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When Indian textiles bloomed in Europe

From Dutch to the English, everyone had their eyes on Indian textiles from 17th century onwards. What made these so exotic?

When Indian textiles bloomed in Europe

Colour engraving of a couple from Zeeland (a Dutch province), wearing Indian prints. By L Portman, 1803-1807.

BN Goswamy

Pintado: Portuguese; a painted or printed chintz formerly made in India.

Palampore: corrupted form of Persian ‘palangposh’, meaning bed-cover.

Weavers, weaving at fall of night,

Why do you weave a garment so bright?

Like the plumes of a peacock,

purple and green,

We weave the marriage veils of a queen

— Fragment of a poem by Sarojini Naidu

Kaahe ka taana, kaahe ki bharni

Kaun taar sey beeni chadariya?

[Of what is your warp made, and with what do you fill the design?

What, O Lord, is the thread with which you weave this sheet for us?]

— Fragment of a composition by the weaver-saint Kabir

Chintz panel: Fragment of the border of a skirt. Coromandel Coast, South India; c 1750-1770. Tapi collection, Surat.

The moment you think of textiles, especially Indian textiles, all kinds of thoughts — associations, meanings — come rushing to the mind. Inevitably. But I write here not of what comes to my mind, but of our textiles that spread out over the world once, shedding grace, enriching lives. There were all those ‘Indian Flowers that Bloomed in Europe’, for instance, in the 17th and 18th centuries: the title of an exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vaastu Sangrahalaya — once the Prince of Wales Museum — in Mumbai, and that of a catalogue that accompanies it. This absorbing book is by Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis, a Dutch art historian who knows the Indian trade textiles intimately and worked at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for close to two decades. And the textiles that she deals with are for the most part from the celebrated Tapi collection put together by collectors Shilpa and Praful Shah at Surat.

(Top to bottom) Quilted chintz palampore made for the European market. Coromandel Coast, South India; 18th century. Tapi collection, Surat.

Ebeltje opens the book with a well-known fact: that it was on May 20, 1498, that Vasco da Gama ‘anchored his fleet at Calicut and became the first European to reach India by sea’. But it is of significance to mention this, for it was this landing that led to ‘a fundamental shift in the pattern of Asian maritime trade’, in which Portugal played a major part to begin with and it was the Dutch with their Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) and the Danes with their East India Company who followed. The English East India Company had been founded by then; French and Swedish companies joined in. Indian textiles were one of the things that everyone had eyes on. By the late 17th century, as she recalls, these companies had ‘an extensive network of ‘factories’ along coastal India, in the vicinity of which these textiles were produced.

Detail from a chintz palampore with Japanese motifs. Coromandel Coast, South India; c 1720. Collection Duivenvoorde Foundation, Voorschoten, the Netherlands.

Several facts follow: how these companies competed with one another, now expanding their activity, now shifting base, now going in for a different range of goods. A remarkably popular fabric was what we call chheent — chintz, chint, chits, or sits, all variants of the same word — which began being produced and bought in huge quantities. It was ‘the brilliant natural dyes that did not fade even after repeated washing, the exotic designs and the lightweight cotton fabric, which made chintz an immediate success in Europe’, ‘which by the late 17th century became a craze that would last for well over a century’. The fabric was used in those distant lands as wall covering and for clothing. ‘Entire rooms were sometimes furnished with chintz.’ A range of statistics follows: prices, quantities, among them.

Detail from an embroidered palampore. Gujarat, second quarter of 18th century. V&A Museum.

This is the way it goes in this engaging account, rich with visuals. Also fascinating is how designs in Indian textiles kept changing over the years, the artisans adapting to diverse needs, different approaches. Consider this description of motifs in a chintz canopy fragment which is in the British Museum and is related to a large piece in the Tapi collection. There one finds ‘a heraldic lion surrounded by winged cherubs in the central roundel; two Chinese women seated at a table in the middle at the four sides of the field; a bamboo grove with birds and blue rock with a peony tree, and birds in the spaces between the Chinese women at the table; an erotic encounter in the corners of the field; long rows of European soldiers armed with guns, in the inner border; Japanese people in their houses and outdoors in the broad border and a heraldic lion in its corners’. One can go back and trace the source of each of these remarkably diverse details or motifs: some to Europe, some to China, and some others to Japan. To add to all of this: the Tapi piece was acquired by the Shahs in Palu, in the north of the large island of Sulawesi in Indonesia!

What does it tell us, one might wonder? That by the end of the 18th century, everything had already become market-driven? That the consumer dictated everything? Or is it that the Indian artisan wanted to display his range and his ability to innovate and cross boundaries? One is reminded of the situation when European paintings were coming into India during the time of the great Mughal, Akbar, and Indian artists were responding to them. Virtually nothing was copied exactly as it was and it was common for the Indian painter to bring in something of his own: some detail, some reference, a variation. John Irwin, writing a long time ago in the ‘Origins of Chintz’, said: “… the Hindu craftsman seldom copied exactly. Instead, he copied foreign masters after his own manner (a phrase recurring in English East India Company records), imposed upon the borrowed subject matter his own decorative style and idiom, and it was precisely this indigenous contribution which gave individuality and distinction to the designs and supplied what to the European was their exotic appeal.”

Nothing applies universally, and one has to speculate. Like one has to, in the case of the so-called ‘Indo-Iranian’ Tree of Life motif, seen here in trade textiles in different versions. Was it simply an attractive decorative tree ‘of sinuous branches, bursting with exotic, fanciful blooms’? Or was it, as Shilpa Shah suggests, the all-bestowing kalpavriksha: a construct deeply embedded in India’s ethos?


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