Poetics of the archive

Poetics of the archive

photos: zeb bilal and the watson catalogues

In 1866, J. Forbes Watson, a reporter for the Products of India, at the India Museum, compiled a series of eighteen volumes entitled, The Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India. Comprising seven hundred indigenous handcrafted specimens of textiles, these Catalogues document the wide variety of textiles that were being manufactured in 19th century India.

In 1866, J. Forbes Watson, a reporter for the Products of India, at the India Museum, compiled a series of eighteen volumes entitled, The Collections of the Textile Manefactures of India: Comprising seven hundred indigenous handcrafted specimens of textiles, these catalogues document the wide variety of textiles that were being manufactured in 19th century India. Watson’s purpose for creating the catalogues was two-fold: first, to facilitate an understanding of what kind of textiles the Indians wore; and secondly, to educate British manufacturers so that they could imitate and trade their industrially reproduced textiles back to India.

Notwithstanding the catalogues’ original mercantilist function, their significance today also lies in the fact that they are living relics of a rich textile culture of the historically significant and politically transitional 19th century India.

Musbroo Watson Catalogues

‘Poetics of the Archive’ is an immersive, exploratory historical research project that focuses on this series of archival catalogues. It stems from an interweaving of my fascination with textiles, history and the museum object. Currently lying in the Lahore Museum Library Archives, the Watson Catalogues posit themselves as an interesting ‘site’ to explore, as they expose many subliminal nodes that touch upon notions of craft, trade, material culture and sociocultural identity, all ultimately bound within wider frameworks of history, colonialism and 19th century modes of knowledge production. In this article, I bring forth some insights from my research journey, sharing how I ‘unpacked’ this archive to reveal a multilayered interpretation of these textiles. However, in order to foreground this discussion I would first like to introduce the catalogues in some depth, exploring their scope and significance at the time of their creation.

the watson catalogues – a colonial trade museum When J. Forbes Watson sat down to compile these catalogues, he penned these words,

”It is clear therefore, that India is in a position to become a magnificent customer. “

While this statement could probably stand true today, its actual significance lies in the fact that Watson envisioned India’s potential as a market for textiles more than a hundred and forty years ago. His expression not only exposes his underlying motivations for creating the textile compilation but also sets the tone for the onward relationship that was to unfold between Britain and India.

Access to Indian and East Asian markets for purposes of trade was something the British had been interested in since the 17th century. The compilation of the catalogues in the latter half of the 19th century alludes to a politically significant period when India had transitioned from Mughal rule to become a colony of Britain in 1857. This gave birth to a new set of dynamics that centred on the coloniser-subject relationship.

Britain’s textile manufacturing industry was poised to compete with other European nations and Watson saw the consumptive demands of the people of India as an integral link in sustaining and making it an economic success. It is in this context that Watson’s The Collections of the Textile Manefactures of Indii, has to be examined as a form of colonial knowledge that served the broader imperial agenda that the British wished to exercise through their mercantilist designs.

Daastangai . Digital Print/Paper Buckram Fusing. Excerpt from the novel ‘Kai Chand Thay Sar Aasman’ (The Story of Many Moons). 2012

In creating this phenomenal material archive, Watson’s purpose, as mentioned earlier, was clearly defined; he sought to educate the British manufacturer of Indian textiles and fashions, so that their own industry could in turn supply these textiles back to India.

In order to meet this ambitious agenda, Watson undertook a meticulously detailed documentation of the textiles and brought together under one compilation a representative variety of woven, printed and embellished samples. In arranging the seven hundred specimens across the eighteen catalogues, Watson followed a rigid encyclopaedic taxonomic regimen.4 On each page one finds a hand-cut textile specimen of approximately 34 x 19cm accompanied by a chat label. On these labels Watson mentioned the number of the specimen, the name and function of the textile, the raw materials employed, the dimensions of the actual textile (from which the specimen had been cut) and its weight. He also provided information about its cost

(in British pounds) and lastly its provenance.5 In some instances he also makes a note of which gender and social or ethnic group use a particular fabric.

