While tie-and-dye is a fairly common textile tradition, Bandhni, also called Bandhej, holds pride of place in India. Bandhni gets its name from the root word, 'baandh' meaning 'knot' and this technique has its origins in the western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The process of creating a Bandhni fabric is divided into three fundamental steps - preparing the material, making the knots and then, dyeing it. The fabric is first bleached, then folded and motifs are imprinted on it with a reddish dye called 'geru'. Then, the tying process begins. Small knots are tied by hand to make up the motifs. The smaller the knots and the gaps between them, the more premium the finished product. The lightest colour, usually yellow, is the first dye. The knotted portion retains the base colour of the fabric with the rest of the fabric dyed yellow.
The sections that need to be retained yellow are then tied and the dyeing continues thereon until the fabric has been dyed with all the desired colours. If a border is to be created, a loose stitch is run through the desired border line and the fabric is gathered. The border line is then bound with thread and dipped in the desired border colour.
Leheria is a variation named after 'leher' (or wave) pattern. This pattern is achieved by rolling the fabric on the bias i.e., diagonally and binding the roll in intervals with thread. The bound roll is then dyed. A crisscross pattern is achieved by going one step further by opening up the dyed roll, rolling it from the other direction, binding it as earlier and then dyeing it.
Between Gujarat and Rajasthan, there are variations in not just the motifs, colours and socio-cultural significance, but also in the craft. In Rajasthan, the craftsmen apparently grow the fingernail on the little finger to a sharp point to enable picking the cloth for better knotting. Some also use a ring with a sharp point for the purpose. However, in Gujarat, the intricate knotting process is done entirely by hand.
The finished Bandhni fabric is usually sold with its knots intact to prove that it is an authentic tie-and-dye piece and not merely printed.
There is a clear difference between traditional Bandhni and the newer varieties.
Traditionally, the tie-and-dye technique of Bandhni was worked on cotton or silk fabric. But today, you will find a wide range of textiles like georgette being used in addition to cotton and silk. Bandhni fabric was used mainly for odhnis (veils), turbans (headgear) and sarees. But walk into one of the many Gujarat or Rajasthan emporia across India today and you are bound to find it in the form of dupattas (a larger sized stole worn with the salwar kameez) as well as sarees. These are also available in boutiques and saree stores but one does need to check for authenticity.
Motifs in traditional Bandhni are typically ethnic patterns, along with depiction of nature. Anything other than these is a more recent innovation. While traditional Bandhni used bold natural dyes for yellow, red and black, the newer varieties boast of a myriad pastel colours like lavender, gray and pink worked in the Bandhni technique with commercial dyes.
However, one thing remains the same – the colours in authentic Bandhni fabric tend to run and it's best to do a first wash in saline water or stick to dry-cleaning the fabric.
Pic by author
An edited version of this article was published in the February 2009 issue of At A Glance.