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Friday, July 15, 2022

Patan Patola, the cloth of kings

 Patan Patola, the cloth of kings

Two fluorescent bulbs cast harsh shadows on the peeling walls of the cramped workshop in the Patan, a town in India’s Gujarat state. 8 workers sit inside, silently focused on the tasks at hand: carefully wrapping and unwrapping thousands of dyed silk threads.

A middle-old man, Mr. Soni, stands at the center of it all, a master observing over his craftsmen. And watch he must: if 1 mistake is made, the procedure  must begin all over again. Such is the art of Patola, the India’s most complex textile.

Patan Patola: cloth of kings

The complexity and time-intensiveness is what creates Patola so valuable. A dazzlingly mathematical procedure , Patola saris are woven utilizing dyed threads both vertically (warp) and horizontally (weft) to make the design. The strings are dyed as per to a pattern, and the dye marks align when woven, forming the pattern on the cloth.

For each color in the design, workers tie sections of the silk threads with cotton string until only the parts to be shaded remain exposed. The entire bundle of threads is then soaked in dye, before the cotton strings are torn off to reveal the un-dyed portions. Rinse, repeat, until the threads are all shaded to match the pattern.

The wrapping and dyeing procedure  for just one color takes a week, and doing all the colors takes one or two months. Mr. Soni say us how, from start to finish, designing and making one saree takes minimum  seven months.

Our jaws hit the floor, but it’s standard process for Mr. Soni. To put things in perspective, he says us the most difficult sari they ever made took 2.5 years. But the cost tag on a Patola sari justifies the days of painstaking work: one custom-made sari begins at 150,000 rupees, about $2,250.

After watching the workers nimbly tie and untie threads for 1/2, we’re chomping at the bit, excited to watch everything come together in the weaving rooms. But Mr. Soni guides us away from the workshop instead.

He insists we create a quick stop before he reveals the rest of his workshop’s secrets. “It’s vital , first, that you understand the story of Patola.”

The history of Patan Patola

The story starts more than 900 years ago, with a king named Kumarpala.

The majesty had a passion for Patola, one of the most luxurious textiles in the world. Woven so nice that the front and back are indistinguishable from each other, and a colorful feast for the eyes, they were honestly the cloth of kings, and the ultimate symbol of wealth.

Kumarpala was specific about where and when he donned his Patola. A patron of Jainism, he required to be clean and dressed in fresh clothes before saying prayers at the temple. In a display of extreme piety (… or royal indulgence), he insisted on wearing only Patola when going to temples.

Initially, his Patola supply came from Jalna, a city in neighboring the Maharashtra state. That screeched to a halt once Kumarpala learned how the king in Jalna utilized Patola as bed sheets before selling or gifting them to other aristocrats in the area. The Jalna king’s ego aside, what type of king knowingly wears the bed sheets of another?

The royal trouble was resolved in a suitably royal fashion. Furious and decided to have an untainted supply of Patola, King Kumarpala brought 700 Patola craftsmen and their families to Patan, Gujarat, from the Maharashtra and Karnataka states. It’s told that he then staggered production, and despite the 7+ months manufacturing time of Patola, he received at least 1 new Patola to wear to the temple every day.

Patola now

In the 900 years since Kumarpala’s reign, the traditional patterns and practices of Patola creating are still alive in Patan. To support us understand how engrained the traditions honestly are, Mr. Soni leads us to Rani Ki Vav, an 11th century step well outside of Patan.

To be honest, Patola is the last thing on my mind upon laying eyes on the step well—it is, to say the least, absolutely crazy.

7 flights of stairs lead down into the four galleries of the well, once used for the masses to collect their water. Though time has smoothed some, all surface was once intricately carved with patterns or reliefs. Dozens of statues of voluptuous dancers obtaining dressed decorate one of the walls, while other walls are more divine in nature, showing the various incarnations of Vishnu.

Walking along the statues of dancers and royals and gods, he describes the historical significance of each curve and edge, before stopping in front of a series of the square patterned plates carved into the walls.

Compared to the rest of the graphic step well adornments, they seem almost painfully dull upon 1st glance. My eyes start to wander back to the graceful dancers and parading elephants, when Mr. Soni approaches out and brushes the plates with his hand.

Their symmetrical designs are based on the divine situations of the stars, he explains. Impressive offered they’re almost 1,000 years old. More amazingly, these are the patterns of those Patola made before 900 years … and the patterns that are still utilized today. These traditional designs are what create Patola, Patola.

Patola of the future 

And Mr. Soni honestly  is a master: despite the numerous people working in each room, Mr. Soni and his son are the only 2 people in the company that know the whole Patola procedure.

In all of Patan, only 2  families of the original 700 still make Patola: the Sonis and the Salvis. The Sonis are open about what they do, but the Salvis are tight-lipped about what goes on within their a workshops. They even refuse to pass down the knowledge to anyone but their sons.

So does this mean the art of Patola will finally die? Mr. Soni hopes not. Realizing the importance of tradition, he works together with his son to both bring in fresh blood to the business, and improve Patola’s reach in the world. Some of their Patola have been provided to museums, while his son, Shyam, incorporates Patola fabric into more modern clothes and accessories.

Unlike the Salvis, the Sonis open to teaching parts of the Patola-making procedure  to those not native to Patan, so long as they are hard-working and willing. But potential heads  are in much shorter supply. Exploring someone competent enough to wrap their minds around the highly mathematical designing and dyeing procedure is no easy task, and so the father and son remain the gatekeepers of the knowledge. For now.

There’s a Gujarati telling , “Though it may suffer wear and tear, a Patola’s design will never vanish .”

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