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The Radiant Zari Story

by Sundari Silks 26 Feb 2021
The Radiant Zari Story
As one of the oldest civilizations in the world, it is only befitting that India is home to some of the greatest art and craft cultures that have prevailed over centuries. Travelling from the coast to the core of our land, the diversity found every few miles in terms of fabrics, techniques and design are astounding. Until about a century ago, the use of pure gold and silver metallic yarns or 'zari' was indispensable to the handloom industry. While the intricacies behind it have evolved with the times, owning a pure zari work saree is greatly revered by fabric connoisseurs.   

The use of zari as a medium of expression and symbolism is reflected through the precious metals woven into this craft. Its origin can be traced back to the sacred scriptures of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Rigveda, which refers to a fabric woven out of pure gold. Across the globe, metallic gold yarns were used in historic textiles such as the brocades of Europe, velvet weaves of Persia and Iran, and the silks from south-east Asia. It was deemed to be a symbol of purity and nobility garnering the patronage of royals and aristocrats. The popularity of zari grew multifold during the Mughal rule and represented the opulence and wealth of the dynasty.

Translating to 'golden' in Urdu, zari work was centred around the port city of Surat in Gujarat since the Mughal era, and was rightly nicknamed as the 'Zari City'. The city was the major link for Haj pilgrims travelling between India and the holy city of Mecca resulting in popularising the craft of zari in the region. A prime spot for cultural exchange, Surat witnessed the import of Persian zari handicrafts, settlement of immigrant craftsmen and the increased demand for zari products amongst the travellers. Over time, the word about this magnificent handiwork spread across the world and the highest quality of zari was exported from Surat to several countries.

As the major zari hub of the country, surveys have shown that Surat is home to over 500 manufacturing units and 3,000 small household units that are employed in the production of authentic zari yarns.  

But what exactly is zari and how is it created? In simple words, it refers to the technique where large portions of silver are transformed into fine yarns through various time-consuming and labour-intensive stages and finally covered in a pure gold coat. It's a skill that is passed down through generations of artisans' families. In the 19th century, pure gold and silver were used to make zari which was locally called 'pasa', making these fabrics more exquisite, expensive and heavy. With the influx of technological advancements in the 20th century, came the inventions of imitation and tested zari. Let's go behind the scenes and understand the process of manufacturing the shimmering zari. It involves about 6 stages, where chunks of silver of melted and moulded into flat wires called 'Badla' which is woven over a base of either silk/cotton threads in a winding machine. The outcome of this complex process is the zari thread which further undergoes electroplating in a pure gold solution, to give it the characteristic colour and lustre.

In the present day market, there are different variations of zari available. One is pure zari, which follows the authentic zari making process and the only minor difference being in the ratio of silver and gold that are used to make it. It is also the most highly valued and genuine variety that is used predominantly in Kanchipuram and Banarasi weaves. The next is tested zari, which also follows the same process but uses a copper wire in place of the silver. Although it does not look very different from pure zari, one can identify the many different shades of gold comparatively in tested zari. The omission of silver in its making also brings down its cost considerably. The last variation is the imitation zari which is made by gilding threads with a golden powder. It was created as an affordable alternative and does not retain the sheen for too long. Regardless of the variety of zari, one underlying factor amongst it all is the amount of care that is required in maintaining it. As it is crafted with metals such as silver, it tends to react to the atmosphere and can result in it losing its shine. To avoid this from happening, it is imperative that you wrap your sarees with zari work in a soft cotton or muslin cloth and store it in a cool and dry place. Proper washing and drying techniques also need to be implemented in the saree care routine. Spraying fragrances directly on the fabric is not advisable as it may cause reactions that can spoil the zari. 

At Sundari Silks, we have a vast repertoire of silk sarees that range from Kanchipuram to Banaras and so many more. Our handcrafted weaves are woven with intricate designs and adorned with detailed zari work that showcases the craftsmanship of our artisans. Be it gold or silver zari, in minimal or grand designs, we have a multitude of options for you to choose from.  
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