JAMDANI Jamdani, a figured muslin, is a very fine, textured fabric. Considered the most sophisticated of the Indian hand-loomed textiles, it reveals the dexterity and genius of its makers. Jamdani is woven by varying the thickness of the yarn, in tones of white, bringing about a unique effect of light and shade, opaqueness and transparency. The resulting nuances of white in five different shades convey a highly developed aesthetic.
The origin of jamdani muslin is not clear. There is mention of this fabric as having been worn by Lakshmī, the goddess of wealth, in Bana Bhatta's treatise Harsha Charita, which is a rich source of knowledge of ancient Indian textiles. There is also a reference in the Sanskrit literature of the Gupta period (4th to 6th centuries a.d.). Jamdani appears to have been derived from the ancient Persian technique of twill weaving. The term, which applied both to the woolen weaves of Kashmir as well as to the cotton floral weaves of the Gangetic Plain, also seems to have been known as figured or loom-embroidered muslin. While the technique of weaving and the nature of the textile are considered ancient, it was not until very late that the term jamdani appeared, probably derived from jama, or "coat."
The Gangetic Plain was noted for its fine muslins since earliest times; the important centers were Banaras (Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh), Tanda (in Faizabad district, Uttar Pradesh) and Dacca (Dhaka, the present-day capital of Bangladesh). In Banaras, gold thread was used along with bleached and unbleached white; in Tanda, only white yarn was used; and in Dacca, colored cotton thread was used in addition to white and gold. The finest and best jamdani textiles from Banaras are referred as kasi vastra. The development of these fine fabrics was attributed to the growing of high-grade cotton, the proficiency of the spinners and weavers, and the quality of water used for washing and bleaching, combined with the conditions of humidity in the atmosphere.
It was during the Great Mughal period (1556–1707) that royal patronage was extended and royal workshops were established for the manufacture of these fabrics for the court, giving further impetus to the production of the finest muslins. Tanda and Dacca became important centers of production. The spinners and weavers seemed to have migrated to Tanda from Banaras in the early sixteenth century. Under Mughal influence, there were two fundamental changes in the design of the textiles produced in the royal workshops. The existing figural designs of birds and animals were eliminated and were replaced by floral ornaments in the cloth. This practice, which originated in the Islamic prohibition of the use of imagery, existed in all textiles worn on the body. The color scheme also underwent a change, with no use of tones of white. The unbleached cloth, which had a ritual significance for Hindus, was replaced by the bleached jamdani worn in Mughal courts. In Banaras, there was no mention of royal workshops. The jamdani of Tanda, under the patronage of Oudh rulers, reached a level of excellence and became a monopoly of the government. The various techniques are said to have reached the weavers of the East Godavari and Nellore districts of Andhra Pradesh by way of West Bengal and Oudh.
The East India Company established a trading center in Dacca during the eighteenth century. Indian and European merchants had to purchase the muslins through brokers appointed by the British government. Under the British, many changes occurred in the production of muslin fabrics in Tanda. For the first time, domestic products like tablecloths and towels were woven for the European market.
The feature of Tanda muslin that distinguishes it from other ornamental weaves is the use of the twill tapestry technique to weave without any additional devices or attachments. Historian John Irwin traces the origin of twill tapestry technique in India to the time of Zain-ul-Abidin (a.d. 420–470) and the weavers of Turkistan. The weavers were Muslims, and the spinners were Hindus; both had the capability and skill to produce and spin yarn in thread count ranging from 150 to over 200. Hand-spun cotton yarn was used to weave the jamdani cloth, containing threads of 90 to 120 ends in the warp and 80 to 110 in the weft. The weavers used the traditional type of pit loom. This technique of weaving is akin to embroidery, but in place of the needle, the weavers use a bamboo spindle directly on the loom, articulating the design from memory. Spindles made of small bamboo or maize stocks, about 2 inches (5 cm) long, were used for extra weft threads. The number of bamboo splits required were as many as there were floral ornaments across the width of the cloth. To weave the ornamental figures, two threads of the same count as in the background were introduced, using extra spools where the threads were passed under and over the ornament as required to form the design. The threads were manually selected and lifted for this purpose. The weavers sat at the loom with one or two assistants, though there was no "draw boy" sitting near the loom to pull the cords to maintain the harness. In the jamdani of Dacca and Tanda, the weavers used only weft threads to make a pattern on the warp threads to create the ornamentation.
With the introduction of the new function of naqsha-band (making of jacquard) and the practice of tying the naqsha (pattern on the loom) by the Muslim conquerors of Persia and Central Asia to the jamdani weavers, both design and color underwent a change. More and more complicated designs and a large number of colored threads were included in the fabrics. The weavers adapted to the range of new techniques and continued to develop their fine product in the traditional jamdani centers, catering to the needs of different communities and different markets. Because of the great degree of skill required and time consumed, the number of jamdani weavers began to decline. Today jamdani fabrics are still being woven, though with a lesser degree of skill, in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Dhaka, mostly using mill-made yarn of a silk-cotton blend, for garments and other items on demand. Some of the weavers of Andhra Pradesh in the district of Srikakulam are still employing this ancient twill tapestry technique without any additional attachments, with hand-spun yarn, into the twenty-first century.
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Ghosh, Ajit. "Figured Fabrics of Old Bengal." Marg 3, no. 1: 38.
Irwin, John. Shawls: A Study in Indo-European Influences. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1955.