To facilitate a true and accurate imitation, Watson also went on to publish an accompanying text commentary volume titled, The Textile Manefactures and the.

Costumes of the People eflndia. In this volume, he gave detailed descriptions of the specimens classifying them by their functional utility. He also interspersed his commentary with images of Indians dressed in various modes of attire. Quite clearly the purpose behind this was to provide a more nuanced understanding of Indian textiles and fashion to the British manufacturer.

But perhaps the most unique feature of this imperial project that retrospectively lends it great significance was its multiplicity and intended dissemination. Watson compiled a total of twenty identical sets ( each with eighteen volumes and seven hundred specimens) with the intention of distributing them to different textile manufacturing towns in Britain. He referred to them as ‘Twenty Industrial Museums’ of which thirteen were distributed in Britain and seven were sent to India ( of which one set lies in the Lahore Museum).7 By undertaking this project, Watson

8 consequently made his museums ‘portable’. To even conceive of such an idea in the 19th century shows that Watson was not only ahead of his times but had radical ideas about the reach and role of a museum. His twenty industrial museums were thus a way of providing maximum accessibility to the viewer and a means of disseminating knowledge. In effect, he was actually taking the concept of the institutional museum to the manufacturer’s doorstep.

More than a century and a half since the catalogues were created, this body of colonial knowledge can today be read as material evidence of what the British textile industry sought to imitate, produce and trade back to India. It can be said that the British succeeded in creating a version of history and an archive of knowledge that stemmed from their colonial interests; yet the specimens within them remained underexplored for what they signified beyond their colonial trade contexts.

As a researcher, my critical response to such colonial knowledge production endeavours conse­quently made me ask: what other meanings does the imperial archive such as the Watson Catalogues embody for us today and why is it important for us to revisit it?

Muslin . Watson Catalogues

Reading the archive

It was in search of these other meanings that I began to peel away at the layers of the historical archive, hoping to arrive at a valid framework that would allow me to bring forth a more pluralistic understanding of these textiles. I was confronted with the challenge of how to read the catalogues and its textile specimens beyond my initial, but powerful fascination for them.

To counter this problem, Saloni Mathur’s9 History and Anthropology in South Asia: Rethinking the Archive provided a way forward. In her study, she encourages an analysis of the colonial archive beyond its imperial agenda. She highlights the importance of first, finding gaps within the archive, and second, searching for indigenous forms of knowledge.

Borrowing this framework, I began to probe the archive for lacunas. For me, perhaps the most glaring gap in Watson’s compilation was couched within his taxonomic methodology. The textile specimens had been robbed of their ‘social life’10 and were presented as de-contextualised exotic artefacts. Each time I viewed the specimens, I tried to imagine the world that might have surrounded these textiles. Nevertheless, in spite of its detailed descriptions of the textiles, Watson’s compilation did not venture into that terrain. Furthermore, as I went on to critically examine the catalogues, I found that in many instances Watson’s classifications were so over-generalised and vague that they did not give the viewer complete contextual understanding.

Consequently, it was these initial findings that spurred me to read the catalogues from a socio­cultural perspective. I felt this had the potential to not only offer fresh interpretations of the textiles but also to fill in a significant research gap. My premise was strengthened when a survey of recent studies pertain­ing to the catalogues revealed that thus far the compilation had only been studied within a narrow /imperial trade context; a trend that Washbrook and O’Hanlon11 refer to as the ‘political economy’ approach in studying colonialism and culture in India. This one-dimensionality was something that I thought provided a profound rationale for revisiting this archive. It gave me the opportunity to expose the indigenous narratives that connected the people of India to these textiles.

Historically, textiles had always played a very significant role in the lives of the Indian people. Their interaction with these textiles, from the time they were manufactured, traded and finally consumed, lent them new meanings and layers of significance, shaping their everyday lives in profound ways. It was these buried dimensions that I sought to discover. In this context, the catalogues became a springboard from which the constructed meanings around these textiles could be explored.

