Saturday, December 3, 2011

Traditional Indian Textiles
Art Review

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

A great reference book for your ArtCloth library is – Traditional Indian Textiles, John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard, Thams and Hudson, London (1993) ISBN 0-500-27709-5. It contains 160 pages with 195 illustrations, 149 in color and 4 maps of the Subcontinent. Below is just a snapshot of the images it has to offer.

Traditional Indian Textiles
The application and significance of color was central to the three historically dominating religions on the Indian Subcontinent, namely, Hindu, Buddhism and Islam. Hence, the subcontinent dyers were motivated to create colorful textiles very earlier in their civilisation - since the second millennium BC.

Rabari shepherd families dressed to go to Krishna’s birthday festival (outside of Anjar, Kutch).

Modern Europeans did not discover the Subcontinent dyer’s art until the 17th Century and so for over three thousand years the coloration of European textiles was severely limited (e.g. in the case of woollens they were generally restricted to dun-colors). That is not to say that trade in cloth between the Subcontinent and the Ancient Romans and Greeks and their fellow Mediterraneans did not exist. Rather, the Subcontinent dyeing secrets were not passed on to them when they traded. Moreover, most of the Subcontinent traded textiles were reserved for the elite classes of these Ancient societies, with the poor relegated to cloth with little color.

Turban lengths – tie-and-dyed using the “leheria” method (Jodhpur, Rajasthan).

The Subcontinent dyers used natural dyes that were either substantive (no mordant needed to fix the color) or adjective (required a mordant for any degree of permanency). For example, certain lichens produce substantive dyes etc. An adjective dye such as alizarin (e.g. derived from a dried root of a madder plant) needed to be mixed with alum (a mordant) to produce hues ranging from pink to deep red. By mixing an acidic solution of iron (a mordant) with tannin, a black dye was created. It should be noted that the black and red dyed fabrics have a strong presence on the Subcontinent.

Woman’s wedding shawl (Rabari Shepherd Caste, Badin District, Sind).

The secret of the fast coloring of vegetable fibers lay in the Subcontinent dyers clever use of metal oxides (mordant – derived from Latin “mordere” meaning to “bite”). Mordant bites the fabric in combination with the dyestuff to fix the color. Generally, the problem with iron mordants was that they bite too hard on natural fibers, thereby rotting the black of a woven or embroidered pattern.

Preparing “ajarakh” cloths with yellow dye (Dhamadkha Village, Kutch).

It should be noted that there are considerably fewer hues that can be obtained from substantive dyes when compared with adjective dyes. The masterly use of the latter gave the Subcontinent dyers a significant edge when compared to the Europeans, who had either not mastered nor knew about the use of mordants. Note: In a future blog we shall go into why mordants were needed when using adjective dyes.

Block printed yardage (Bhairongarth, Madhya Pradesh).

With the development of the chemical dye industry in the late 19th and 20th centuries (mainly driven by organic chemists in Germany), a vast array of hues can now be selected from a color chart. These chemicals are not subject to the vagaries of climatic conditions that bedevilled the natural dye industry nor do they lock up land in undeveloped countries with burgeoning populations. They therefore supplanted natural dyes on the Subcontinent. India's chemical dye industry is now booming.

Traditional Indian textiles declined a century after the industrial revolution, because of their misuse of the earliest available chemical dyes such as the aniline dyes. A renaissance of interest in the textiles of India occurred in the middle of the 20th century due to their expert use of the high quality and the fine color of the more recent and modern chrome dyes, thereby yielding contemporary textiles with a more traditional aesthetic.

Contemporary bedcover decorated with pen work and printing (Masulipatnam, Andhra Pradesh).

The Subcontinent dyers used two main methods for regulating patterns on their textiles. The first technique was the tie-and-dye technique, where textiles or yarns were screened or party screened by being tied with threads that were impermeable to the dye. This was known throughout the world as “ikat” tie-and-dyed textiles. Ikat textiles entail binding (resisting) and dyeing the warps and wefts before weaving.

Note: The word “ikat” is a derivative of the Malay word “mengikat”, which means “to tie” or “to bind”. An active textiles trade existed between India and South East Asia for many centuries and so the Subcontinent dyers adopted and re-framed a Malay word.

Section of cotton “bandhani” (tie-and-dyed) shawl (Jamnagar, Saurashtra).

The second technique created patterns either by painting or printing with a substance that would react with a dye to fix the color (mordant resist dyeing), or by applying an impermeable dye and removal of a substance such as mud, gum or wax, that will resist the dye and then may be removed by dissolving, washing and/or heating.

Drawing out a design with a kalam pen (Kalahasti, Andhra Pradesh).

Aside from applying pigment directly onto the surface of a prepared cotton fabric, the techniques of fixing color to create patterns and compositions again involved either the use of resists, mordant resists or a combination of the two, applied with a pen, brush, metal or wooden block or through a stencil.

“Kalamkari” (pen work) cloth depicting a scene from the Bhagavad Gita (Kalahasti, Andhra Pradesh).

The four main regions of Subcontinent are: The West – states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujuarat, Rajasthan, Thar Parkar and Sind (Pakistan); The North – states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir; The East - states of Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal, Bangladesh, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh; The South – states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh.

"Pichhavai" - painted shrine cloth (Nathadwara, Rajasthan).

Each of these regions was noted for their various techniques. For example, the Gujarat region was one of the great textile exporting areas of India, the textile patterns of which were usually applied by block printing. In Gujarat and western Rajasthan, the three main types of hand printed textiles were: Ajarakh worn by Muslims, which was a pattern cloth in predominately red colors; screen-printed and block printed designs of floral sprays and simulated bandhani on a predominately red background; the floral prints with Persian associations.

Block-printed shrine cloth made by members of the Vaghri Caste (Ahmedadad, Gujarat).

Near the central post office (Ahmedabad, Gurarat).

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