An exhibition in Singapore of rare textile designs reflects the popularity of Indian fabrics

Indian textiles dating between 14th to early 19th century, which are on display in Singapore, reveal the creativity of Indian artists with their striking patterns and inventive motifs. It also traces the history of trade and cultural exchanges during the time when India might be said to have clothed the world.

The impact of Indian philosophies and religions on the cultures of Asia and beyond is well-known. But an on-going exhibition of 70 rare textiles at Singapore’s Asian civilizations museum (ACM), Patterns of Trade: Indian Textiles for Export 1400-1900, has brought focus on the popularity of Indian textile art during medieval and ancient times.

“Historical records that date back to first century China and Rome point towards beautiful and richly drawn, painted and dyed, cottons and luscious hand woven silks from India. The Romans evocatively described the fine Indian muslins as ‘woven air’, which were so popular that Pliny – a famous Roman statesman – protested about Rome’s coffers being emptied to cater to the vanity of Roman women,” informs Marina Thayil, volunteer docent at ACM.

The oldest examples of Indian trade textiles have been found at sites near the Red Sea. Small fragments from 15th century were discovered at the Greek trading post of Berenike in Southern Egypt. Other discoveries at Quesir Al Qadim and Fustat, both in Egypt, have been dated to ninth and 10th centuries respectively.

By 15th century, Indian textile traders had developed a complex network from Africa to China. When Europeans landed on Indian shores in their quest for spices, they were also seduced by the high-quality materials, colour-fast dyes, floral patterns, sacred motifs, and geometric forms of the Indian textiles.

Though most designs depicted traditional Indian patterns such as elephant hunts, animals, rows of lively dancers, and even elegantly dressed women battling fantastic beasts, textile artists also responded to foreign demand and adapted designs to regional tastes. Moreover, textile designs from India influenced designers all around the world. The bright floral prints and dense rich styles of Victorian and Edwardian Britain were direct descendants of Indian chintzes traded to Europe few hundred years ago. “These textile arts show the spread of multifaceted Indian culture with all its subtleties across several continents, and especially to South-East Asia,” added Alan Chong, director at ACM.

During the peak of the trade in mid-17th century, millions of yards of Indian cloth were being sold in markets as far as Japan, Africa, Middle-East and Europe. India's central location in the Indian Ocean basin was ideal for trading textiles to both East and West, with Gujarat, the Coromandel Coast and Bengal being the major trading centres.

Artisans in India used natural dyes to colour textiles as they lasted for a long time without fading. The leaves of the indigo plant was used to produce blue; roots of madder, shell of lac beetle and wood of sappan tree for red; seed of myrobalan tree, jackfruit tree root, turmeric and pomegranate rinds for yellow; an extract of acacia tree for brown; and a mineral form of iron acetate to produce black. The artists used to over-dye yellow on indigo blue for producing the green colour.

The most widely-used production technique was called Ikat (a Malay word which means ‘to tie’). In this, the threads were tied and dyed prior to being woven into cloth. This was done either with warp (vertical) or weft (horizontal) threads. When both were dyed before weaving, it was called double Ikat or Patola. “The technique of producing Patolas was so skilled that the art remains in only three places in the modern world – Tengana in East Bali, Indonesia, Ryuku islands in Japan, and in Patan, Gujarat – where only one extended family of weavers called Salvi still continue this tradition,” said Thayil.

Other techniques included Kalamkari, resist dyeing (batik) and block printing. Kalamkari was a method used to draw or paint designs onto cloth using a mordant – a colourless substance that binds dye to the cloth. In batik technique, molten wax or some other thick paste containing ash or mud was painted onto the cloth to block the absorption of colour in a dye bath.

The medieval Indian textile trade to Europe mainly depicted design pattern called Chintz, which was resist-dyed fine cotton with elaborate floral designs. Another diamond-shaped pattern called Geringsing, was found in double Ikat Patola clothes traded in Asia. The Balinese weavers of Tengana still produce clothes with this motif using the weft-Ikat technique. But the trade declined in mid-19th century when Europe was exporting more cloth to India than it imported. “Earlier, a combination of high-quality, low prices and striking designs made sure that even high-tariffs and import restrictions such as the British Calico Act of 1701, couldn’t do much to halt the Indian textile trade. But in the late 18th century, European artists adopted Indian wood-block-printing techniques, invented synthetic dyes and developed cheaper manufacturing methods such as engraved copper plates and roller printing. The advent of steam power during the industrial revolution resulted in exponential increase in productivity, enabling European traders to capture much of the Asian and African markets with cheaper and better quality clothes. Thus ending the 500-years of Indian monopoly over the world's textile trade,” concluded Thayil.