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‘A fabric woven of air’: In Bangladesh, an attempt to resurrect the famed Dhakai Muslin

The Dhaka muslin was the fabric of the emperors, worn not only by the Mughals but also flaunted by the French queen Marie Antoinette. Some called it ‘woven air’, while others described it as the “skin of the moon”.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |
Updated: March 27, 2022 7:45:29 pm
Bengal, Bengal muslin, muslin, Bangladesh, textiles, fabrics of India, textiles of india, muslin history, Bangladesh news, muslin in Bangladesh, Bangladesh muslin, history, Indian ExpressMore recently, the Bangladesh government has embarked upon an initiative to resurrect the famed Dhaka muslin. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014, Saiful Islam returned to his home country Bangladesh with a special objective in mind. He had been working in England for a number of years and was closely connected with the Bangladeshi diaspora there, when he was approached by the Stepney Community Trust to put together an exhibition and tell the world about a fabric most special, yet lost in time.

The Dhaka muslin was the ultra fine cotton fabric of the emperors, worn not only by the Mughals but also flaunted by the French queen Marie Antoinette. Some called it ‘woven air’, while others described it as the “skin of the moon”. So delicate was the quality of this muslin that an 1851 report on the fabric in the Morning Herald noted, “a piece, one yard wide and ten yards long, will pass through the smallest wedding ring, and weighs only three ounces.”

When he started out with the grand project, says Islam, neither was the cotton plant (Gossypium Arboreum Var. Neglecta, known in Bangla as phuti karpas) producing the cloth available anywhere nor did any of the weavers exist who knew the technique of weaving muslin. “All we had were photographs of muslin items in the museums of England. It was a challenging beginning, but the information available was definitely not enough for a full-fledged exhibition,” says Islam.

Islam came to Bangladesh in early 2014 and started out on an ambitious project of recreating the muslin. With the support of a project team from Drik (a Bangladeshi multi media agency) he travelled around the country on boat and by foot, speaking to farmers and weavers, who had a faint idea of muslin, but had largely forgotten the plant and technique that was once the expertise of their ancestors. In April 2014, Drik Bengal Muslin was formed, an initiative that has been reclaiming the rich heritage of the Bengal delta through recreating the muslin.

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Saiful Islam with a Bengal muslin weaver and an understudy. (BengalMuslin.com)

More recently, the Bangladesh government too has embarked upon an initiative to resurrect the famed Dhaka muslin. As a recent report in the AFP suggests, “the quest to bring back Bangladeshi muslin began with a painstaking five-year search for the specific flower used to weave the fabric, which only grows near the capital Dhaka.” As experts note, this particular plant, the ‘phuti karpas’ that produced the cotton for muslin, is long extinct. Apart from locating the plant or its alternative, the other big challenge is to find weavers with nimble fingers and immense patience to work with threads so fragile.

The first ‘international brand’, the fabric of power and liberty

Islam, who also authored the book, ‘Muslin: Our story’ in 2016 and produced the film ‘Legend of the Loom’, says that all over the world people recognise muslin, but unfortunately very few connect it to Bangladesh. “This has happened because the story of muslin has never been told by those from Bangladesh. We need to tell our own story,” he says. “As a Bangladeshi I would say that muslin is a significant part of our cultural identity and the true heroes of this global textile are the artisans and farmers and spinners who created it.”

The phuti karpas which produced the muslin was unique to a specific part of present day Bangladesh; along the banks of the Meghna river, south east of Dhaka. One of the earliest and most extensively researched pieces of writing on the Dhaka muslin was published in 1851 by a former British resident of Dhaka, James Taylor. In his work, Taylor writes that the principle manufacturing towns for muslin were “Dacca, Sunargong, Dumroy, Teetbadee, Junglebaree and Bazetpore”.

The spinning of the yarn, as mentioned in the text, was an elaborate six steps process. Only women spun the yarn, with their delicate fingers imparting moisture to the fabric. So writers have gone to the extent of claiming they believe mermaids were responsible for spinning the yarn.

The process of weaving, just as complicated, was heavily dependent on the hot and humid climate of the area. “The weaving of the finest muslins is thus conducted in the open air, exposed to all the intense heat of the climate,” writes Taylor.

