Reflections of Benares Silk

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Ali Omar Ermes – Ahlan Wasahlan Volume 7, Issue 3, Wednesday 25 May 1983


The images featured in this article were taken by Ali Omar Ermes showing fine examples of Malaysian and Indian Silk.


Silk, a material which conjures up elegance; to see sensitive hands at work on it is to witness an act of sheer beauty. When minds and hands work together in a seemingly effortless way as they do during the transformative stages silk undergoes – from its raw state when it is taken from the cocoon of the mulberry leaf fed silkworm through the stages of carding, spinning, weaving and dyeing – until it is finally a piece of cloth, the effect is stunning. The end result of this co-operative endeavour is a material at once strong while remaining lustrous and delicate.


Upon asking about this craft in Benares, I was told that its production has rested from time immemorial with the Muslims, being produced not by a sole individual but rather as a joyous communal expression of diverse skills blending together.


It is a challenge e to express with words what the eye beholds. The way various strands of colour are woven together never-failing to combine into harmony. What is hinted at in nature is illustrated by the wondrous qualities of finely woven silk. Sheer colour; diaphanous and opaque, bold and subdued, flowing and static. Juxtaposed in different ways to create a range of emotional responses.


Sometimes we’ll find flowers of red placed in circles of gold and tucked within niches of deep crimson while surrounded by an expanse of earthly hues – the rich dark brown of roasted coffee beans or the reddish brown of ripe Medina dates. Elsewhere, there will be woven pools of deep blue shining in the hands of a proud shopkeeper as he displays it under the bright Indian sun.


Streams of emerald green threads scatter themselves in vibrant pattern, playing hide and seek with our angle of looking. One gazes on these endless combinations until their movements are swept up into delicately knotted selvages.


Golden filaments flow through these masterpieces of imagination and ingenuity – running beneath fields of green bringing new highlights to their already startling brilliance. Absorbed into a deep satin, patterns will suddenly captivate one’s attention becoming discernible like the constellations of stars on a moonless night in the desert. Others come together in geometrical configurations reminiscent of that Islamic art whose beauty lies within a sense of unity  a simple and direct yet profound expression of the rhythms of the universe.


Benares silk, world-renowned for its soft nature and sensuous tough remains a marvel for its lightness.


While it might be of interest for some to compare its qualities with those of Malaysia, where local sultans may be counted amongst its weavers, or the proverbial Damask of Syria, perhaps it would be better simply to reflect on it as something treasured both for its practical use and its symbolic value.


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