Textiles: Early Painted and Printed

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Textiles: Early Painted and Printed

India's mastery over permanent dyes can be traced back to Harappan civilization (3000 b.c.) with the discovery of a fine cotton fragment dyed with mordants, attached to a silver vase. The export of dyed cotton must have been carried out during this period, as dye vats were found at Lothal, a Harappan port in Gujarat. There are hardly any fragments of printed and dyed cloth except for tie-dyed fabric (c. 1000 b.c.) found in Central Asia by Sir Auriel Stien. Fragments were later found in Fostat and at Red Sea ports, dating to the thirteenth century a.d. The latest carbon dating has dated some fragments to the tenth century a.d.

Early literary sources mention the importance of the printing and dyeing industry. The Greek physician Ktesias (fl. 500 b.c.), while visiting Persia, mentioned "flowered cottons with glowing colors," greatly coveted by Persian women and imported from India. The Periplus of the Erytherian Sea, a first-century Roman record, gives a list of printing centers of western India, and Pliny commented that Roman coffers of gold were being depleted by the import of Indian cottons to satisfy the vanity of Roman women. It was the durability and brilliance of Indian cottons that made them renowned throughout the world.

The eastern coast had ancient links with Southeast Asia. Kalinga (present-day Orissa) had been greatly enriched by Southeast Asian trade during the pre-Buddhist era. Southeast Asia must also have had contacts with the west coast, as early examples of semiprecious agate stone beads excavated at Lothal were found in Indonesian grave sites dating to 500 b.c. Indian as well as Arab traders used printed Indian cottons as currency, exchanging them for spices, as Indonesian islanders were not interested in bullion. Carbon dating of recent discoveries of fine Indian printed and painted cottons from Indonesia, especially from Toraja in Sulawesi, has given an accurate early date not only to these textiles, but also to printed cottons found in Fostat and Red Sea ports.

Europeans entered the trade in printed textiles much later, while Indians, Chinese, and Arabs had been trading from prehistoric times. The Portuguese were the earliest Europeans, followed by the Dutch, the French, and the English. They traded with the Spice Islands, as well as carrying printed cloth (which came to be known as chintz) to Europe.

The finest centers for Indian printing were in Sind, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bengal, Delhi, Farrukhabad, Golconda, Masalipatnam, Madras (Chennai), Pulicat, and Tanjore. The printers, chipa, were of a separate community from the dyers, rangrez. In Kalamkari, also known as vartapani, all three techniques—painting, printing and dyeing—were done by one community.

The block makers came from the carpenters' community, but many were dedicated solely to the creation of printing blocks, requiring great skill. An old family of block makers survives in Pethapur, Gujarat. For generations they prepared the fine blocks for printed cloth exported to Thailand, known as Sodagiri, trade cloth. Farrukhabad, an important center for printing the large Tree of Life known as palampore during the nineteenth century, also had specialized block carvers.

Printing Technique

The hand printing of traditional textiles prepared with the use of wooden blocks was of three kinds: direct printing, resist printing, and outline block printing augmented by hand painting. Direct printing was done on bleached cloth prepared with mordants for dye absorption; on this surface the outline block was printed, followed by a fill-in block for coloring both the outlined motif and the background. In resist printing, blocks were used to create the outline; the motif was then printed with another color, then covered with a resist material, either mud or wax, and dyed. Indigo dyed cloths were prepared using this technique, as indigo could not be used for printing with blocks. Fragments found at Fostat and Red Sea sites followed these techniques and were made in Western India. Recent finds in Indonesia have the same patterns and have been carbon dated to the tenth century. Printing carried out in large quantities in Southeast Asia especially for the Spice Islands was done at Masalipatnam using a combination of printing and painting while very fine cloths were hand painted.

Hangings from South India, known as kalamkari or varatapani, were entirely hand painted. The finest were prepared at the court ateliers of Golconda and appear to be the work of master painters working with dyes. They were like large-scale murals, similar in style to the Persian murals of the Saffavid period in Isfahan, but using Indian imagery. The large hangings created for temples were of a different style, generally using themes taken from the Rāmāyaṇa. Episodes were painted and enclosed within a frame in narrative form, with verses describing the scene painted below. These were of ritual importance in Hindu temples. Special cloths of kalamkari with the battle scene from the Rāmāyaṇa, showing the victory of good over evil, were made for export to Indonesia.