‘Jamdanee” Muslin . Watson Catalogues

However, because the textiles documented in the catalogues were for apparel, I restricted the scope of my study to explore the significance of these textiles in terms of how they were popularly consumed and worn in the 19th century. This narrowed-down focus allowed me to frame my research question, which was as follows, What do the textile specimens in the ‘Watson Catalogues’ reveal about the popular textiles and fashions of 19th century India? And what cultural insights do these textile specimens provide about the social contexts where these particular textiles and fashions were accorded significance f?y the wearer?

In responding to this research question, I framed my onward research trajectory by reading the textiles in the catalogues as ‘text in potentia’ (Bakhtin as cited in Taborsky, 1990) or as potent signifiers of the popular textile and fashion culture that was practiced at the time. It was important to understand that, because of their inherent malleable qualities when shaped into clothes, played a role in crafting our outward appearance. It is for this reason that they have been described by Turner as the “social skin”.12 I found this concept intriguing and realised that for the textiles to be fully appreciated, they had to first be explored not only in conjunction with the clothes or fashions that were made from them, but also in connection with the individuals who wore these ‘social skins’.

Keeping this objective in mind, I began to explore the symbiotic relationship between the textiles samples in the catalogues, the clothes they were fashioned into, and eventually the wearer who adorned them as a means to understand what was popular and fashionable in 19th century India. In my assessment, if taken together these three facets were reflective of the cultural choices, values, attitudes and desires that individuals and society at large conformed to in 19th century India. They could furnish an understanding of the socio-cultural contexts in which these textiles acquired significance.

As I proceeded along the textile-dress-wearer trajectory, I further confined the investigative scope of my study to a group of textiles specimens that

Print chintz . Watson Catalogues

13 Watson refers to as ‘Piece Goods’. These textiles were significant for my study as they were manufactured to be tailored or fashioned into specific articles of clothing or attire. By limiting my inquiry to the latter group of textiles, I thus excluded the textiles that were being used for draped clothing such as the turbans, sarees, loongees and dhotees. According to Goswami these ‘time-less’ textiles, had historically remained largely unchanged in terms of their material, patterning and styles of wearing. I thus felt that for purposes of my study these specimens offered limited scope for interpretation. Alternately, it was the ‘timebound’ stitched article of clothing that was profoundly significant for my research, as it was representative of the times it existed in and was shaped in response to the prevailing socio-cultural influences. In this respect, the ‘Piece Goods’ thus had the potential to serve as signifiers and shed light on what was more popular and fashionable in the 19th century.

From textiles to text

Having clarified the theoretical framework through which I wanted to explore the catalogues, I began the arduous task of responding to my research question.

Using the specimens in the Catalogues as a point of departure, I began to look for corroborative evidence of these textiles in other sources. The challenge lay in locating from within seven hundred specimens a selection of textiles that were popular and in mainstream use by the Indian people.

In order to grasp the socio-cultural landscape where the textiles and fashions derived meaningful purpose and sustained popularity, I was led to an array of secondary sources that included archival texts, books on 19th century textiles and fashion, fictional and non-fictional literature and visual archives that carried representations of this historical time period. Within these knowledge repositories, two books, namely, Begums, Thugs & Englishmen: The Journals of FanyParkes (2003) and Kai Chaand Thqy Sar Aasman

(2006) proved to be invaluable for my project.

Fanny Parkes was an Englishwoman who lived in India for twenty-four years in the second quarter of the 19th century. The wife of a British officer, she had access to the upper echelons of Indian society. In her autobiographical journal, Begums, Thugs & Englishmen: The Journals oJFan1?J Parkes she provides vivid caricatures of rituals, festival and the mundane everyday happenings that she had observed. Her journal entries were worth examining as they carried rich mention of textiles and fashions and offered insights into the contextual settings in which these textiles were worn.

Similarly, the Urdu historical quasi-fiction novel, Kai Chaand Thqy Sar Aasman (2006), by Dr Shams urRehman Faruqi proved to be pivotal for my research. It was consulted as a great cultural narrative and a stunning rendition of 19th century north Indian culture. I found that Faruqi’s literary rendering of the textiles was close to the specimens of the textiles in the Watson Catalogues. The novel was also replete with some dashing descriptive accounts of sartorial preferences and the spatial settings these characters adorned and occupied.

