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About India’s great weaving tradition – production process and histories


Authors: Various

Publisher: Marg, a Magazine of Arts

Price: Rs 350

The sari has survived and thrived for centuries, never mind many foreign invasions with accompanying sartorial styles, modern trends, Westernization, et al. So also have Indian handicraft traditions, perhaps adapted to newer use in modern times. One reason, among many, is the extraordinary weaves with regional flavours, elegance and the feeling it gives to an Indian woman as she drapes the sari or a Kashmiri shawl.

India’s great tradition of weaving, in its rainbow varieties, each reflecting a region’s indigenous artistic reflection, add to the appeal of these apparels. However, often a consumer may not know how much skill goes into a hand-woven sari or a Phulkari stole, or the history that lies behind it. In this context, Readings on Textiles published by Marg Magazine on its 75th year of publication is a valuable collection for textile connoisseurs, art lovers and handicraft aficionados. Beautifully illustrated and printed, the publication is both intellectually and visually satisfying.

Marg’s founding editor Mulk Raj Anand wrote in the inaugural issue that India needed to build “a new living tradition, fundamentally derived from our needs in the present situation, though modulated to an accent which is simple, sincere, sensitive and therefore universal and valid for all time.” Keeping to the vision, Marg has published many articles on Indian textiles through the decades. These have been written by scholars in diverse textile styles. This compilation, sieved from those, gives glimpse of India’s great handicraft traditions. 

To examine the different aspect of India’s textile heritage, the contents have been divided into four sections: Textiles in Motion: Histories of Trade and Influences; Production: Technology, Expertise, Community; Textile Politics: Authority, Identity, Patronage; and Designing for Changing Markets. In the introduction, Abigail S. McGowan, professor of History, University of Vermont, US, points out, “Deeming textiles worthy of attention was hardly revolutionary in mid- 20th-Century India. After all, fabrics had both fuelled the rise of British colonial rule and helped to bring it down.”  The East India Company, as he points out, had its origins in what came to be “insatiable European” demand for Indian cottons but later in the 19th Century, “the fate of Indian textiles and textile related producers under British rule helped galvanize nationalist resistance.”

Going through the pages of the book, a reader comes across many unknown facts about the production processes as also histories behind some textiles. Scholars used modern techniques to look more deeply into historic textiles and discovered, for example, how the now extinct lampas weaving style of Assam was associated with the Vaishanavite Guru Sankardeva in the Middle Ages (Vaishnavite Silks: The Figured Textiles of Assam/ by Rosemary Gill). The complex technique, more affiliated to manuscript painting than to a textile weaving tradition, was carried on for 300 years. The few pieces surviving were discovered in Tibet and now can be viewed at museums abroad and in private collections.

In another article, Early Indian Textiles Discovered in Egypt (by Valerie Berinstain), we discover that  Indian cotton fabrics were specifically produced for the Egyptian market and traded in al-Fustat, now a suburb of Cairo,  a bustling port of call between the 8thand 11th Centuries.

Likewise, the article, The Commercial Embroidery of Gujarat in the 17th Century (by John Irwin) narrates how traditional craftsmen had adapted to ‘foreign taste’ and produced the famed Calico items. “When the great Albuquerque set sail from India in the year 1511 with rich gifts for the Queen of Portugal, included among them were many women greatly skilled in needlework. On the way home the ship was wrecked and the unfortunate embroideries drowned; but the story remains on record to show how early was the appeal of Indian embroidery in Europe.”

There are detailed articles on Pashmina of Kashmir, Phulkari of Punjab, textile arts of Ladakh – from nomadic to silk brocades, among many. The book is a collector’s item.

(Reviewed by Ranjita Biwas.)