Did you know the Pope’s vestments were woven from the famous Thane silk? | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Did you know the Pope’s vestments were woven from the famous Thane silk?

ByEkta Mohta
Jul 02, 2023 12:21 AM IST

The Asiatic Society of Mumbai is the only place in India where all 18 volumes of ‘The Textile Manufacturers of India’ are still intact, stowed safely away in a safe. They will be on public display for the first time from July 5-8 at the library’s Durbar Hall

MUMBAI: Under British rule, Indians started out as hapless subjects, and became hapless customers. In the 1860s, the British had commissioned John Forbes Watson, director of the India Museum in London, to compile an exhaustive directory of the handwoven textiles and costumes of Indians. It was to cover the breadth of Indian dress: lungis, dhotis, pyjamas, kurtas, turbans, and cummerbunds, alongside saris, petticoats, cholis and burkhas. “The India Museum had thousands of textiles,” says textile researcher and curator Savitha Suri. “So, Watson shortlisted 700, cut the textiles into working samples and created 20 sets of 18 volumes each. The data mining they did is truly incredible: from the textile’s usefulness, to which caste would wear it, on which occasion they would wear it, the weight, the dimensions and the price. Those were given to British textile manufacturers and told, ‘This is what India wears. Make them on the machine and we will sell it back to India at a cheaper rate.’”

Textile curator Savitha Suri says, “It takes 17 pairs of hands to make one metre of handloom cloth. So, India’s textiles are a case study in empathetic cooperation and collaboration.” (Satish Bate/ HT Photo)
Textile curator Savitha Suri says, “It takes 17 pairs of hands to make one metre of handloom cloth. So, India’s textiles are a case study in empathetic cooperation and collaboration.” (Satish Bate/ HT Photo)

At the time, there was an imbalance of trade between Britain and India: we were exporting cotton, spices, indigo, and coffee, and importing wee textiles and other goods. Watson writes that British bullion was disappearing “as if it had been dropped into the ocean”. By then, spinning mills had already been set up in India and Manchester. “So, our hand-block prints could be screen-printed from a machine, and our brocades and fine ikat mashru could be replicated,” says Suri. “Because synthetic cloth was cheaper, we started buying those, which led to the decline of the handloom sector: a decline that has only become worse. We’re nowhere close to where we were before the British did this to us. Eighteen books, and look at where India’s handloom sector is. That is the power of the pen.”

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The Asiatic Society of Mumbai is the only place in India where all 18 volumes are still intact, stowed safely away in a safe. They will be on public display for the first time from July 5-8 at the library’s Durbar Hall. “People can actually look at the samples in the books, and see the wonderful work Asiatic is doing in preserving them,” says Suri, as exhibition curator.

In dress rehearsal

Suri meets us in her living room in Borivali, which looks like a crafts emporium. In a silvery bob, a freckle-sized bindi and nose ring, and a block-printed sari in Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite khadi, she explains, “It’s from a place called Ponduru in Andhra Pradesh, which is known for its khadi even today.”

For the past decade, Suri has been involved with craft education and market revivals for textiles, such as the Udipi sari and the Kunbi sari from Goa. As president of the state handloom council at WICCI, her own journey into handlooms began at home. “All the women in my house wore only saris, even to bed. For the longest time, I didn’t know people didn’t wear handlooms, that it was an option.” Her first salary also disappeared in the soft folds of one. “It was a huge amount 27 years ago: 2,500 for a white sari. Even today, all my money goes into buying handcrafted textiles. For me, textiles are the unseen canvas on which a community tells its story. We don’t talk about it often enough, or with the amount of wonder that it deserves.”

There is a sense of wonder even in Watson’s clinical summary, especially while describing brocades, hand embroidery, and Dhaka muslin. He writes, “The very fine and richly decorated fabrics of India will probably always require the delicate manipulation of human fingers for their production. There may be little hope of Europe ever being able to make these cheaper.”

The volumes, which he called portable “industrial museums”, are divided based on fabric, with swatches and precise sketches, and utility, with photographs and paintings of people in costume. “Muslin and calico get an entire volume,” says Suri. Kinkhabs and brocades, mashru and himroo, and choli cloths get one each; trouser material, woollens, and silks get two each. “Watson’s book is the only place where we get to see the famous Thane silk,” continues Suri. “It was said that the Pope’s vestments were woven from the silk there. That’s something today’s Mumbaikars cannot imagine, that there used to be a silk cluster in Thane. Turbans get a separate volume because the elites wore them. And, what the elites wore would have a trickle-down effect. To me, it’s spine-chilling and goosebumps-inducing to see the depths to which they thought through this entire enterprise. There’s a tremendous purpose to this whole thing.”

Alongside weavers, cotton farmers, too, faced a similar decline. “Right from the Indus Valley civilisation, there is evidence of hand-spinning in India,” says Suri, “for which you need a shorter staple cotton, which is not used in mills. So, the British introduced Bt cotton. Because the initial yield was so high, farmers switched to long staple cotton. At one point we had 21 colours of cotton growing in India. With white, we had brown, pink, green, red, and other shades. Dhaka muslin required cotton that grew only along the banks of the river Padma. But, as soon as Bt cotton came along, khara kapas was discarded. And, we can’t grow it anymore because the geological conditions have changed. Our land is filled with chemicals. Genetically-modified plants meant fertilisers and insecticides, which farmers couldn’t afford and they entered a debt trap. So, this is the long-term impact those books had.”

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In the same breath, Suri clarifies, “Of course, we would love the British to be the villains, and they are in many senses of the term. But, 75 years later, what have we actually done to undo the damage? If Watson had not cut up those textiles and pasted them, Indians might not have had any samples left. Because in India, we don’t document, and we don’t even preserve old textiles as a family. We buy, we wear, and when it wears out, we turn it into a pochha. So, Watson’s compendium gives us an idea of how brilliant our workmanship was, how fine our hand-spun muslin was. In that sense, the exhibition offers a balanced narrative.”

John Forbes Watson’s ‘The Textile Manufacturers of India’ will be on display at the Durbar Hall of Asiatic Society of Mumbai from July 5-8.

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