“Now we’ve gone old,” said Harbans Kaur, my friend’s mother-in-law in her early nineties.
My mother did not miss a second to reply.
“We are not old! We know, we have brains to think, we can use our hands to create.”
The two Punjabi grandmothers had just met, but it did not take long for them to gel, nor could they wait to set their hands on their weaving project. As teenagers, they had learned the art of weaving with the sprang technique to make azarband, more commonly known as nala in Punjab, India. The nala is a drawstring used to secure the salwar—loose pants, worn with a kurta or kameez (top). It curls up with use and stays hidden, unless embellished at the ends to be revealed on the sides of a ghagra (long silk skirt worn by brides and close family in a wedding ceremony).
The previous day, I had taken out my azarband collection to share with my mother, or biji (an affectionate way to address a mother or grandmother). Stretching it apart, biji looked at it and said she knew how to make it with tilanh (reed). When I told her I wanted to learn too, she laughed in surprise.
“Now everything is available in the bazaar,” she said. “Now people don’t need to make nalas.”
I had to convince biji that I was serious about documenting this traditional craft and, if possible, learning it myself. When I handed her the thread I had brought with me, she was finally convinced. She pulled out a bundle of reed, and my documentation began.
Sprang has been practiced and revived across Europe, North and South America, some parts of the Middle East, and Asia. The earliest archaeological evidence of sprang goes back to 1400 BCE: a hairnet found in a Danish bog. This find in the late 1800s and other subsequent discoveries led museums to reexamine the construction of fabric in their collections. This spurs my interest to study this dying craft that was once practiced in almost every Punjabi household by young girls and women.
During casual talks with other Punjabis, asking about the azarband weaving and the weavers’ experiences, I only got short answers. Their responses have been along the lines of, “I used to do it, but now nobody wears the handwoven nalas,” or “I used to have them, but I threw away the ones I made because I do not wear them anymore.”
I was encouraged by my friend Satvinder Kaur, dean of the College of Home Science at the Assam Agricultural University, especially when I discovered that her mother-in-law knew how to make nalas. When I asked her to have one made, she did. In summer 2015, I decided to visit her in the far northeastern state of Assam where many Punjabi families had settled, hoping they would be more willing to share their cultural traditions than those still bound to their home state. I brought my mother with me so the two women could meet and weave together.
Later that fall, a friend took my research idea and, as part of an NGO project based in Punjab, trained women in the sprang weave and taught them to make the azarband. About twenty women were employed as an effort to revive the tradition. And over the past year or so there has been an ongoing effort by the Department of Culture to revive other traditional Punjabi arts and crafts like puppetry.
My hope is that the sprang weave will not only be revived but evolve in creative ways to meet contemporary tastes and needs. And in the process of recording and photographing what I can find, I hope to do my part to help preserve knowledge of this craft.
Swatantar Mann grew up in Punjab, India, and worked in the museum field before coming to the United States. For the past decade and a half, she has worked in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Marketplace where she has enjoyed the opportunity to meet traditional artisans from around the world.
World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques by John Gillow and Bryan Sentance (Thames & Hudson, 1999)