Weaving the Pristine Fabric: Finding a Connect Between the Pashmina and Vrindavani Vastra

Delhi’s autumn brings with it the ideas of hope and calm, after the long stretching, scorching summer bereaves oneself of life and energy. Delhi, like Khushwant Singh writes in Delhi: A Novel, is a place where one goes back to after wandering round for long – a kind of home, refuge. It is not quintessentially beautiful, but it is like one’s old mistress that one just goes backs to and unwinds.

We parked our car in the parking lot of the India International Centre and walked towards Hall E, to attend the screening of a documentary on Pashmina and Tush shawls that was the presentation of the personal collection of shawls by collector Aditi Desai.

The documentary screening enthused in me a longing to know more about silk, the pashmina – the warmth of the wool and my mind wandered between the pashmina silk bred in Kashmir,  and something similar yet very different, from my own land – the Vrindavani vastra, lost to the sands of time.

While the states of Kashmir and Assam are often linked for different reasons – most prudently and visibly because of the size of the Muslim population in both states – Desai’s screening of the Pashmina shawl and my idea of the Vrindavani Vastra and stories revolving round it seemed to connect the two states in a more intense and culturally woven fabric.

A pashmina shawl. Photo: Wikipedia

The tradition of weaving the Vrindavani Vastra was initiated by Mathuradas Burha Ata, the first Satradhikar or head of the Barpeta Satra, a disciple of Sri Sri Madhavdev.  The idea of the Vrindavani Vastra is replete with divinity, stories, myths and traditions. It represents, or rather represented, since the practice of weaving the cloth has ceased to survive, tales of Krishna, the Lord adhered by Sankardeva and his disciples, here in Assam, as part of their Vaishnava Bhakti cult. The motifs represented a number of underlying connotations and each thread spoke the language of ‘Bhakti’ – of divine love and the spirituality espoused by the cult. The Vrindavani Vastra, majestic as it was, stored in it the preachings of Sankardeva and the art of Mathuradas Burha Ata and his disciples. While the main specimen now adorn the Victoria and Albert Museum, the place of its birth is now entirely bereft of it.

Trailokya Mohan Sarma, a resident of the Auniati Satra (branch), North Guwahati, lamented that Assam is left with absolutely nothing of that wonder. While new projects are being taken up to revive the art form, many are of the apprehension that they would never be like the original and hence these projects face criticism even before being launched formally. The art, at least in its original form, has certainly died, but has left behind it beautiful imprints of art and endeavour, of energy, of vibrancy, of spirituality and of pristine divine fabric.

Coming back to Aditi’s documentary, it focused on the shawls and their fabric, but mainly on the dying art form of Rafugari and the Rafugars of Najmabad. Rafugari means darning or mending. The form is used to preserve Pashmina and Tush shawls. While the art of weaving Pashmina and Tush shawls have always been revered and respected, the Rafugars, chiefly belonging from the place called Najibabad, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, hardly find any mention and extremely petty wages for the work they do, or rather did, as this generation of Rafugars who are already ageing and have partially lost their vision in the profession, are probably the last ‘scions’ of their Jati or professional caste. Most of their children and young relatives do not want to learn Rafugari as it demands too much and yields too little.

But what in a way seemed to induce a sense of satisfaction in me on the one hand for the Rafugars and a sense of pity for the lost art of the Vrindavani Vastra was that at least people like Aditi Desai and others interested in Rafugari are joining hands for the cause of the Rafugars and are trying their best to save the art form, while the Vrindavani Vastra would soon be forgotten except for the specimen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

My mind oscillated between the two states with a city binding them, on one hand imagining the tradition of art left behind by the Mughals, Nizams, Sultans and Naibs, all contributing a hue or a pattern on the shawls, Kashmir being a beautiful maiden, draped in a Pashmina shawl, Assam, with the legacy of Krishna woven in the Vrindavani Vastra dressed in beautiful fabrics that the state boasts of, Delhi being the platform where both of them meet – signifying both religious and cultural syncretism.

Swaswati Borkataki is a PhD Research Scholar in JNU, New Delhi.

Featured image: Wikipedia