Bandhani The Traditional Tie-Dye

Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

He lifts the tiniest bit of fabric with his protruding nail, pinches it and winds the string around it tightly stifling the strands underneath. He struggles to keep the size of the pinched fabric and the tension of the string consistent. Any shortfalls there will render the outcome less than perfect. And then the next and the next, he continues following a pattern. With no tools to assist him but his hands, he labors for hours and hours at stretch—lifting, pinching, tying, lifting, pinching, tying. He is but human, and perhaps hours later his focus wavers, his hands yield to the string’s resistance and pave way for a slight irregularity—seal of an entirely human endeavor. Thousands and thousands of tie-ups later, the entire fabric is covered in knots. The outlined pattern is now lost in them, and the fabric takes on a densely rippled form. He leaves for the day only to start again the next day—lifting, pinching, tying.

There is dye simmering away in a cauldron, and weeks or perhaps months later, as the completely knotted fabric drops in, the liquid rushes to engulf it and penetrate its fibers. The fabric resists and insists on rising to the top but is forced to relent, yet the string remains adamant protecting the fibers beneath, rejecting the vibrant color particles as they seep into every inch of the fabric. The dye has done its part, and the banality of the material is lost forever. The fabric now has a chance to breathe as it hangs in open air. The stifled knots itch to be released from their suffocating bondage. They yearn to breathe too, to stretch, and to relax. Their time has come. The dye has set. The strings are exhausted from having maintained the tension for this long. These sinews, too, ache for respite. And it comes, a slight tug on both ends, and the strings pop out; the knots are released. There it is: a beautifully embellished masterwork—a brightly colored fabric speckled with white ready to adorn.

This is bandhani or chunri, one of the oldest and simplest forms of fabric embellishment. Traced back to 5000 years ago, this resist-dyeing technique has managed to survive the onslaught of imitation printing and modern factory production. The craft perhaps originated in the cradle of civilization, the Indus Valley. Later, these dots emerged in various relics and accounts including a 6th century painting depicting the life of Buddha.

Bandhani tie-dye is a remnant from a time when “craft defined everything. The craftsman had an almost phenomenological knowledge of materials and intuited how to vary their properties according to their structural and environmental characteristics.” (Neri Oxman) It is an extremely labor intensive and time-consuming craft. Depending on the fabric used and the intricacy of the pattern, tying up a saree can take weeks or months even with highly skilled artisans who can tie up to two thousand knots a day. Originally, the artisans used natural plants-based colors like saffron, indigo, red, and green associated with good fortune and prosperity, and the patterns reflected tribal associations. Now, those earlier associations, although not completely lost, have given way to the use of a range of colors and patterns to accommodate modern tastes, and despite the availability of more affordable imitations, beautifully handcrafted bandhani continues to resonate with us because as Stockholder suggests crafting with hands is no doubt an elemental part of being human.