The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Untold yarns of the warp

The three-day Sutra conference on Indian trading textiles wound up on Tuesday evening with Amrita Mukherjee, who had initially conceived it, already planning to hold the second such event, this time on conservation of textiles. As is widely acknowledged, awareness in this area is sadly lacking.

This was the first event of its kind ever to be held in India, most speakers stressed, for neither scholars nor collectors here bothered much about textiles that left the shores of this land and were prize possessions and heirlooms both in the east as well as in the west from times immemorial.

Only the future will tell if the conference, in which delegates and scholars participated from many corners of the world, will be able to inspire further research.

The papers of uneven quality gave an idea of the international trade network created centuries before globalisation was even conceived. But instead of the politics of commerce, barring passing references, the focus was on history, aesthetics and technique.

Two of the most exciting papers were read on Monday afternoon by UK-based Jenny Balfour-Paul, who specialises in the indigo trade, and Rex Cowan, an expert in shipwrecks and marine archaeology, also based in the UK. Balfour-Paul’s choice of subject was bound to remind Indian participants of the conference of Dinabandhu Mitra’s incendiary play Nildarpan about the exploitation of the indigo cultivators and Gandhi’s expedition to West Champaran in Bihar.

But Balfour-Paul’s talk revealed a whole new world beyond that narrow mindset. She first disabused the audience of the misconceptions they may have had about the plant from which one of the world’s most expensive dyes is produced, the process of production, and about the countries in which it is produced.

Indigo used to be produced in Europe. But it was known as woad and it is only recently that we have realised that it was no different from “tropical” indigo. Balfour-Paul’s talk illustrated with prints showing indigo factories and the process of production was thus an eye-opener. She is currently editing the diary of a young planter who lived in Calcutta.

Rex Cowan took us to the turbulent sea and a galleon in its depths from which he and his team had salvaged, besides other treasures, dyewood from Coromandel and a wealth of textiles preserved for years in airtight packages. He had commissioned a master dyer to prepare dyes with it and he displayed the results of this experiment.

The expedition was documented on video which was screened on the following day. Cowan’s sense of humour made all the difference to his talk. Some of the papers focused on the trade to the east and how designs were modified to suit the markets in Indonesia and Sumatra.

Some of the highlights of Tuesday were Don Johnson’s paper on the diaries of Thomas Row and Jahangir and what they revealed about current fashions and the use of luxury textiles among the royalty and the aristocracy. Sujata Parsai, who has documented the “Tapi” collection belonging to Shilpa and Praful, spoke on Surat as a centre of the textile trade.

Rosemary Crill, senior curator of the V&A Museum in London, who coordinated the conference, tried to unravel the puzzle posed by what are presumably the earliest surviving specimens of Indian embroidery in the UK.

Our expectations had been raised by her very enlightening talk on chintz about a year ago in Calcutta. The paper she read was too specialised for general interest.

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