Muslin: gossamer of the east

Muslin: gossamer of the east

drik gallery, dhaka
february, 2016
photos: shahidul alam, saiful islam and tapash paul

“The fineness of the cloths is difficult to describe, the skin of the moon removed by the executioner-star would not be so fine. One would compare it with a drop of water if that drop fell against nature, from the fount of the sun… it is so transparent and light that it looks as if one is in no dress at all but has only smeared the body with pure water.”

– Abul Hasan Yaminud-Din Khusrow, Indian Sufi poet and scholar (1253-1325) describing muslin

Muslin was the attire of kings, the adornment of queens, a fabled fabric which was the pinnacle of fashion. Rare, delicate and fine, described as ‘woven air’; muslin was the most sought after material. At one point, it had reached all corners of the globe, giving rise to a trade that threatened to empty the Roman coffers themselves. Fact, fiction and myth merged into one, as the stories of this coveted textile travelled the earth, bringing prosperity to its traders. From Rome to Indonesia, the cloth that had started as a courtly gift became a symbol of exclusivity, empowerment and taste that occupied a central position in European enterprise, with Bengal at its nucleus. Royal couture would be incomplete without it and official portraits of Mughals, Ottomans and Europeans would regularly depict its use.

Powdered conch shells coated on fingertips prevented the delicate thread from tearing.

Muslin was the pride product of Bengal, specifically the part known as Bangladesh today. The unusual environmental characteristics of a short stretch along the Meghna river provided the precise conditions for a particular variety of the cotton plant and the industry to flourish. It was an open textured cotton cloth ranging from plain to patterned, finished to varying levels of fineness, all depending upon the quality of the yarn and the matchless skill of the artisans who spun and wove the cloth on the most humble of implements. Despite numerous efforts, the plant grew nowhere else. Jamdani, mainly of Bangladeshi origin, is the only one of the many variants of muslin ( called ‘mulmul’ originally) which still survives, though there are other fine cottons which claim the pedigree. Sadly, today muslin is all but a remnant of history. Bangladesh’s museums are empty of its finest speci¬≠mens, the spinners who created the almost invisible threads of cotton have been displaced, and the weavers who created this coveted cloth have ceased to reach for such rarefied heights of ‘counts’ (this denotes the number of threads per square inch, the higher the number the finer the cloth) that went beyond the double figures one sees today up to one thousand.

Whtie the original cotton plant no longer survives, Drik has been experimenting with alternate seeds to explore how close thry can now get to the lost fabric.

To hold it at its most perfect, however, and to gaze upon it, is to be transported into a timeless past, where the sheen of antiquity on the soft cloth is heightened by a luminescent after-glow. Lighter than a lover’s sigh, softer than a butterfly’s wings, in its transparent simplicity, muslin laid its subtle pull upon the imagination of poets and strained the pockets of those who could afford it.

Named by Marco Polo after the large cotton trade through the town of Mosul in Iraq, supplied from Mausilipatnam, muslin was previously addressed as

‘fine Gangetic cotton from Bengal’. Its unique lustre and extreme demand attracted nobility and merchants, the last from the East India Company who in 1765 earned the sole trading rights to Bengal from a derelict Moghul King, Shah Alam, exiled from Delhi. From a customer portfolio of over twenty markets, the English applied monopoly rights and extortionist laws which made its manufacture untenable for the defenceless craftspeople of the land. Ravaged by famines, eroded by overseas imitations, hounded by debtors, its coup de grace was the Western technology that rapidly converted Bengal from a bountiful producer of handmade fabric into the supine recipient of industrial textiles. It also brought unimaginable wealth to the East India Company, and rose to account for half of the company’s world trade.

Weavers themselves have lost touch with the crqft. Drik has been working with them, through visits and regular Sk;ype conversations, to revive forgotten skills.

Over the past two years, Bangladesh’s Drik Gallery and the people associated with it have travelled around the major historical locations in Bangladesh and many countries abroad, visited museums and herbariums, villages and offices in search of the plant’s remnants, the final products and the people who made it possible. Their journey started on the banks of the river Meghna, from Kapasia (named after the cotton plant) until Mymensingh, halting at the chars, Zamindar baris and village farms collecting different varieties of cotton plants. The search continued till Barisal, with later visits to the rivers Padma and Jamuna too. For the finished thread and cloth, trips were made to Chandina and Noakhali where a small band of spinners carry on practising Gandhi’s original philosophy that helped India to freedom. Tanti villages around Narayanganj, Rupshi, Sonargaon were part of the travels. Internationally, visits to UK, Indian, French and USA museums were included to find and record muslin products. Based on solid research, multiple interviews and long lazy boat rides, Drik Gallery has prepared to tell and show all its findings, at an exhibition in February 2016 in partnership with the Bangladesh National Museum and Aarong. The event will also serve as the launch pad for an international quality publication, a short film and a range of other supporting activities geared towards restoring pride in our past, to bring glory to what rightfully belongs to Bangladesh. Till then, here are some images to lead you along our footsteps as we attempt to trace the roots and capture the tale of Bengal’s unique gift to this world.

Leading Image : The delicary of muslin was often accentuated f?y lace borders and intricate embroidery.

drik gallery, dhakafebruary, 2016photos: shahidul alam, saiful islam and tapash paul “The fineness of the cloths is difficult to describe, the skin of the moon removed by the executioner-star would not be so fine. One would compare it with a drop of water if that drop fell against nature, from the fount of the sun……

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