Dhakai Muslin: The Exclusive Bengal Silk from The Past

A portrait illustrating how Transparent Muslins were

Introduction

Muslin today has come to mean almost any lightweight, gauzy, mostly inexpensive, machine-milled cotton cloth. The word has lost all connection to the handwoven fabric that once came exclusively from Bengal. Cotton, stated the historian Fernand Braudel, was first used by the ancient civilizations on the Indus, while the art of weaving itself has been traced back to much earlier times. This head start perhaps was why ancient India became proficient in making cotton textiles. They became a staple export commodity to the Roman Empire, and they expanded in volume in the Middle Ages with the growth of the “maritime Silk Road” in the Indian Ocean.

Historic Background

Muslin a brand name of pre-colonial Bengal textile, especially of Dhaka origins. Muslin was manufactured in the city of Dhaka and in some surrounding stations, by local skill with locally produced cotton and attained world-wide fame as the Dhaka Muslin. The origin of the word Muslin is obscure; some say that the word was derived from Mosul, an old trade centre in Iraq, while others think that Muslin was connected with Musulipattam, sometime headquarters of European trading companies in southern India. Muslin is not a Persian word, nor Sanskrit, nor Bengali, so it is very likely that the name Muslin was given by the Europeans to cotton cloth imported by them from Mosul, and through Mosul from other eastern countries, and when they saw the fine cotton goods of Dhaka, they gave the same name to Dhaka fabrics. That the name Muslin was given by the Europeans admits of little doubt, because not only Dhaka cotton textiles, but cotton goods imported by the Europeans from other parts of India like Gujrat, Golconda, etc were also called Muslin.

The route connecting the Hubs of Muslin Industry in Bengal

How Muslins Were Made

The textile industry of Bengal is very old. Bengal cotton fabrics were exported to the Roman and the Chinese empires and they are mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography and the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, and by the ancient Chinese travellers. But Dhaka Muslin became famous and attracted foreign and transmarine buyers after the establishment of the Mughal capital at Dhaka. The Muslin industry of Dhaka received patronage from the Mughal emperors and the Mughal nobility. A huge quantity of the finest sort of Muslin was procured for the use of the Mughal emperors, provincial governors and high officers and nobles. In the great 1851 Exhibition of London, Dhaka Muslin occupied a prominent place, attracted a large number of visitors and the British Press spoke very highly of the marvelous Muslin fabrics of Dhaka. Weavers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, used to make this incredibly fine cloth using a method called the discontinuous weft technique. This technique required the weaver to work two layers of weft – one as fine as spider’s silk to hold the cloth together and the other forming the pattern. Each pattern motif was worked individually, using fine bamboo sticks to interlace the pattern threads with the warp threads.

Weaving of Muslins under the supervision of royal official( Painting, in 1800s)

Types And Variations

The finest sort of Muslin was made of phuti cotton, which was grown in certain localities on the banks of the Brahmaputra and his branches. The other kinds of cotton called bairait and desee were inferior and were produced in different parts of Dhaka and neighbouring areas; they were used for manufacturing slightly inferior and coarse clothes.The productions of Dhaka weavers consisted of fabrics of varying quality, ranging from the finest texture used by the highly aristocratic people, the emperor, viziers, nawabs and so on, down to the coarse thick wrapper used by the poor people. Muslins were designated by names denoting either fineness or transparency of texture, or the place of manufacture or the uses to which they were applied as articles of dress. Names thus derived were Malmal (the finest sort), Jhuna (used by native dancers), Rang (of transparent and net-like texture), Abirawan (fancifully compared with running water), Khasa (special quality, fine or elegant), Shabnam (morning dew) Alaballee (very fine), Tanzib (adorning the body), Nayansukh (pleasing to the eye), Buddankhas (a special sort of cloth), Seerbund (used for turbans), Kumees (used for making shirts), Doorea (striped), Charkona (chequered cloth), Jamdanee (figured cloth). The finest sort of Muslin was called Malmal, sometimes mentioned as Malmal Shahi or Malmal Khas by foreign travellers. It was costly, and the weavers spent a long time, sometimes six months, to make a piece of this sort. It was used by emperors, nawabs etc. Muslins procured for emperors were called Malbus Khas and those procured for nawabs were called Sarkar-i-Ala. The Mughal government appointed an officer, Darogah or Darogah-i-Malbus Khas to supervise the manufacture of Muslins meant for the emperor or a nawab.

A real Muslin dress exported to England from colonized India

Areas of Production

Weaving was prevalent in the Dhaka district in almost every village, but some places became famous for manufacturing superior quality of Muslins. These places were Dhaka, Sonargaon , Dhamrai, Teetbady, Junglebary and Bajitpur.

Why It Was So Exclusive

The finest of Muslins were honoured with evocative names conjured up by imperial poets, such as “baft-hawa”, literally “woven air”. These high-end muslins were said to be as light and soft as the wind. According to one traveller, they were so fluid you could pull a bolt – a length of 300ft, or 91m, through the centre of a ring. Another wrote that you could fit a piece of 60ft, or 18m, into a pocket match-box. Dhaka muslin was also more than a little transparent.

Muslins were adored by the elites

How The Industry Was Lost

Unfortunately, during the period of the East India Company, European manufacturers all but destroyed the industry by flooding the market with factory produced muslin equivalents. Through a combination of punitive taxes on locally produced textiles and the dissolution of local and influential patrons, Jamdani muslin became uneconomical to produce and the skills were almost lost.

Conclusion

Thankfully, there are organisations in Bangladesh today that are encouraging local weavers to continue to practice their craft. Coupled with the UNESCO listing of Jamdani muslin on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, there is more impetus to continuing production, albeit on a very small scale. With the proliferation of mass produced and synthetic fabrics on the market today, it is important that these historical techniques aren’t lost forever. No factory can ever emulate the quality arising out of a skilled artisan. Their skills are part of our textile heritage and it’s wonderful they are being recognised and preserved.

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