Gujarat produced elaborate hangings with large female figures created in western Indian style with a three-quarter face and a protruding eye. Some of these were created with blocks and then colored by hand, while others were entirely hand painted, with each figure appearing to be a portrait. These examples have all been discovered in the family "treasure chests" in Toraja. Some have been dated to the fourteenth century a.d. The tradition of figurative hangings existed from ancient times. The older Pechwais of Shrī Nath cult were printed and painted.

Consumption and Export

The printing centers produced a range of textiles for local consumption and a different style for export. Local production carried the distinctive designs and colors of each caste. There were also different designs for rites of passage, as well as for different age groups. Ritual cloths with the attributes of different deities accompanied by a printed sloka, or litany, such as "victory to Durgā," were for use by priests as well as householders performing rituals.

During the Sultanate period (13th–15th centuries), royal ateliers produced cloths for the court, particularly printed tents and canopies. Printed and painted tent walls of very fine quality have survived from the Mughal period (late 16th–18th centuries). Ain-e-Akbari gives a detailed description of the tented Mughal court (created while on the move), which used the richest fabrics, among which printed and painted fabrics were prominent. The Jaipur court atelier produced very fine printed cloths for use by the royalty and the courtiers, and examples from the seventeenth century are maintained in the City Palace Museum at Jaipur. The detailed "account books," bahi khata, of the ateliers are preserved in the archives at Bikaner.

The export of textiles from India to Europe had been carried out from a very early period through Fostat, which had become the major port center for the distribution of printed cotton (thus the name given to these cloths, "fustian"). The records of an Anglo-Saxon Synod Calcyth of the eighth century a.d. mentions that priests were discouraged from using Indian dyed cloth. Agnes Geijner (1951) mentions references to fustian cloth as a luxury item, hence forbidden for use by clergy in Scandinavia.

At the end of the fifteenth century, Vasco da Gama landed on the southeastern coast at Calicut, which later gave its name to "calico." The Portuguese seized power from the local Muslim ruler, the zamorin, winning their first base in India. They controlled trade from the area; among the commodities they took back were printed fabrics, which they called pintadoes. These later found their way into the European market.

In the early sixteenth century, regular trade in printed and painted cloth began to be developed with Europe, after the Dutch, French, and English set up their "factories" along India's coasts, creating a more organized system of Indian ocean trade. By the early seventeenth century, the resident European representatives began to exert a stronger influence; elaborate detailed patterns began coming from Europe, and Indian printers and dyers began creating textiles for the lucrative European market. The Indian word for a fabric printed with a sprinkling of flowers was chint (sprinkled), transformed in the West into "chintz." English patterns combined Indian motifs with chinoiserie as well as motifs taken from the Balkans. Trailing flowing patterns with subtle color combinations were developed. These created so great a demand that by 1664 the English alone imported 250,000 "calicoes." The French, who had entered the scene with La Compaigne des Indes Orientales with factors on the western and eastern coast near Kolkota (Calcutta), became competitors of the British East India Company, until their defeat by the English army under Robert Clive.

The craze for Indian printed goods reached its zenith by the last quarter of the seventeenth century, when British and French textile producers exerted influence on their own governments to ban the import of Indian cotton. Indian cotton of all kinds was banned in France in 1686 and in England in 1700. India continued to export cloth to Holland, but the demand for Indian cottons decreased considerably.

The import of printed textiles into Southeast Asia continued until the nineteenth century but decreased considerably because of the growth of the local Indonesian batik and printing industry. By the twentieth century, the import of mill-printed wax prints from Holland captured that market. World War I broke whatever links had existed between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand with India's Masalipatnam and Gujarat, and printed cotton ceased to be exported to Southeast Asia.

The printers continued to supply the local market with printed yardage for skirts, saris, and veils, as well as quilt covers and floor spreads. However, they faced severe competition from mill-made printed fabrics from Manchester, as well as from Bombay's machine-made prints. The loss of major overseas export markets and dwindling local markets created great hardship for the Indian printers, who began producing crude, cheaper prints to compete with the machine-made goods, selling them at very low prices. By the mid-twentieth century, the All-India Handicrafts Board began a special project for research, design, and promotion of hand prints, and a number of centers throughout India were revived. Exhibitions were conducted in India and abroad, and the printing industry soon revived. Today many of the centers, which had previously stagnated, are producing very fine quality printed fabrics, using both synthetic and vegetable dyes.

Jasleen Dhamija

See alsoBandhani


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