondescript corridor leading (eventually) to the Dyeing & Printing, Weaving and Design sections, and staff members sitting around on stools. But things brighten up when you get to the foyer, which displays photographs of the Centre’s colourful creations — bright tapestries and saree pallus, bedcovers and shawls, scarves and rumaals — all woven here. Their beauty shines bright in their unglamorous surroundings.
Walk on and you will find the looms that are at the heart of this institution’s work. Weavers from villages and textile hubs across Maharashtra like Pune, Sholapur and Kolhapur come here to hone their skills and learn new techniques that can help sustain their art. Similar centres exist in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka, but Mumbai’s, established in 1956, is the founder centre. It now faces a possible relocation to Nagpur.
THE WARP AND WEFT OF IT
The action begins in the weaving section, where ceiling fans whirr as they do in a Satyajit Ray movie and I see eight large looms and four baby looms. “The baby looms are for students who come to train from design institutes like NIFT and NID,” says D.G Kumbhare, the head of the weaving section.
Two weavers are at work when I visit. One is weaving a Paithani scarf and the other, a tea towel. The weaver tells me the scarf will take a week to finish, and the tea towel, a day. How long would a Paithani saree take, I wonder. “Six months to a year, depending on the complexity of the pallu design,” he says. I figure out why when I see as many as nine different bobbins (reels of thread) coming together for this particular scarf, which has blocks of lilac and pink, interspersed with parrot motifs in green and red and butties in maroon. Every motif or colour block is woven separately.
Technically, weaving is the art of creating a fabric by interlacing two or more sets of yarn at right angles. The lengthwise thread is the warp and the other is the weft, so the fabric takes form when warp meets weft. In reality, it looks tougher than it sounds — I watch a weaver at work for five minutes and the two-foot-wide fabric has grown in length by perhaps half a centimetre.
The operation of slicing the warp to position and sliding the weft from one end of the loom to catch it at the other keeps me riveted as I gaze at the tea towel being woven like it’s a work of art.
I later learn that these are prototypes that will then be sent area-wise to various handloom cooperatives for mass production. As I look around, a businesswoman submits a request for prototyping samples of saree prints she needs developed for export to the UK.
“We provide support to exporters by providing them with prototype models and technical advice,” explains K.K Baviskar, director of the Centre.
GETTING A PRINT
I then move on to the dyeing and printing section where fabric is dyed and printed. The shelves are stacked with hundreds of printing blocks, each with designs unique and intricate. Sarees, in different grades of silk have been pinned onto the printing board post dyeing, so that they can take on their new avatars after the printing blocks have done their job. Cauldrons of dyestuffs are stashed away in the labs beyond, where sarees are dried after they are washed and de-gummed (a process that removes the resin from the silk) and readied for dyeing.
Keeping me company this afternoon are a few tourists gazing at textiles and dyes, looking at an India they haven’t seen in Slumdog Millionaire. There are also students of textile design, either on a project or an internship, soaking in all they can about an art their design schools will never teach them.
Me, I come out enriched by the oxygen of traditional art, ready to face the carbon dioxide of the busy street. It’s an afternoon well spent.
This weekly column explores the city’s low-cost pleasures