Bandhani - one of the earliest textile export articles from India

For almost two thousand years Indian textiles – especially cotton – were unsurpassed in price, overall quality, richness of patterns and colours. By the fifth century C.E. a huge network of artisans and traders had started to cater to all regions bordering the Indian Ocean and beyond, from Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa to South East Asia, additionally to a thriving domestic market. Unfortunately, historical sources are scant before the 16th or 17th century. The trade seems to have reached its peak during or towards the end of the 18th century. At that time, scholars estimate that South Asia accounted for approximately a quarter of the world's textile output and almost certainly a larger percentage of the world's seaborne trade in textiles. Even as late as 1830 there was an estimated export of 51 Mio yards of Indian cotton cloth to Indonesia alone. Indian textiles were a global industry, before it was severely impaired by the industrialized textile production of Britain. Nevertheless, Indian textiles, even in times of European ascendancy, had a defining influence on global tastes. The industrialization of textile production in Britain would never have been possible without the know-how British traders had brought back from South Asia.


Of course, not all of these exported textiles were patterned in bandhani, there being many other techniques like painting, block printing (resist printing), ikat etc. Obviously, bandhani textiles were extensively exported in the middle ages. Based on their aesthetic all import regions developed their own bandhani industries, often reinterpreting Indian models and creating completely different cultural roles for them. But the few textile samples we have from these centuries show that even then block printing was more popular. The "Fustat textiles" from 10th to 13th century Egypt, for instance, comprise of hundreds of fragments of block print imported from Western India imitating bandhani, but only one fragment of the actual craft. These were medium price range home textiles (probably wall hangings) mostly dyed in only one colour. On the other side of the Indian Ocean, in Indonesia, bandhani cloths gained ceremonial status and became exceedingly intricate in design and a multiplicity of colours.


There were several centres of bandhani craft in South Asia; Rajasthan, Gujarat, Sindh, Panjab, Central India and, due to the migration of Gujarati artisans in Vijayanagara times (15th to 16th century), also Tamil Nadu (where the craft still exists as Sungudi). The dominance of new Islamicate lords from Central Asia from the 14th century onwards seems to have brought a setback for the art of bandhani. The elite culture, also the indigenous elite, became thoroughly persianized, Persia being the beacon of sophistication at the time. There was no place for bandhani in this trend. Persian patterns could be imitated more easily in weaving, painting, embroidery or printing. These highly esteemed cloths were also the goods most exported when the British East India Company and others started to insert themselves into the vast trading networks. There was only one kind of bandhani items imported by the East India Company in the 18th century, small square pieces of cloth used as handkerchiefs, later also as headscarf, well known today as "bandana".


It is not known how the production of tie-and-dye textiles was organized during pre-colonial times. But a mere cottage industry would not have been able to meet the demand. If we look at early modern weaving for a comparison we find a "putting-out system", in which an agent or merchant advanced money and materials to a so called master weaver, who in turn could have 200 or more weavers under him. Probably the bandhani sector was very similarly organized.



In the late 19th century this system waned, but nevertheless artisans went on to produce high quality cotton and silk veils (odhanis), saris, turbans etc. for regional and local markets. Special workshops (karkhanas) produced especially for the numerous royal and noble establishments in Western India and beyond, who had never stopped to combine their Persian- (and later European-) influenced dresses with local elements. Other artisans started to work for communities related to them. The difference was that now they produced mainly for the consumers directly. These consumer communities had strong group identities which they expressed also in their clothes. Colours, designs and make became bound to certain statements concerning status or liturgical events. For instance a veil tie-dyed in yellow with a red border and large red circles in the middle was only worn by married women from the Bishnoi caste who had given birth to a male heir.


This probably was the moment the craft became "traditional", more community bound on the artisan as well as on the customer side. Although innovations happened every generation and quality standards remained high, the speed of change slowed down, direct contact between both sides changed the way demand and supply were handled.


Working directly for the customers in a localized setting still plays an important role for artisans making bandhani. But if this craft is to survive, more distant markets have to be opened up again. When designer fashion became popular in India, quite a few designers became rich and famous, but not the artisans who made their dazzling fabrics. To tap into these markets directly demands a broader horizon from the producers. Although there are some institutes like the Somaiya Kala Vidya in Gujarat  instructing already accomplished master craftspersons (for instance in marketing), many are unable to study as they often are not fluent in English.


History shows that innovation and flexibility have been there over long periods of time and there is no reason why they should not be revived. There are many examples of artisans experimenting with new forms and designs and exhibiting at international fairs, creating unique textiles on the basis of traditional patterns and colour combinations. But these are not the majority.


Bandhani artisans, if supplying only local customers, will always stay limited in their economic potential. Even if we leave the economy aside, as long as India's master narrative considers remaining in one's traditional community or caste occupation a failure there will be no sustainability in handicraft. Then, sadly, these unique fabric designs would be a thing of the past in a not-so-distant future.

Dr. Ulrike Teuscher, Göttingen