Saturday, October 19, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Reviving the once-famous muslin industry
K.R.N. Swamy

Clothes made of Dhaka muslin are considered the ultimate in luxury
Clothes made of Dhaka muslin are considered the ultimate in luxury.

IN the history of textiles, there is no name more famous than that of Dhaka muslin. In 1875, when Edward VII, the then Prince of Wales, came to Bengal, Sir Abdul Gani of Dhaka ordered 30 yards of the most superior muslin as a gift to the prince. One yard of this fabric weighed barely 10 grams! Even today, among aristocratic families of the Indian subcontinent, dresses of Dhaka muslin are considered the ultimate in luxury. The word ‘muslin’ was derived from the name of the city of its origin, Mosul, in Iraq and through the centuries when India became known as the home of exotic muslins, two Indian cities, namely Masulipatnam in South India and Dhaka in Bengal, became famous for the weaving of this cloth. Their weave was so fine that the Egyptian Pharaohs used them for wrapping mummies. Pliny, the famous Roman historian, refers to one type of Indian muslin known as jhuna, worn by Roman women of high rank to show off the contours of their bodies. Imperial Rome imported large quantities of this fabric, with embroideries done in silver or with silk thread and this muslin was known as kasidah. The variety known as sarkar-e-ala, was used for the turbans of Mughal emperors.


The history of Dhaka muslin is replete with exotic varieties, known as qutn-e-rumi, naubati, yahudi, alizolah and samanderlaher. In the first decade of the 20th century, one thaan (one yard wide, ten yards long) of muslin, known as shama or evening dew, cost Rs 400 or Rs 40 per yard. Till 1813, Dhaka muslin continued to sell in London with 75 per cent profit and was cheaper than the local British make. Alarmed at this competition, the British imposed 80 per cent duty on the Indian product. But more than the duty, the introduction of the machine-made yarn ruined the muslin trade, as by 1817, English mill-made thread was introduced in Dhaka, at one-fourth the price of the Indian yarn. Till 1821, one of the main problems faced by Dhaka weavers was to go around collecting yarn from the local spinners. This yarn was not of uniform quality. But, with British machinery, yarn of a uniform texture could be obtained and soon the Indian handmade yarn industry closed. In 1840, Dr Taylor, a British textile expert, wrote: "Even in the present day, notwithstanding the great perfection which the mills have attained, the Dhaka fabrics are unrivalled in transparency, beauty and delicacy of texture." The count for the best variety of Dhaka muslin was 1800 threads per inch, while the lesser varieties had about 1400 threads per inch.

Despite producing the costliest fabric in the world, the weavers of Dhaka suffered because of their skill. Dr Taylor states, "Hindu women of the age, varying from 18 to 30 years, were the weavers of superfine quality. But after 30 years, their sight became impaired. The superfine quality could be woven only in early morning or afternoon as otherwise the strong sunlight snapped the threads." During the medieval times, the finest muslin of Dhaka was reserved for the imperial court. The most famous of the weavers were registered as though in royal employ and were not allowed to make muslin for others. In the 17th century, Abbe Rynal, a traveller, had this to say about the weavers: "It was a misfortune to appear very dexterous, because they were then forced to work only for the Government which paid them ill and kept them in sort of captivity." The weavers were paid so little that, during the era when a rupee fetched two and a half maunds of rice, they got only one to one and a half rupees per month. By modern monetary value, this would mean a maximum daily wage of Rs 25 per day. Another unsavoury fact associated with the killing of this Indian industry was that the thumbs and index fingers of many yarn makers were chopped off by the British in order to prevent them from twisting the finer yarns required for the muslins. Washing, pressing and polishing the muslin was one of the specialised tasks of Dhaka’s washermen community. An interesting fact was that the polishing of muslin was done using conch shells and the fabric was not ironed. The best test of the material was that repeated washing made it finer.

Whether the fabulous muslin industry can be revived now, is the question experts are trying to sort out. Unlike the case of many famous handicrafts of the subcontinent, which were revived by the Government of India after Independence, not much attention was paid to the muslin industry. But on a commercial scale, the manufacture of Dhaka, Kasidah and Jamdani fabrics for saris continued. Recently, Bangladesh, West Bengal and other states in India have tried to revive muslin-weaving skills.

According to Rabindranath Saha, a muslin weaver who has won a national award, the revival of the muslin industry has to depend upon the gradual improvement of the quality of the popular and cheaper muslin-based Dhakai, Tangail and Jamadani sarees, which have a great commercial market.

In the town of Kalna in West Bengal, serious efforts are being made to revive the muslin textile industry. In 1947 and later in the 1970s, thousands of Hindu weavers from Bangladesh came to West Bengal. Happily, in the last decade, a visionary by name of Sujay Nag, a senior executive in Tata Iron and Steel Co, has taken the lead to establish a muslin saree centre for weavers in the Kalna town. Efforts are made to coordinate with the muslin industry in Bangladesh, so that both India and our neighbour can reap the benefit.

Today, the modern Indian computer experts are the nation’s pride, just as the skill of the muslin weavers was two centuries ago. The expertise of computer scientists is being made use of to create indigenous but varied intricate designs for the fashionable Dhakai saris. And at the Computer-Aided Design Centre at Krishnagar in West Bengal, there are six IBM workstations with more than 20 traditional weavers working on computer-aided designs.