Project LooM

The poem that gave jamdanis the phrase “woven air.”

It is almost a tired cliche. As anyone about jamdanis– or chanderis for that matter– and they will trot out the phrase, “woven air.” The sarees are like woven air, they will say.

Well, I learned that I have a personal connection to this phrase. The Kashmiri poet who wrote the poem that gave this phrase to the world is the uncle of a college mate of mine– Abida Adnan.

Abida and I both went to Mount Holyoke College. Here is her uncle’s poem. Read slowly and aloud if you can.

The Dacca Gauzes by Agha Shahid Ali

. . . for a whole year he sought
to accumulate the most exquisite
Dacca gauzes.
–Oscar Wilde /The Picture of Dorian Gray

Those transparent Dacca gauzes
know as woven air, running
water, evening dew:

a dead art now, dead over
a hundred years. “No one
now knows,” my grandmother says,

“what it was to wear
or touch that cloth.” She wore
it once, an heirloom sari from

her mother’s dowry, proved
genuine when it was pulled, all
six yards, through a ring.

Years later when it tore,
many handkerchiefs embroidered
with gold-thread paisleys

were distributed among
the nieces and daughters-in-law.
Those too now lost.

In history we learned: the hands
of weaves were amputated,
the looms of Bengal silenced,

and the cotton shipped raw
by the British to England.
History of little use to her,

my grandmother just says
how the muslins of today
seem so coarse and that only

in autumn, should one wake up
at dawn to pray, can one
feel that same texture again.

One morning, she says, the air
was dew-starched: she pulled
it absently through her ring.

Here is a tribute to the late poet from Robert Pinsky in PBS News hour:

On December 8, the poet Agha Shahid Ali died, too young, of a brain tumor. Shahid was a Kashmiri, a Muslim and a cosmopolitan who wrote splendid poetry in English and lived in America. He was admired for his wonderful poems and for his dignity, his outrageous comedy, his sweet nature. His books include A Nostalgist’s Map of America and The Half-Inch Himalayas. His poem on the “Dacca Gauzes” exemplifies Shahid’s nostalgia, his sense of history, his grace, a sensibility as fine as the gauze fabrics he describes here:

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