John Forbes Watson’s devastating catalogue of Indian textiles

Ahead of National Handloom Day, it seems apt to recall the man whose pioneering catalogue led to both the recognition and destruction of India’s rich textile history

Updated - August 02, 2020 11:13 am IST

Published - August 01, 2020 04:00 pm IST

Intricate weaves: An artisan in Jaipur uses a wooden block for printing

Intricate weaves: An artisan in Jaipur uses a wooden block for printing

It must not be thought that the Taste of India takes delight in what is gaudy or glaring…such combinations of form and colour as many of these specimens exhibit, everyone will call beautiful, and that beauty has one constant feature — a quietness andharmony which never fail to fascinate…

The unexpected author of these admiring sentiments was John Forbes Watson, a botanist-physician who was appointed director of the India Museum, London, in 1858. The specimens in question were not paintings or sculptures, but yards and yards of fabric.

Watson was part of a group of Victorians such as George Birdwood and Owen Jones who admired Indian textiles, especially for their harmonious use of design and colour. His 18-volume series, The Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India , remains an enduring testament to the diversity and originality of Indian textiles, yet it set in motion a chain of events that would eventually threaten their very existence. In the run-up to National Handloom Day on August 7, it is fitting, perhaps perversely, to consider a man, a collection and a legacy that played a vital role in catalysing India’s Swadeshi movement.

700 samples

Colonial catalogues of the 19th century have provided us with significant historical insights into the imperiled products and skills of the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps nobody in the Victorian era embodied this cataloguing zeal more than Watson. His Collections , first published in 1866, consisted of 700 textile samples intended to be representative of Indian artisanship from various parts of the subcontinent. Typical of how collections travelled and were repurposed, many of these samples were taken from the 1855 Paris International Exhibition and 1851 Great Exhibition in London.

Watson’s botanical pursuits drew him towards the study of cotton varieties, culminating in an aesthetic and mercenary interest in textiles. When putting the Collections together, he cut up the fabrics into smaller swatches, an act of blasphemy by contemporary

A page with cut cloth samples from Watson’s volume on Indian textiles.

A page with cut cloth samples from Watson’s volume on Indian textiles.

standards of curation. Instead of treating textiles as samples of ‘pure art’, he made notes on the type of fabric, wearer, style of drape, length of measurement, cost of production and such. Textiles, in his view, were not mere museum relics, but items of utility and commerce. He believed that British students and manufacturers should study and replicate Indian tastes, especially in matters of ‘ornament’. This was evident in his insistence that British manufacturers attend to how design would show itself off in a draped saree.

Impact of imitations

Several copies of the Collections were dispatched to schools of art and trade locations in various parts of Britain. Even as an ardent admirer of Indian aesthetics, Watson was ruthless in his pursuit of British commercial interests, supplying the mills in Liverpool and Manchester with the samples they needed to replicate Indian textile designs. As a result, cheap, mass-produced, British replicas of these samples inundated the Indian market within a decade. These were print imitations of intricate weaves whose technique had been developed and perfected by Indian weavers over several centuries. The cheaper prices of British textiles had a predictably devastating impact on Indian handlooms.

As markets died and weaves went obsolete, whole artisanal cultures comprising not only prized production techniques but tastes and sensibilities well-versed in colour and design, were also lost. The Collections reveal, for instance, that Thanjavur had its own

A page with cut cloth samples from Watson’s volume on Indian textiles.

A page with cut cloth samples from Watson’s volume on Indian textiles.

‘kincobs’ (Indian brocades) to rival those of Banaras. Thanjavur’s brocades have now virtually vanished while the Banarasi saree struggles to remain alive. Today, the ability to distinguish between a tie-dyed cloth from the Watson collection and a printed mill-made British imitation juxtaposed against each other has become the province of the textile connoisseur, removed from the realm of common knowledge. The Watson catalogues were thus a catalyst in the destruction of India’s material history while becoming, ironically, a key source of insight for textile historians and craft revivalists today.

Mobile museum

One of Watson’s most inspired ideas was that of the mobile trade museum, a portable collection of textiles that could travel places, performing the dual role of education and inspiring commercial imitation. Encased in glass and mounted on revolving stands, the textile ‘specimen’ displayed thus would enable the spectator to undertake a minute inspection of the object.

Museum-going is frequently associated with connoisseurship and the performance of elite tastes, yet Watson intended his mobile museum to cater primarily to manufacturers and tradesmen. As he wrote, ‘what is wanted, and what is to be copied to meet that want, is thus accessible for study in these Museums’. He reimagined the spectatorial gaze and the museum space to accommodate the commercial interests of the British mill.

Handlooms are often romanticised through associations with rural, artisanal utopias that are seen as the cure for the ills of industrialised mass manufacture. Watson’s catalogues are a reminder that our legacy of colonisation and industrialisation is more complex than these binaries allow for. Looking through the catalogues, I have been disarmed by his unvarnished admiration of Indian textiles, yet I have resented his presumption that they could be so easily replicated.

Today, the Indian craft world is broadly framed by the same competing tensions: democratising the consumption of craft through greater affordability while preserving the artisanal practices which constitute craft production. Even amidst measures such as the Handloom (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985, the Make in India campaign and the Geographical Indication tag, printed ‘ikat’ and ‘bandhani’ designs, for instance, saturate the Indian retail market.

These printed textiles (more affordable than their handwoven counterparts) make participation in a ‘crafts’ aesthetic accessible to a larger population even as they undermine such exercises in authentication. Though a product of the taxonomical obsessions of the Victorian era, Watson’s somewhat heretical notion of the mobile museum recognised that our clothes do not exist in an aesthetic vacuum — indeed, they are part of a lively palette of public tastes.

In a fine case of retrospective irony, an article in The Edinburgh Review of July 1867 expressed Britain’s debt to his collections, stating, ‘we may never supplant the Indian hand-loom weaver, but we may at least compete with him in many simple articles of attire…’

The writer is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at IIT, Jodhpur, and works on digital interventions for craft production and consumption .

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