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Tales and memories woven in the brick-red quilts - a Bengal staple

14 January, 2023 10:58:32
Tales and memories woven in the brick-red quilts - a Bengal staple

There is an ancient adage that says, ‘One who sleeps under a quilt is comforted by love.’ So true indeed! With the onset of winter, we all scuttle for the comfort and warmth of quilts. Our love affair with the quilt is revived annually when the freezing north winds blow and seem to turn everything into ice. Technically speaking, quilts are not the same as ‘lep’ (in Bengali) or ‘Razai’ (in Hindi). A ‘lep’ aka razai is a bedding (quilt) very similar to, if not a type of, duvet or comforter, used extensively in Afghanistan, Pakistan, North India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Razais or lep usually have a cotton, silk or velvet cover which is stuffed with cotton wool. They provide a great deal of warmth even in the very cold weather primarily due to the insulating effects of the large amount of air trapped in the cotton wool. Feather-light lep or razai has been in use during winters in this subcontinent for hundreds of years.

But have you ever wondered why the colour of the lep cover is always red? There are so many other colours in the world but why is it that lep-carders or dhunuris always have an abundant quantity of brick-red cloth tucked in their huge sacks which they pull out with the finesse of a wizard after a consensus is reached between the seller and the buyer? Well, there are some very interesting tales about this rich tradition and today we shall look back into the past and try to find out the reason. But prior to that, let us refresh our memory of the craftsmanship involved in making lep.

Cotton Carding: This is the first step -- a procedure that prepares cotton to be used as a filling in the quilts. Two carders are deployed for this purpose, which are convex paddles equipped with small teeth – the cotton fibers are placed onto of the carders, while the other is drawn across the face of the first one multiple times. The position of carders is transitioned between horizontal and vertical – this is done to remove the dross from cotton, which is the waste material. After carding, only soft and fine fibers remain behind. The next step is cotton voile spreading. This is a complex step and requires deft handling. The cotton is distributed or layered evenly throughout the lep or else, it can end up bulging at some points while other parts tend to sag. This part is pivotal for imparting warmth and coziness to the handmade lep.

Hand Stitching: This is the last stage when the quilts are stitched together and made into a proper lep. It is a process called ‘Tagaai’ in Hindi. The quilt is hand-stitched closely and meticulously to ensure the body heat does not leak. The top quality lep are made from pure cotton. In fact, one kilogram of cotton is refined till the point it becomes light enough to weight only 100 grams. Therefore, they are super comfortable, warm, cozy, lightweight and different.

In Bengal, the antiquity of lep can be traced back to the time of Murshid Quli Khan also known as Mohammad Hadi, the first Nawab of Bengal, who reigned from 1717 to 1727. Murshidabad was renowned for its craftsmanship at that time and soft crimson velvet was used for making the Nawab’s lep. After carding the extra-long high quality cotton, it was dipped in red coloured water and after drying, ittar (perfume) was sprayed liberally and then the layering was done.

After Murshid Quli Khan’s death, his son-in-law, Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan, who had married Zainab un-nisa Begum and Azmat un-nisa Begum, both daughters of Murshid Quli Khan, ascended the throne of Bengal (1727 to 1739). He ordered the craftsmen to discard velvet in favour of silk but the colour of the cover remained unchanged.

Later, when lep became affordable for the hoi polloi but cotton replaced silk and the colour remained red. The traders of old Dhaka stuck to the convention and the colour red was unanimously accepted everywhere and custom continues to be followed to this day. Some say the colour red is a great concealer and can hide the stain and dirt that accumulate on the cover due to over-use during the winter months. This holds ground too. Then there are people who opine using the colour red is a business strategy that the craftsmen resort to to attract buyers.

The cotton wool in a ‘lep’ clumps over time, thinning the lep and driving the air out, which causes it to become less effective as a protection against the cold. For this reason, prior to the onset of winter, it is common for families to get their lep carded: the cotton wool in the lep is removed, carded to eliminate the clumping, and reinserted into the lep-cover. This is done by lep-carders (called dhunuri or dhuniyas or dhunnas) who are professionally adept and seasonally employed in this activity. The bowed carding instrument, called the dhunki, has a distinctive twang when it is in use or its string is plucked. This twang is a familiar daytime sound that resonates in the lanes and by-lanes of the city with the onset of autumn, and is sometimes used as a cultural reference to the commencement of winter in local literature and movies.

Jaipuri Razai is another version of the quilt that has a rich history. The story goes thus: when a group of Mansuris (cotton mattress and quilt makers) shifted from Amber to Jaipur, home to many traditional art and crafts, Kadar Bux, a young razai maker gifted a razai (quilt) to Maharaja Madho Singh I (1750 to 1768) of Jaipur. The razai he gifted was made of the finest quality cotton and weighed a mere ‘pao’ (250gms). The Maharaja was so impressed that he gave Kadar Bux the title of Patel and also awarded him with two shops which lie opposite to the Sawai Man Singh Hall.

Today, there are several small shops belonging to the descendants of Kadar Bux which carry the rich tradition of razai making. The secret of Jaipuri quilts lie in the carding (dhunai) of the cotton. It is done by hand so that quilts remain extra light and extra warm. Basically, there are three types of quilts -- cotton, velvet and silk, the velvet ones being the costliest. The price of a quilt is decided by the type of cloth and cotton used, and also the type of carding and stitching. These quilts are hand printed and stitched by the local artisans of Jaipur, which brings out the rich ethnicity of Indian culture and heritage in the quilt designs. The specialty of the Jaipuri razai lies in the aesthetic prints and designs which includes traditional patterns, flowers, elephants, camels all done in rich vibrant colours that depict the culture of Rajputana.

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