“This was a wild cotton plant, which had been domesticated,” says design historian Sonia Ashmore. “The fibre was short or medium length. So when they are spun by hand, the points at which the fibres are joined together, a tiny and uneven bump is formed. That is what gave a soft touch to the fabric,” adds Ashmore.

Bengal, Bengal muslin, muslin, Bangladesh, textiles, fabrics of India, textiles of india, muslin history, Bangladesh news, muslin in Bangladesh, Bangladesh muslin, history, Indian Express A woman in fine Bengali muslin, 18th century painting by Francesco Renaldi. (Wikimedia Commons)

Equally important to note is the historical and economic significance of the fabric to Bengal. Taylor writes that the muslin of the Bengal province were famed for their delicate nature for at least 16 centuries. The product was a staple export commodity from East Bengal to the Roman Empire and it grew in scale during the Middle Ages with the establishment of the Silk Route. “It is said that the Romans would order muslin and wait for three years to be delivered. Historically Bengal was very rich due to all the money they were getting from across the world from the muslin,” says Islam. “The cloth seems to me to have been the first international brand as it was easily recognised in most major markets, though in Bangla we always spoke of it as ‘mulmul’.”

Bangladeshi writer Khademul Islam, in an article in the Aramco World, explains that with Arab merchants coming to dominate the Indian Ocean from the eighth century, a large amount of Bengal’s cotton produce traveled to Basra and Baghdad. He cites the Arab explorer Ibn Batuta, who wrote about cotton from Bengal being sent as gifts by the Delhi sultan Mohammad Bin Tughlaq to the Yuan emperor in China.

Ashmore says that under the Mughals, muslin weaving received state patronage of the kind that made it more popular than what it was ever before. “The best among the craftsmen were employed in the karkhanas,” she says.

As Mughal rulers came to wear clothes made of muslin, the fabric acquired a stature of magnificence and opulence. It got associated with power. “It was during Akbar’s half century of reign in the late 16th century that mulmul khas (“special clothing,” or muslin diaphanously fine) began to be made exclusively for the emperor and the imperial household,” writes Khademul Islam. He adds that “it was Akbar again who deemed muslin suitable for India’s summers and who designed the Mughal jama, men’s outerwear with fitted top and a pleated skirt falling to below the knees.”

Bengal, Bengal muslin, muslin, Bangladesh, textiles, fabrics of India, textiles of india, muslin history, Bangladesh news, muslin in Bangladesh, Bangladesh muslin, history, Indian Express Mughal princes in muslin robes (Wikimedia Commons)

By the 18th century, imported goods from the East acquired a special status as highly desirable luxury goods in Europe. Asia’s luxury goods, writes historian Maxine Berg, in her edited volume, “Goods from East: 1600-1800 Trading Eurasia”, changed the clothing, domestic practices and industries of Europe.

Berg writes that from the mid 18th century the English East India Company’s investment in South Asian textiles increased sharply. “Textiles accounted for 53.5 percent of its total exports to Europe in 1758-60, but had increased by 1777-79 to 78 percent,” she writes. Textiles from Bengal provided for 40 percent of the cargoes exported to Europe.

Berg further explains that European trade came to be increasingly focused upon muslins from Dhaka. “The key European framework for this muslin trade was an explosion from the 1770s of fashion demand for loose-fitting women’s gowns made from this soft, fine, and even translucent fabric,” she writes.

A most popular story of the muslin in Europe is offered by a portrait of the French Marie Antoinette painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1783. The painting is known to have caused a scandal in Europe for its figure-hugging and translucent quality, unlike anything worn by empresses of the time. Ashmore suggests that the French Queen’s advocacy of the fabric had much to do with the cultural and fashion shifts taking place in French society of the 18th century. “The idea of liberation was the basis of the French Revolution. Although muslin could be very expensive, it was considered less flashy. Muslin had the idea embedded in it of being a forward-looking person who believed in ideals of freedom,” says Ashmore.

The demise of the muslin and the attempt to rediscover it

With the English East India Company establishing their control over Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, British goods entered the Bengali market. At the same time several duties and tariffs were placed upon imports of products from Bengal. Bangladeshi academic Hameeda Hossain, who has authored the book, ‘The Company weavers of Bengal: The East India Company and Organisation of Textile Production in Bengal (1750-1813)’ has written that from the 1750s, deliveries from Bengal began to fluctuate. She quotes the Bengal governor Verelst who remarked in 1769 that the manufacturing centres or arangs were “not as well peopled as they were twenty years before.”

