A celebration of Bengal embroidery, weave and style by Debjit Paul

By Indranil Halder

In the Indian state of West Bengal,  diverse handloom weaves are a part of life. A rich heritage and cultural legacy. In 2022 summer, I was invited by Kolkata based  Debjit Paul to model for his label DEBSHILA.

Who is Debjit Paul? 

Debjit is a Kolkata based. Celebrates Bengal heritage weaves and embroidery. His label is DEBSHILA. Self taught  multitalented individual. Observes National Handloom Day (launched by Indian PM Modi at the Centenary Hall of Madras University on 7th of August,2015 which commemorates the Swadeshi Movement launched on that very day in 1905 to revive manufacturing of domestic products in India for India at the Kolkata Town Hall ).Explores diverse handloom weaves and embroideries from different parts of West Bengal(or Bengal) with his own designs, styles and fashion statements.

History of Bengal handloom weaves and embroidery: 

Muslin has been shipped to Arabia, Europe and South Asia from Bengal for thousands of years. The handloom industry continued its robust export and made fortunes with Hindu rulers, Islamic settlers and European traders until British East India Company destroyed majority of Bengal handlooms for short term profit and long term environmental impact.

There are different communities, regions  and villages in Bengal which are still famous for their specific weaves. For example, South 24 Parganas or Hoogly or Dakshin Dinajpur for Tant weaves, Murshidabad for silk saree, Purulia for Tussar weaves , West Medinipur for fine cotton , Nadia for Jamdani and muslin weaves. Kolkata-and Delhi-based designer Pranay Baidya stated in Vogue India article, “Every tant sari has a story to tell—it is representative of the finest and most ancient weaving technique that originated in Bengal in the 15th century. Its unique identity is the result of Mughal patronage, ancient Hindu influences and a Bengali flair for design.” Use of Jamdani and matka silk are also part of Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s creations that supports handloom weavers of Bengal.

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According to 2013 Times of India article, “Unesco declares Jamdani saris intangible cultural heritage,”The traditional art of Jamdani weaving has been inscribed on Unesco’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity .”

Bengal is also known for “kantha” embroidery. An exquisite collection of such “Kantha” embroidery (Bayton Kantha C. 19th Century A.D) can be seen in the Gurusaday Museum, Joka, Kolkata.  While in 2008, global French brand Hermes introduced  “Carre Kantha” collection across the globe patrons to celebrate the Bengal “Kantha” embroidery techniques.

It is less than 100 days to 2022 Durga Pujo, Laal Paar ( red border) saree ( traditionally  weaved in cotton, Mulberry silk or Tussar silk, white with red borders) remains favourite for photoshoots in studios across Kolkata. The city remains one of the largest markets for all handloom products from India. And Laal Paar saree is mainly worn by Bengali women for ceremonies , rituals and celebrations. A Symbol of purity, class & elegance!

Debjit Paul celebrates Bengal:

Debjit also invited me to model for one of his photoshoots at AP Studio, Baghajatin, Kolkata. By the time, I arrived there were other models who are warming up on the bright camera flashes. What I got to observe, was the confidence of the young Bengalis who are not only vibrant with youthful ideas to celebrate the handlooms of Bengal with glitz and glamour. Not scared to go for their dreams profession such as photography or makeup artist or hairstylist or a floor manager for a studio. Now a common scenario in different parts of Bengal.

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Far  from the Australian fashion week which I attended few weeks prior to my Kolkata photoshoot, I felt excited to see that Bengali youths are exploring passions other rather than just trying to study English Honours or Law or Medical Science. And why not, when Bengal has a thousand year old weaving tradition and  multiple weaving techniques. Techniques which are obsolete in developed countries to create magnificent fabric. In West Bengal, handlooms come second only to agriculture for  livelihood.  Artisans, weavers and their specific techniques in  rural Bengal, are even common today. Many are getting a chance to remain creative and survive.

For the photoshoot, I was handed in embroidered silk panjabi or kurta (Durga pujo red/white theme) with motif(from a Bengal temple) paired with natural dye block print on a starched tant dhoti. It was the Bengaliana that I loved. IndoWestern or just Western outfits felt boring in comparison. It would be even better to see fabrics with zero effect on environment such as jute fibre(which grows  in Bengal) to be more commonly used.

Debjit says, “ I love local  silk such as Motka, Tassar and Murshidabad Silk, cotton  such as Khadi , Tant ( Bangladesh Tant , Santipuri Tant, Fulia Tant ) and handloom  such as Jamdani, Tangile, Dhaniakhali. I hope local and federal governments collaborate together to promote sustainable fabric in overseas markets.” His love for Bengal textile and embroidery have  given him financial independence and creative freedom. During his teenage years, he used to style and embroiderers for his friends and family members but got his big break in 2016. When he did his first style shoot with his own label DEBSHILA outfits and friends flooded social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook for more. Today his label is worn by clients in Australia, Bangladesh, India and United States.

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Today, Debjit continues to create Bengali style  heritage fashion at an affordable price for celebrations such as wedding season or Bengali new year season or Durga pujo in Bengal. He wants to revive endangered weaves, help communities and promote Bengal  handloom textiles. I was surprised by the dhoti/kurta he has created for me to be infront of the camera with local models Barnali Ghosh, Manisha Talukder, Neel Das and Neel Rameez. He was assisted by Indrajit Das, Rup Sha, Joy Pal, Saptarshi Sarkar(Cinematographer) , Pintu Maity (Photography)and  Suman Podder (AP Studio floor manager). After I upload a photo from the shoot on my Facebook story and it got 500 likes across the globe in twenty four hours and  Ram Kamal Mukerjee(Mumbai based film maker and biographer to Bollywood stars) said,” Wow!”. So did Sujay  Sen from Kolkata. It gives me great pride to see young Bengalis following their creative souls to celebrate Bengal weaves, embroidery and style for  global revival.