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The shawl collectors

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Good, traditional jamawars are hard to find and that makes them almost priceless.

There is a reason why jamawars are considered super luxe heirlooms. There are the mind-boggling patterns created by nimble fingers and there is the stunning colour palette - antique jamawars can have as many as 250 colours in a single shawl with hues ranging from spectacular blues, greens and turquoise to mustards, fuschias, browns and even black.

Some of these exquisite and priceless shawls were on display last week at a unique exhibition organised by People for Animals at the Lalit in Delhi. Close to 200 antique jamawar shawls were brought out of their voile sheaths, cocooned in the aroma of cloves, black pepper and neem leaves that keep bugs away. Some were a part of trousseaus, some were gifts from doting husbands, and some were bargain buys from old aristocratic families who were willing to trade in their heirlooms for cash. It was perhaps the first such exhibition of jamawars.

Antique jamawar shawls are highly prized and difficult to procure, very expensive to buy and almost impossible to part with. They now enjoy status of objet d'art, say collectors.

Nishant and Dhruv Chandra are proud inheritors of close to 400 jamawar shawls which have been painstakingly collected by Sheel Chandra, Nishant's father and uncle to Dhruv, over a period of 35 years. "Owning an antique jamawar is like owning a real Picasso, " says Dhruv who along with Nishant runs Carpet Cellar, a studio of antique weaves in south Delhi. The Chandras put up 65 shawls from their collection for sale at the PFA exhibition. "It's very difficult to get hold of an original jamawar these days as nobody wants to part with them. We'll be lucky if in a year we come across one good piece, " says Dhruv.

Some of the shawls in their collection are 250 years old. There was once little awareness of the exclusivity of these shawls so quite a few owners gave them away at small prices. Now, patrons understand that these are not just very expensive fashion accessories but also passion investments that yield high returns. At the PFA exhibition most of the antique shawls were priced between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 6. 5 lakh.

The craft of weaving jamawars came to India from Persia. Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin of Kashmir brought weavers from Turkmenistan to teach their skills to local weavers in the 15th century. But it was under Akbar's reign that the craft reached its peak. What makes these shawls so highly valued is the way they are woven. The design on the shawl is created by weaving the weft in a manner that creates a pattern on a given area of the shawl. It is a very intricate and painstaking process and according to academic resources, a single shawl could take up to a decade to be complete.

The most commonly found design - big paisley motifs woven very closely - from a distance may appear to some like the whorly clouds in Van Gogh's Starry Night. The paisleys appear and disappear in a dense mesh of colourful threads that trace leaves and flowers all over the shawl. There are many varieties of this shawl but it is the Kani jamawars - made with a special wooden needle called 'kani' - that are highly prized and priced.

Traditionally, natural dyes were used to colour shawls and these were sourced from flowers, vegetables, tree barks and even insects. For instance, red came from madder (a herb) and pomegranate seeds;blue was distilled from indigo;saffron was extracted from marigold flowers and the skin of pomegranates was used to make yellow. Browns were extracted by treating the bark of walnut trees and around 70, 000 cochineal insects were killed to make 500 grams of crimson dye. Clearly, making jamawar in the traditional style was back-breaking work. Now, weavers use chemical colours, go for less intricate designs and use blended wool. That is why antique jamawars are so rare and, therefore, so sought after.

"Natural dyes used in these shawls matured with age, often taking on a completely new shade a 100 years down, " says Kusum Sahni, a textile expert based in Delhi and another collector. Her first was gifted to her by her mother and ever since she has been chasing these antiques. She says she hates to keep a count but the one that's closest to her heart is a 'durakha' (which can be worn both ways because the pattern is woven to create such an effect) in khaki colour with shades of turquoise and brown, purchased some 30 years ago.

Dr Jyotsana Suri, wife of late hotelier Lalit Suri, says her husband used to pamper her with jamawars. She is an avid collector who takes great pains in preserving her masterpieces. "I line each shawl with muslin on one side and then fold it. To keep them safe from bugs it best to use a natural anti-moth, like dried red chillies, neem leaves, and black pepper. But first these should be wrapped in a cloth or put in small cloth pouches;direct touch with the shawl can damage the fabric and the colours, " says Suri. Her daughter Divya, too, has inherited this passion from her. "To me, jamawar represents the quintessential Indian craftsmanship. Behind each and every exquisite piece, there is a tremendous amount of hard work by the weavers, " says Divya.
More than anything else, perhaps, it is the idea of a time when master weavers created poetry on fabric that make antique jamawars a luxury heirloom.

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