The repetitive reference to certain types of textiles and articles of clothing in the sources allowed me to not only triangulate what was contained within the Catalogues, but also to draw a clear picture of the prevailing sartorial trends that men and women subscribed to in 19th century India. The women wore essentially four articles of attire; the dupatta, kurti, angia and variations of the paiJama, whereas the men sported a collective ensemble that came to be known as the

‘Delhi tarz or Delhi style. This style was configured through the kurta, angarakha, Jama and paiJama.

Although space limitations do not permit me to elaborate on my detailed findings, it was intriguing to discover for instance that the within the cotton piece goods, the Muslins, that were famously called the

‘woven winds’ or ‘baft hawa’were extremely popular amongst both men and women. The poetically named ‘shabnam’ (evening dew) and ‘aab e rawan’

(running water) varieties were clearly a favourite material when fashioning the everyday kurtas/ kurtis that had become a staple feature in Indian wardrobes. Similarly, the other mainstream popular textiles that emerged from this research such as the cotton/ silk blend satin mushroos and sungis, the pure silk woven kimkhwabs, brocades and zar-befts (silk gauzes) all found creative expression in the articles of attire mentioned above.

Reading the textiles through the above-cited sources alongside other non-fictional sources ultimately helped me interpret and situate the Catalogue specimens and the clothes made from the specimens within two spatio-cultural contexts. The women’s fashions I interpreted through the context of the Zanaanah (the private/ domestic female quarters), whereas I explored the men’s sartorial choices through the theme of the Mardana (the outer world/public masculine domain).

These two themes served as served as a conduit to re-contextualise the specimens in the catalogues, in their integral social arenas. It can be said that these spatio-cultural contexts became a ‘stage’ where both Indian men and women took great pains to construct their social identities though textiles and fashion. This was because clothing impacted on both the wearer and the viewer and made the ‘social skin’ open to constant interpretation and scrutiny.1′ It is thus not surprising that within a politically evolving 19th century sociocultural backdrop, the wearer was constantly confounded with the sartorial dilemmas of what to wear in a particular context.18 The wearers by choosing their sartorial style were responding to their immediate environment either by conforming to prevailing fashion trends, resisting them or embracing a hybrid style. Consequently, it was not surprising that Indian men adopted what Tarlo19 describes as a mode of “cultural dualism” in the late 19th to early 20th century. Mapping the terrain of the ‘mardana’, their clothing choices for their outer interactions and their homes were now dictated by their immediate contexts. The home now represented the epitome of traditional values, and became the physical boundary where Indian men would change into their traditional kurta, 20 angarakha and paefamas.

However, their sartorial responses outside of their homes varied between a hybridisation of Indian and British dress modes and complete imitation of the British suit.

Collectively, thus the textiles, the fashions and the agency of the wearer, contributed to the shaping of a complex socio-cultural identity that existed within the broader trends of colonial dominance and assimilation that the people of India were exposed to in the 19th century.

Tartan . Watson Catalogues

responding to the archive

The hidden narratives and sub-themes that resultantly emerged from a reading of the catalogues through the socio-cultural-contextual lens went on to inform a series of artworks that I created in response to this research project. These works encapsulated both my personal experience with the archive and my interpretation of it and were intrinsically linked to the research.

‘Archive Fever’, was a site-specific installation that critiqued the classificatory modes of the colonial archive. It comprised of 94 frames with photographic re-prints of excerpts from both Watson’s archive and several other visual archival sources.7 By arranging monochromatic fragments of the archive within homogenised white frames, I attempted to underscore the de-contextualised nature of the archive. Installed across two walls, the fragments could be read selectively or as a whole. I aimed to give the viewer a chance to connect the images of textiles, text and the wearer to build new combinations of meaning and disrupt the ossified nature of the archive.

Another work entitled, ‘I am the “Other”‘ commented upon the historically significant colonial interlude in the Indian sub-continent. It represented a page of our shared history where both the coloniser and the colonised impacted each other in myriad ways and oscillated between two cultural worlds. The desire to be the ‘Other’ blurred the boundaries between these two distinct realities leading to hybrid identities that were manifested through modes of dress. The work addresses a relationship that evolved between the British and Indians over a period of 250 years. It began with the British making overtures to assimilate into Indian culture, yet ended with the Indian having alienated himself from his very own roots to become the ‘Brown Sahib’.

