An overview of over three millennia of Indian textile heritage
Delhi-based Craft Revival Trust (see craftrevivaltrust.org) is home to a great deal of thought about craft traditions in Asia. HAND/EYE and CRT are working together to bring more information about Indian handmade history and traditions to HAND/EYE readers. We thank CRT leader Ritu Sethi for her help in editing this article, and Anurada Nambiar for writing it.
Home to numerous species of natural fibre and dye-yielding plants, the Indian subcontinent has a long and unbroken history of textile production, spanning some 3500 years, varied base fabrics, and numerous techniques of surface embellishment.
Cotton cultivation and production is recorded from second millennium BC and the earliest urban civilisation of the subcontinent, that of the Indus Valley city of Mohenjodaro. Further, the discovery of dye vats at Lothal, the Indus Valley port in present-day Gujarat, indicates that the science of extracting dyes from plants was known in India as early as 1500 BC. The discovery of a fragment of dyed cotton attached to a jar at Mohenjodaro, a Harappan site, proves that the inhabitants of this early civilisation were not only familiar with the skills of weaving but also with those of dyeing and the technology of fixing these organic fugitive dyes with mordants to create permanent dyes.
Written evidence, however, appears much later – the ‘De Animalium Natura IV’ dateable to the fifth century BC and authored by the Greek physician Ktesas refers to popularity of the bright-coloured Indian textiles among the Persians. The ‘Periplus of the Erythrian Sea’, a first century AD Greek account of commerce in the western Indian Ocean, records the import of cotton fabrics from India as a luxury fabric, while the Roman historian Pliny records the bustling trade in Indian muslins in the light of complaints made in the Senate of the emptying of Roman coffers to cater to the vanity of Roman women.
As Indian textiles established themselves as an increasingly significant trade commodity, prized from China to Mesopotamia for their brilliance of colour, unparalleled colour fastness, fineness of weave and rich variety of designs, the weaving of various fibres also received further impetus.
Simultaneously, the use of new dyeing agents was also initiated– the resource base of Indian dyers thus grew to include the flowers of the lodh tree, lac, saffron and spikenard, and in the centuries that followed, pomegranate, turmeric tubers, henna, myrobalan, and torai flowers as well. Thus, by the fourth and fifth century AD, compound colours of black, purple, bright green, peacock blue came to be added to the already extant vocabulary of multiple tones of primary colours.
The sheer variety of the colour palette recorded in late antiquity indicates that dyers created their own recipes, taking into account the particular fabric to be dyed, the colouring substances available, and the water resources available.
The printing of cloth too appears to have been a similarly historic skill as attested to by the reference to block printers, chhipoo or chhipika, in a treatise compiled by Dhanpal of Malwa in 1020 AD. Earlier textual references to ‘figured cloth’ date from the early Christian era but the method of patterning – whether woven, painted or printed – is unknown.
However, a mural painting in Cave 1 at Ajanta, dating from the sixth century, depicts women wearing woven and patterned skirt-cloths as well as women spinning yarn from a ball of thread and threading it on to a frame, indicating the prevalence of ikat technology. Fragments of block-printed and resist-dyed cotton, radio-carbon dated to the 9th- 13th-centuries, have been located from Fustat in Lower Egypt. Remarkably similar fabrics dateable to the 14th century, also believed to be of western Indian provenance, have also been discovered in Indonesia. Together, these textiles securely establish the antiquity and spread of the Gujarati textile trade to the Middle East as well as to South East Asia.
During the period from 1206 onwards, first under the Sultans of Delhi and subsequently the Mughals, both the production of cotton, silks and velvets as well as textile products was increased by extending land used for the cultivation of cotton and dye-yielding crops, thus providing significant impetus in the volume of textile production. This in turn stimulated a parallel growth in ancillary textile crafts such as dyeing, printing, textile painting, embroidery and other forms of surface embellishment, gradually leading to these trades becoming increasingly specialised.
Over a period of time, important textile-production centres such as Agra, Delhi, Lahore, Banaras, Ahmedabad, Machlipatanam, and Sanganer came into being, supporting vast numbers of weavers, printers, dyers as well as textile workers in ancillary occupations such as the block-making, loom-making, warping, spinning etc.
References in paintings, literature and material evidence from this period – a bewildering array of exquisitely printed, woven and embroidered garments, wall hangings, quilts, tents, floor spreads, bags – largely created for the consumption of the royal courts, testify to the pivotal role played by these opulent textiles as signifiers of rank and opulence. Luxury textiles produced in Bengal, Bijapur, the Carnatic, the Deccan, Gujarat, Kandahar, Lahore and Persia, indicate the significance of textile in court rituals as well as a recognition of the distinct textile traditions in early seventeenth century India.
Shortly after this period, trading relations were established between the English East India Company and India and textiles quickly became a prominent item of trade with Europe, their reach and popularity illustrated by the large number of Indian textile terms that entered the English language – bandana, calico, cashmere, chintz, cummerbund, dungaree, gingham, jodhpurs, khakhi, madras, muslin, pajama, palampore, seersucker, shawl and taffeta.
By the early nineteenth century, the British introduced machine-made yarn from Britain to India in a bid to replace local handspun yarn and simultaneously established a series of regulations on weavers. Likewise, they also levied taxes on trade textiles, gradually destabilising India’s textile-based economy.
