Saturday, October 21, 2000

Colours of cotton
By Amit Deb

Rapid developments in technology and the availability of cheaper and more durable alternatives have robbed the cotton fabric of its pre-eminence in Indiaís textile tradition. It is neither a rich manís drape nor a poor manís cloth, notwithstanding all efforts to revive its popularity by present-day garment designers.

At one time, the brilliant colouring of the fabric, undimmed by repeated washes, the light texture and perfect fall, and above all, its strength and durability were features treasured most by Indian maharajas and the European elite alike.

The finest surviving specimens of this tradition date back to the 17th century in the form of beautiful rumals (handkerchiefs), embroidered quilts and wall hangings, qanats (floor spreads) and prayer mats produced at places like Burhanpur, Agra, Sironj and Golcunda.


Historical records however suggest a heritage that goes even further back in time to almost 3,000 years when hangings for Hindu and Buddhist temples were painted in the Thome-Pulicat area of southern India and further down, around the Cauvery river basin.

In ancient times, vegetable dyes were used along with a permanent bonding agent or mordant, a metallic salt, that combined with dyes to create an insoluble colouring matter on the fibre.

Cotton was treasured by maharajas and the European elite for its light texture and perfect fallSince different mordants and variations in the concentration of the same mordant would yield varying tints in the same dye bath, their successful application distinguished one dyerís art from anotherís. More often than not this was done on guesswork as no measures were recorded for the dye-mordant ratio.

Eighteenth-century documents indicate that the dyers of South Indian thoroughly washed, half-bleached and soaked cotton fabrics in a myrobalan solution, prior to dye-painting. Then they transferred the design to the cloth by dusting a perforated paper with powdered charcoal.

A bamboo stylus, called kalam, was the main instrument for painting the outlines with an iron mordant. In contact with the myrobalan solution, the mordant reacted instantly to yield permanent black. The outlines that were required to be in red were, in turn, etched with an alum mordant.

The cloth was then dyed in a solution of Ďchayí root (oldenlandia umbellata). For the next stage, preparation for indigo dyeing, all traces of the myrobalan and mordants were removed by bleaching the cloth in a dung bath for several days.

For the portions required in blue, the entire cloth was painted with wax and dyed in a vat of indigo. The wax was subsequently removed by immersing the fabric in hot water. Significantly, green was obtained by adding a fugitive yellow shade over blue.

Apart from dyeing in vibrant shades, the craftsmen of yore excelled in delicate line-work, exquisite detailing and intricate interplay of light-and-shade by working with a metal kalam. Block-printing techniques are comparatively a recent development.

The dye-painters not only perfected their metier, but they also learnt to differentiate between markets and their needs. For instance, painted wall hangings, quilts and coverlets were described as chintz and meant for export to Europe and America, the Caribbean Islands, West Africa and south-east Asia.

Consequently, a unique amalgam of Indian, European and oriental influences crept into their paintings, the most enduring and celebrated example being the Tree of Life design which decorated large wall and bed hangings in the 18th century.

Other recurring themes included Hindu gods, mythical birds and beasts, warriors and kings... drawn from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These paintings served as temple hangings or canopies for deities taken out in procession during festive occasions.

Unlike the fine work done on chintz fabrics, these temple hangings were executed with strong, bold lines and simple contours so that they could be observed from a distance.

What is left of that glorious heritage is now being ruthlessly exploited for designing sundry sarees and salwar-kameezes! (MF)