Taylor in his book writes that the estimated value of the cloth from the arangs had dropped from R 2,850,000 in 1747 to R 1,401,545 in 1797. This he notes was due to a reduced capacity of production.

In the late 1780s Dhaka suffered from a series of natural calamities including a devastating famine, which had its impact on cotton production. This apart, the war that broke out in 1793 between England and France also hit demand. Taylor wrote how the war in Europe reduced the weavers in Dhaka to “a state of insolvency”. With the steady decline in the demand for muslin, many of the weavers moved to other occupations.

Berg in her book explains that against the background of these difficult years of the 1790s in the production of Bengal muslins “we can place the rising manufacture of new British muslins.” “Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule, invented in 1779, was known as the muslin wheel,” writes Berg. She adds that one of the earliest Lancanshire manufacturers to use it, Samuel Oldknow, competed directly with Indian products. By 1784, Oldknow had about 1000 weavers working for him and supplying London markets with muslins and calicoes. As experts have argued, the plight of the Bengal weavers was directly connected to the rise in British cotton manufacture. “The British banned Dhaka muslin in England so that they could force their population to wear industrial cotton only,” says Islam.

With the passage of time, the knowledge of muslin weaving as well as that of taming the wild phuti karpas tree was forgotten and lay lost in obscurity.

Islam says that in order to recreate the Dhaka muslin they used the DNA from the cotton plant samples in the Kew Garden in London that are more than 100 years old and went out exploring its closest match in Bangladesh and India. Finally, they found one plant with a 70 percent match somewhere in the borders between the two countries. “We started cultivating them on a very small scale. We had never aimed to produce it commercially. Our aim was to give confidence to our country’s artesans that they can resurrect  muslin, that the past can be uncovered” Islam says.

Soon he identified the skilled weavers in Rupganj, from amongst the Jamdani weavers. This was one of the places where muslin was originally manufactured, and where Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had settled hundreds of weavers soon after the liberation of Bangladesh. Islam says that even though they looked out for weavers in other villages as well, this is where he found the most skilled ones, ready to accept a challenge.

Islam set the bar for weaving as high as 250 count as it was the minimum standard for being classified as muslin. The weavers were used to weaving at 60-80 count. Islam says the best quality of muslin is known to have been produced at 1200 count, a target that is yet to be achieved. Initially, the yarn snapped and fell apart. The atmosphere had to be controlled so humidifiers were put in place, constant temperature recordings had to be done.

Bengal, Bengal muslin, muslin, Bangladesh, textiles, fabrics of India, textiles of india, muslin history, Bangladesh news, muslin in Bangladesh, Bangladesh muslin, history, Indian Express A new muslin saree being woven in 2015. (BengalMuslin.com)

“One of the weavers told me that one needs the patience of God to do this. You don’t see progress on a daily basis at all. It is only at the end of the first three months that we saw some visible progress,” says Islam.

At one stage, after a couple of months the weavers suddenly stopped the work. They complained of the fact that the villagers thought them to be insane for attempting a task as impossible as this. Islam says he then held an event for the villagers, put together a  presentation and a hearty meal to convince them about his objective in reclaiming the muslin heritage.

Slowly and steadily the weavers began mastering the technique, increasing their weaving count to as high as 400. “There has been a three-fold jump in their skill level. Many have told me that they no longer desire to go back to weaving the way they previously did,” says Islam. “Its like discovering that one can play the violin like a master. Once that is accomplished, one would not want to go back to playing with the juniors. The thrill is in the count.”

Further reading:

Maxine Berg (ed.), Goods from the East, 1600-1800 Trading Eurasia, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Hameeda Hossain, The Company Weavers of Bengal: The East India Company and the Organisation of Textile Production in Bengal, 1750-1813, Oxford University Press, 1998

James Taylor, A descriptive and Historical Account of the Cotton Manufacture of Dacca, in Bengal, John Mortimer, 1851

Saiful Islam, Muslin: Our StoryDrik Picture Library limited, 2016

Khademul Islam, Our Story of Dhaka MuslinAramcoWorld, 2016

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