Native cultures the world over have been affected by imperialism and its resultant colonial structures. Their indigenous production moulds, trading methods and design patterns underwent major modifications with the onslaught of an alien culture. In some cases, it even led to the virtual extinction of valuable native crafts.
The colonial history of Indian textiles can be divided into two phases : the 17° and 18° centuries when Indian calicoes and muslins were vital to the commerce of the European East India Companies ( portuguese, dutch, english and danish). The second phase was from the 19° century onwards when Indian calicoes became a source of competition and threat to the manufactures of Manchester and Lancashire. This led to the ban on Indian calicoes and the ultimate destitution of Indian weavers.
The first European power to establish a foothold into India was Portugal which gained control over parts of the west coast ( Goa, Daman, Diu). With them, textiles primarily figured as a barter item in the triangular spice trade. They were followed by the Dutch in 1605 and the English in 1611. For the next hundred years, Indian cotton was king and Europe was in the grip of what economic historians describe as “the calico craze”. Indian textiles were used in Europe, Africa and the Middle East not merely as coverlets, bedspreads and wall-hangings but even as dress material.
However, the second phase of colonialism which saw the domination of the British in India, spelt the death-knell of the Indian weavers. The cotton revolution in England rendered the Indian calicoes a source of threat. England banned Indian textiles and instead promoted the growth of raw cotton and indigo as ancillaries to the British industry. By the end of the century instead of Indian cloth being exported abroad, the Indian market was flooded with the machine made cloth of Manchester and Lancashire.
European interest in the Indian textile industry resulted in the geographical re-location of weavers, printers and dyers. They were brought to settle in the Black Towns or artisanal quarters of the East India Companies : Fort Saint George ( at Madras), Fort William ( at Calcutta) of the British; Masulipatnam, Nizampatam ( two south indian towns) for the Dutch; Cuddalore ( in south India too) of the Danes;… Both threat and persuasion was freely used. In a letter dated December 15, 1676, the English factors wrote to their Board of Directors, “we find the Dutch have their dyers and painters ( weavers of chintz) on the coast and we know no reason why we may not have our own business as well as they…”. The weavers were offered incentives like paddy at cheap rates, a lowering of customs and taxes and higher wages. At the same time, those weavers who tried to leave the Black Town areas were forcibly brought back by either the Dutch or the English, while each accused the other of sheltering the errant weavers.
The exigencies of the imperial market moulded the production pattern of the weavers. The consumption pattern in Europe was a changing one : it moved from a demand for calico for curtains and bedspreads to the use of betilles, baftas and calicos as fashion-ware. The writer Daniel Defoe lamented that the cloth which at one time was thought fit to be used only as doormats now adorned royalty ! The English company instructed its factors in India : “Note this for a constant and general rule, that you change the fashions and flowers as much as you can every year, for the English ladies, and they say, the French and Europeans , will give twice as much for a new thing not seen in Europe before…” The Indian weavers were asked to produce varieties like salamporees for the slave market, tape chindes and sallaloes, that is coarse muslins and chintz for the Malay archipelago and long cloth, printed calico and betilles for Europe.
Even the looms were altered to facilitate the weaving of the varieties commissionned by the Companies. There are references in the factory records to the en-masse alteration of looms ( more than 300) for the weaving of long clothes. Changes were also attempted in textile dyeing. Indian dyes were excellent but it was found that the Indians didn’t know the art of silk dyeing. Hence in 1681, silk throwsters were brought in from England to instruct the Indian weavers.
The colonial impact on the indigenous production structure was a far reaching one. It was instrumental in distorting the creativity of the Indian weaver. This was done by advancing money and yarn to the weavers through merchant middlemen and brokers. By advancing money to the weavers, the merchant intermediaries secured exclusive control over their loom products. The cloth was stamped with the company seal while still on the loom. The weavers were supplied with musters or design samples and in a telling phrase, the three London Directors wrote to their agents in 1611 that the weavers must be forced to work “to the perfection of the pattern”.
Aesthetically, the colonial period in India was one of great confusion in Indian textile designs, what can in fact be termed cultural hotch-potch. Because the weavers could not surrender their individual creativity, it resulted in distorted creations, in very strange design admixtures. One example is a wall hanging displayed in London depicting the Indian tree of life, tigers and European hunting scenes.
The weaving revival began with the “khadi” movement under Gandhi. Since then, handloom weaving has receive a tremendous impetus in modern times. Two very divergent trends can be seen in Indian weaving today. In a sort of neo-colonialism, the Indians are responding to the needs of western markets, the tourist industry and modernisation by drastically altering traditional varieties and designs. However, there is also a concerted effort to revive and preserve traditional designs.