A perfumed silk quilt with plain and broad borders that contrast with its main body, the balaposh is sometimes also used as a shawl due to its lightness. The quilt is believed to have originated in West Bengal between 1727 and 1739, when the reigning Nawab of Bengal, Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan, requested a shawl that was “soft like wool, warm like a lap, and gentle like a flower.” Rising to this challenge was a man named Atir Khan from the town of Murshidabad, now a centre for silk production, who made the first recorded balaposh. Some of this quilt’s distinguishing features are that the fine cotton filling does not become lumpy with use and age and that all the layers that constitute it are held together only by stitches along the edges
The process of producing the quilt involves multiple stages of layering and stitching. Fine silk fabric is first laid on the floor, over which the second layer of carded cotton fibre, perfumed with the essential oil attar, is added, typically by the women of the family. Then, the third layer of malmal fabric and the fourth layer of silk are subsequently overlaid, covering the cotton completely. Widely spaced stitches are then made along one edge of all four layers, holding them together. The fifth layer of silk is added and the quilt is stitched again using broad silk ribbons of contrasting colours along all four edges; this step is traditionally carried out by the men. Finally, the attar is once again applied by hand to the finished quilt, which is then folded — scented side inwards — and packed into a box.
Once considered a status symbol because of the use of expensive and fine silk and used exclusively by royalty and aristocracy — Mughals rulers and nawabs — its demand began to dwindle with a decrease in patronage, the introduction of a market economy and the subsequent arrival of commercially-produced balaposh (thought to be stitched not using the original process). Until 2015, the knowledge of the production process and the skills that accompanied it were carefully guarded, and therefore also gravely endangered, family secret, passed down through generations of Atir Khan’s descendants. In order to preserve and revive this hereditary craft, his great-grandson, Sakhawat Hussain Khan, and his family began working with West Bengal government initiatives such as Biswa Bangla to carry forth the legacy while enabling knowledge and skills-transfer other artisans. These efforts have also been boosted by its feature in the Fabric of India exhibition (2015) at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London as well as a film installation and photography exhibition titled Balaposh by Neishaa Gharat and Vineet Vohra at the London Design Fair in 2018.
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