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Sunday, October 27, 2002
'Art and Soul

Of girdles, sashes & patkas
B. N. Goswamy

Detail of a brocaded and embroidered patka, Gujarat, 18th century
Detail of a brocaded and embroidered patka, Gujarat, 18th century

I might well have spoken of the subject on another occasion, but the patka, "that long and elegant strip of textile which adorned nearly every noble waist in India once", continues to interest me. The names by which this costume accessory was known vary, of courseópattika, katitra, kamarband, sash, phenta, cloth-girdle, and the likeódepending so much upon period and language and court and region, but it seems to have been everywhere. One just has to look at early sculptures and medieval paintings to become aware of its ubiquitous presence: kings tied it around their waists as much as commoners did; we see it worn by courtiers and sanyasis and cowherds and foot-soldiers; it could be made of silk or cotton or wool; could be plain or printed or intricately woven and brocaded or embroidered. But, as I said, it was everywhere.

This is why a note that I read recently on some Indian patkas having once been in the wardrobe of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (ruled 1594-1632) intrigued me greatly. The discovery of these textiles in the Swedish royal collection makes for a fascinating story in itself. Agnes Geijer who was cataloguing oriental textiles in Sweden came upon these two textiles; knowing nothing about their origin, she sought the advice of a Professor of Historical Studies at the University of Princeton, who, in turn, advised her to consult other scholars, among them an expert , Florence Day, working in the Islamic Department of the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

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It was Day who noticed that the 'sashes', as they were being referred to then, were not Arabic as first imagined, but Indian, for there were some Hindi numerals or price marks entered in a corner. Norman Brown, that much respected Oriental scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, confirmed this, saying that they were indeed inscribed with Hindi numerals: they gave in fact the exact price of the object: "four rupees, eight annas."

The tracking of these objects down does not end here, and one is astonished at the routes and channels that objects took as they travelled half way across the world. Anyone would like to know, I am sure, how these objects landed up in Sweden, of all places. In style, as John Irwin observed, the two patkas were "Indo-Persian", a term long since discarded, as it happens, meaning that the motifs on them were Persian in inspiration but the treatment and the weaving was Indian. They seem in fact to have been produced in Gujarat or Sind. From here, it seems, the patkas or sashes were regularly being exported: not only to Islamic countries in West Asia and North Africa, where they were in great demand, but even as far as Poland where they were much fancied by the nobility and by military officials. But these exports received a true fillip when the Dutch and English East India Companies began trading from their bases in western Indian ports, especially Surat. For, the route they took was not overland, with all its attendant uncertainties and heavy duties, but by sea. The English merchants were quick to see that large profits were to be made by shipping such goods , first to England, and then re-exporting them to Turkey, the Levant and Poland. A flourishing trade seems to have been established, availing of the imperial concessions granted to the East India Company, especially from the 1620's onwards. One finds notes made by the 'factors' of the company listing piles of sashes which were purchased from Surat, and then sent further. Thus, 250 sashes at five shillings per piece; 100 of them at 8 shillings per piece; 25 of them at 20 shillings per piece. Clearly, the price of the object bore a relationship to its quality or its preciousness. No visual records are available, but one can imagine guldar (flowered) or khashkhashi (of the colour of poppies, perhaps also bearing poppy flower motifs) patkas of the most beautiful kind being sent to distant markets.

When students of textile, or art historians, speak of patkas, their natural concern is with matters relating to technique and design, or cultural meaning and significance, especially in the context of royal courts. Mercantile concerns, however, were entirely different and all that one picks up from them are lists and prices, and the like. But even these one is grateful for. Or else how would one have known how Gujarati patkas found their way around a royal waist in Sweden?

A touch of arrogance

While researching for a catalogue of patkas in the collection of the Calico Museum at Ahmedabad, I came upon, rather unexpectedly, the following wry little couplet in which an anonymous Urdu poet brings in a pun upon the word patti/pattika, the former meaning a bandage or strip for blindfolding, and the latter of course a patka:

Libas-i fakhira par kyun no ho usey ighmaz

Hua hai ankhon ki patti, banarasi patka

(Why indeed should he not be proud of the dress of honour (he has received)? But, for that Banarasi patka to blind him, thus, to everything else?!)

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This feature was published on October 20, 2002

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