Despite the ups and downs in India’s production and trade in dyed and printed textiles, the deeply entrenched cultural and community roots of textile usage in the country have succeeded in sustaining a number of distinct textile traditions as well as a number of highly skilled craftspeople who constitute a living repository of this historic legacy.
Each textile tradition that exists in India today has its own unique history, having circulated within specific milieus, playing critical roles in local ceremonial and ritual life, signifying rank and community belonging, and on occasion, also representing the transmission of influences from other cultures. Described here are a few of the basic techniques of surface patterning cloth that deal with the use of dyes.
The art of painting on textiles consists of directly applying the mordant or fixative agent on the washed fabric using either a fine-haired brush or a pen or kalam. This technique, known as kalamkari, is associated primarily with the cloth-painting workshops of the Coromandel Coast where the best-quality hand-drawn chintzes were produced on fine calico for domestic luxury consumption in the Deccani and Mughal courts, as well as for export to Europe, Persia and South East Asia. Kalamkari textiles took many forms depending on their intended market. Prayer rugs, canopies and door covers painted with meharab designs, animal forms and floral motifs were made for the Middle-Eastern market, while tree-of-life bedcovers and dress material that resembled crewel work was painted for the European market. On the other hand, patterned hip and shoulder wrappers and narrative wall hangings were traded to the Southeast Asian market and material for robes and jackets were sent to East Asia.
This technique is still vibrant in in the south Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu as well as the western Indian state of Gujarat, and may be used in combination with block printing. Thus the hand-painted ritual hangings from Sri Kalahasti in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh may depict scenes from Hindu epics, while the boldly patterned temple canopies of Sickinaikenpet in Tamil Nadu visualise a shrine for the temple deity. Likewise, the Gujarati tradition of the Mata ni Pachedi consists of ritual hangings that narrate the victories of the mother goddess in her many forms.
In block printing, the other commonly used technique of surface patterning on cloth, the design is stamped on to the fabric with the aid of a wooden or metal block. Variations are created through the manipulation of overlapping sets of blocks, the use of mordants to achieve tonal variation and the use of a wax or mud resist. The desired patterns were transferred to wood printing blocks by woodcarvers using an array of iron chisels and die punches to create the design in relief.
Both block-printing and painting were employed in the process of resist-dyeing wherein a solution such as molten wax or moist mud is applied to those areas which are not intended to absorb the dye. Indigo dyeing was traditionally achieved in Indian cotton cloths by the resist method, whether using wax, applied with the qalam, as in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu, or using mud as was customary in the western states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. After elements of the design were painted or printed onto the surface of the cloth, it was soaked in a hot dye bath. The colour reveals itself once the dye oxidises upon contact with air.
Block printing is widely practiced in many regions of India today, with each region having its own distinct design vocabulary and style. Many of the contemporary block printing clusters are located in western and central India, in continuum of the historic concentration of printing activity in this region. Rajasthan for instance, is home to a number of block printing hubs, most notably Sanganer, the fine floral printed calico of which was patronised by the Rajput courts and Bagru which produced densely printed cottons for the consumption of local communities. Of the many clusters in Gujarat, Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka are notable for their unique tradition of ajrakh printing – a technique of multiple-resisted printing that is applied to both sides of the fabric.
Ikat and patola
The technique of tie-dyed resists was used to dye select sections of the warp or/and weft threads, which when wove created a fabric patterned with coloured motifs. Termed ikat or patola, this technique required an exact vision of the desired design and the ability to plot the sections of the yarn that needed to be dyed in order to achieve the pattern accurately. The technique is used on both cotton and silk yarn to create graphically patterned fabrics that were once significant objects of trade between India and South East Asia.
Patola or double-ikat silks, constitute the traditional ceremonial sari of the western Indian state of Gujarat and are associated with a cluster known as Patan. The design vocabulary of the patola consists both of geometric and figurative forms, used either as individual elements floating on a plain ground or housed within a geometric grid. The technique of single and double ikat is also practiced on the Coromandel Coast, in Orissa and in Andhra Pradesh, where cotton was woven as well as silk. The ikat from this region tends to be more graphic than its western Indian counterpart, utilising bolder colours in stark contrast, and largely geometric forms.
Other major tradition of dye-related surface ornamentation is bandhini or bandhej, a technique of tie-dyeing common to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Madurai. In bandhani, a configuration of dots is achieved by tying small knots on pre-traced or stamped design in order to protect these areas when the fabric is dyed. The dyeing process is executed in stages, working from the lightest colour to successively darker hues. Leheriya, characterised by colourful diagonal or zigzag stripes across the fabric, is created by rolling, tie-ing and then dyeing the fabric. Inspired by the leher or wave, this textile is associated with rain and serves as an auspicious symbol of a bountiful harvest.
Together, these techniques and their regional variations, although but a small sampling of India’s textile diversity, indicate an astoundingly continuous and dynamic history of textile production and use.
The Craft Revival Trust, established in 1999, is a non-profit organization devoted to building an information and knowledge infrastructure for the Folk Arts, Crafts and Textiles. Ritu Sethi leads the Craft Revival Trust. See www.craftrevivaltrust.org for more.