‘Daastangoi … I’ was made in response to my personal experience, where I read the ‘textiles’ through the ‘text’. Using the powerful medium of storytelling, the selected excerpt from Dr Shams ur Rehman

Faruqi’s novel Kai Chand Thqy Sar Aasman21 wasreproduced on ‘buckram’ (a material used for in garment making) to take us on an imaginative journey that connected us to the textiles, the evocative fashions and the unsaid dialogue that emanates between the female provocateur and her paramour. The narrative leads us into the confines of the zanaanah and touches upon the theme of power dressing, where the dressed body has the ability to communicate several meanings in this case Wazir’s femininity and beauty and sexuality. Presented as a slice of 19th Indian culture, one is ultimately led to the textiles in the colonial archive through the beauty of the Urdu language.


My two-year journey with catalogues represents the unfolding of a culture that was bound within the warp and weft of these textiles. For me, the archive was not only a memory of the past, but also a tangible bond that served to re-affirm the roots of a sub-continental ‘cultural identity’ and connected me to our rich legacy of textiles. Before we lose these exquisite textiles to the ravages of time, it is important that they be shared alongside the narratives they embody. The way forward thus lies in following Watson’s footsteps – and to restore a sense of dynamism and portability to the Catalogues as had been originally conceived by him so many years ago. Ii

Works Cited

1.         Watson, J. F. 1866. The Collection of the Manufactures of lndia. London: India Office.

2.         Watson, J. F. 1866a. The Textile Manufacturers and the Costumes of the People of India. London: G.E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode.

3.         Watson, 1866

4.         Driver, F., &Ashmore, S. 2010. “The Mobile Museum: Collecting and Circulating Indian Textiles in Victorian Britain”. Victorian Studies 52 (3),

353-     385.

5.         ibid

Lyons, A. M. 1996. “The Textile Fabrics of India and Huddesrfield Cloth Industry”. Textile History 27 (2), 172-194.

Swallow, D. 1999. “The India Museum and the British-Indian textile trade in the late nineteenth century”. Textile History 30 (1 ), 29-45.

6.         Watson, 1866a

7.         ibid

8.         Driver, 2010

9.         Lyons, 1996

10.       Tarlo, E. 1996. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. London, UK: C. Hurst & Co (Publishers) Ltd.

11.       Hanlon, R. 0., & Washbrook, D. 1991. “Histories in Transition: Approaches to the Study of Colonialism and Culture in India”. History Workshop 32, 110-127.

12.       Hansen, 2004

13.       Watson, 1866a

14.       ibid

15.       Goswami, B. 2000. Indian Costumes in the Collection of the Calico Museum of Textiles. 2nd ed., Vol. V. Ahmedabad: D.S. Mehta on behalf of the Calico Museum of Textiles.

16.       ibid

17.       Hansen, 2004

18.       Tarlo, 1996

19.       ibid

20.       ibid

Ghosh, R. 2003. Choker Bali: A Passion Play.

21.       Faruqi, S. R. 2006. Kai Chand Thay Sar Aasman. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Zeb Bilal is an independent textile researcher and designer. She studied textile design at the National College of Arts, Lahore with a major in weave studio practice. She is currently a visiting Assistant Professor, at Beaconhouse National University and National College of Arts, Lahore. At the moment she is working with the Lahore Museum, as a curatorial research consultant exploring their textile material archive to discover the multi-dimensional narratives that textiles embody.

Leading Image : Archive Fever. Installation containing 94 frames with re-prints of archival photographs. 19 x 24 cm (each). 2012

photos: zeb bilal and the watson catalogues In 1866, J. Forbes Watson, a reporter for the Products of India, at the India Museum, compiled a series of eighteen volumes entitled, The Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India. Comprising seven hundred indigenous handcrafted specimens of textiles, these Catalogues document the wide variety of textiles that…

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