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Tie-Dyed Laharia Turban Cloth

Indian (Rajasthan), ca. 1860s

Rajasthan, India’s westernmost state, is frequently described as a place of contradiction. The desert region is marked by periods of drought and famine—and yet Rajasthan is renowned as one of the most lively, colorful places in India, not for luxuriance in the landscape but for the Rajasthanis’ vibrant attire. Privileged men and women of Rajput society have long worn garments of sheer cotton with exuberant designs; prized above all was the multihued and astonishingly complex laharia type of tie-dyed cotton, as this exceptional pagri—a man’s turban cloth—so impressively demonstrates.

When the Mughal fashion for portraiture took hold in the seventeenth century, Rajput nobility had their likenesses painted wearing flamboyantly-patterned laharia turbans. By the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the art of laharia dyeing reached its pinnacle. From the Sanskrit for wave, laharia wrap-resist is a many-stepped process and requires sophisticated handling of both dye and cloth. Folding the pagri into four or more accordion pleats width-wise, rolling it diagonally and wrapping it tightly with thread at precise intervals before dyeing produces a dazzling array of symmetrical zigzag (gandadar) formations. Untied portions accept dye whereas bound sections resist it; because the dyes must permeate the compressed layers, only the finest cotton mull is used. Successive steepings in natural dye baths are responsible for a spectrum of brilliant colors—kasumal, from safflower petals, yields rich reds and pinks; haldi, turmeric mixed with buttermilk, results in yellow; and indigo, called nila or gali, produces shades of blue that can combine with yellow for green hues. When untied, re-rolled from the opposite diagonal and bound again, an additional effect—mothara, from the Hindi word for lentil—appears, characterized by small checks. As proof that a laharia turban was genuine and not a printed replica, pagri were sold with their ties still in place; an end was unraveled to display the pattern to a client.

Tie-Dyed Laharia Turban Cloth

For festive or holy occasions, the most powerful Rajasthanis—Maharajas and members of the wealthy Marwari merchant class—swathed their heads in resplendent laharia pagri. The most marvelous turbans were characterized by two distinctive features: a series of repeatedly changing designs which morph seamlessly into the next, and the use of five colors known as panchranga. Between its gold-brocaded tips, this splendid pagri has a staggering fifty-seven pattern changes; thirteen types of zigzag motifs repeat identically or in variations, and seven patterns are unique and appear only once each. A graphic, argyle-like formation of criss-crossed, overlapping yellow, blue, red, and white chevrons is the most unusual motif seen here. The palette of brick red, salmon, pale gold, turquoise, sea-foam green, royal blue, blackest-blue, and white expands the panchranga rainbow. Though Indian textiles were historically esteemed for their color-fastness, the most prestigious laharia turbans were made with fugitive dyes. When the colors gradually faded—hastened by downpours as they were typically worn during monsoon season—the pagri was given once again to a master-dyer to be refreshed. This would seem unnecessary if permanent dyes were used; however, it only added to their fashionable cachet as this practice was reserved for the elite who could commission updates as necessary.

By the turn of the twentieth century, printed imitations, synthetic dyes and increasing interest in Western style led to the decline of laharia craft. Today, these magnificent turbans occasionally resurface at traditional festivals, but the best nineteenth-century laharia pagri are treasured as family heirlooms or found in museums. A similarly intricate turban, now in three pieces (5735a, b and c), was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1862.

53’ L x 7” W
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