The Work of Fairies

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

The Work of Fairies: The Muslin Jamdani of India

Sethi, Ritu


It wasn’t just the Romans who described it as woven winds in the 1stc, in the 7th c the Chinese monk andcerebraltraveller Hsüan-tsang  described it as “…the light vapors of dawn”. Many centuries on in the 13thc AmīrKhusrow the great Sufi musician, poet and scholar described it as the ‘…skin of the moon.’Themost exceptional pieces were reserved for the Mughal Emperors.  With the testing of its airy weightlessness was by drawing it through a finger-ring it drew censure from the austere Emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707) who is reputed to have reprimanded his daughterPrincess Zebunissafor appearing inadequately dressed when she was actuallydraped in 7 layers of the finest.Jean-Baptiste Tavernier the 17th c traveller too commented on its sheerness,  stating “that when a man puts it on, his skin shall appear through it, as if he were naked.’

In Europe it was worn by the doomed Empress Marie Antoinette (1755 – 93), and the Empress Josephine  who followed. The British too could not have enough of it and in the 19th c it was described by Edward Baines, Member of parliament as it‘…might be thought the work of fairies, or of insects, rather than of men’. In 1811 the author Jane Austen wrote to her sister on how she succumbed to its charms ‘… I am getting very extravagant and spending all my money and…I have been spending yours too in a linen-draper’s shop which I went to for check’d muslin, and for you …I was tempted by a pretty coloured muslin…”

Myths surrounded it’s making – The herder banished from his home as he was unable to distinguish between the grass and what appeared to be dewdrops thus allowed his cow to graze on the precious textile. That the spinning of the yarn was best done on an anchored river boat; that a pound of this spun thread when unreeled would stretch 250 miles. That the finest weaves were produced at dawn and at dusk; and that the weaving itself was done underwater – perhaps as often the pit-loom had to be flooded to add to the humidity and prevent the fine yarn from drying out.

So what was this cloth that so captured the imagination of the world and continued to do so over the millennia’s? Derived from a species of the cotton plant Gossypium arboretum varNeglecta locally called phuti and nurmahkappas  this plant produced the silkiest and finest cotton yarn known. Grown in the Gangetic plains of Bengal the finest varieties were from the Dacca region (now in Bangladesh).

And what lay at the very heart of  all this myth making and the telling and retelling of these and many other legends was that the cotton muslin Jamdani, was considered to be the rarest, the finest and the most sophisticated weave produced on the Indian loom.

These gauzy textured muslins were embroidered on the loom by the addition of weft threads – introduced by hand – during the weaving process creating patterns of figures, florals and geometrics that were nuanced by light and shadow and tones of transparency and opaqueness that lent itself to drape and fall.

Given weather conditions that are detrimental to preservation of such gossamer textiles our material evidence comes from surviving pieces  datedonly to the 19th century. These white-on-white Jamdanis, the tone-on-tone indigo Nilambari or the yellow Pitambari’s, the use of contrasting colours, the zari that added gleam, the varied patterning all created permutations and combinations that were seemingly endless.

The history of the making and the weaving of the muslin and figured Jamdani   from this short stapled fine yarn was centered around the cotton growing region with the weaving cities of Banaras and Tanda in Uttar Pradesh also playing their part . The fame of the Dacca weaves remained so ingrained in the imagination that even today 70 years on after the partition of India the finest Muslins and Jamdani produced in India continue to be called Daccai.

Who were the remarkable artists, designers, colorists and masters of the weave who created these textiles in the past? Unfortunately history has thrown a veil of anonymity that hides them from our gaze. However in today’s changing landscapethis veil has been shredded and we can recognize and give credit to those who are holders of the parampara,who in their own individual way have brought this tradition forward to life. And while the seed varity of the  Gossypium arboretum varNeglecta is no longer available  replaced by the predominant use of the long staple standardized yarn varieties suitable for machine-textile production pockets of resistance and excellence remain.

 In Bengal,the spread of national award winningexperts covers the weaving districts and a much truncated list includes the areas of Kalna with masters like JyotishDebnath and Pundu Nandi, In Fulia the list is long and includes among others AmalBasak, BirenBasak to Swapan Kumar Basak.  In Dhatrigram there is Sushant Kumar in Nasaratpur there is Suresh Basak and GautamBasak.

The list is as long and as distinguished in Banaras with Peer Mohd Ansari, Mainuddin, Nazir Ahmed, Ali Rasul, Shah Mohd Ansari, Jamaluddin, AinulHaq inCholapur. Babulal Patel from Sajoi, Mustak Ahmed in Rasoolpura and SribhasSuparkar from Banaras city.

The best Jamdanisproduced by these masters continue the tradition being sheer and fine with their figured patterning in a minimum count of 200 to 250 with approximately 1700 threads continuing to command their position as the finest and the most sophisticated weave produced on the Indian loom.


First published in Sunday Herald.

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