Vrushali Kale lets the soft silk slip through her expert fingers,peers down to study the pallu and then dismisses it with the confidence of a connoisseur. After three hours of this routine,Kale zeroes in on four Paithani sarees,one a bright magenta. Kale has travelled all the way from Vadodara in Gujarat to Yeola,a town 250 km from Pune on the Nasik-Aurangabad highway,to shop for Paithani sarees for her wedding in January. Her relatives nod enthusiastically,relieved that Kale had finally made a decision.
In almost every house in Yeola,the looms cluck rhythmically to churn out yarns of Paithani,the handwoven silk that is considered the richest in Maharashtra. For the Paithani makers of Yeola,this is the busiest time of the year as silk is in heavy demand during Dussehra and Diwali,followed by the long wedding season.
There are more than 800 families in Yeola who work on making Paithanis,a skill that has been handed down over generations. The looms,8×10 sq ft wooden structures,figure in almost every house in Yeolaanywhere between two and eight handlooms in each house. Those with enterprise have hired extra manpower to work on as many as 30 handlooms.
Apart from Yeola,Paithanis are made by the weavers of Paithan and some parts of Aurangabad and Nasik district,but there the production is not done on such a large scale, says Vishnu Vidhate of Vidhate Paithanis,whose great grandfather started the business. Till about 15 years ago,he had looms on which he wove silk but has since shifted to retailing. Paithanis,he says,cost anything between Rs 4,000 and Rs 3 lakh and are gradually replacing shalu,another traditional saree mostly worn by Maharashtrian brides. Although the Paithanis come in a variety of unique designs,the popular ones have distinctive peacock designs on the pallu. Of late,there have been innovations in designthere are dress materials and even kurtas made of Paithani silk.
Weavers usually buy the silk thread used in Paithani from Bangalore and the copper zari from Surat. While the silk thread costs around Rs 2,500 a kg,the price of zari ranges between Rs 2,800 and Rs 15,000,depending on the quality. Mangesh Malokar,the fourth generation of his family in the weaving business,says each Paithani saree uses around 800 grams of silk thread and 200 grams of zari. A Paithani takes long to weaveanywhere between a week and a year,depending on the complexity of the design.
His brother Yogesh Malokar is merging the colours of the saree by rubbing it with a small brass bowlan act he calls ghotai. Weaving a Paithani becomes difficult as we reach the pallu. Sometimes,weaving one inch of saree takes a full day.
There was a time when the zaris were of gold and silver,says 62-year-old Ramasa Pethkar,a weaver who works with his sons and nephews,but now they are made of copper. About a decade ago,I made a Paithani with silver zari, he says.
Pethkar is proud of his skills,but his son Shirish says its not worth the effort. After his graduation,Shirish wanted to study law but took up his family profession,a decision he regrets. After putting in so much effort to make a Paithani,we hardly earn Rs 250 to Rs 300 on one saree. We cannot make and stock them in large quantities unless we are sure that we will find buyers, says 38-year-old Shirish.
Though Paithani sarees were given Geographical Identification (GI) status in September 2010,retailers and manufacturers of Yeola say the recognition only spawned an entire industry of duplicates. The duplicate Paithanis,called semi-Paithanis,are made on powerloom and cost around Rs 500 to make but are sold for Rs 4,000 and above, says Vidhate,who himself sells semi-Paithanis along with the original ones.