Sunrise in Pushkar

So before I go into the whole history of cotton in India, as promised, a few updates:

I am still working on the same painting after many days of lessons with Ajay, the miniature painter.  This one painting, which I will reveal when I finally finish it, has a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in it.  I don’t think the actual painting verily deserves it, but seeing as I am learning the technique and process, and not focusing on the finished product, this is okay.  To wit, here is a picture of me working away, looking very serious and studious with my guru Ajay.

He will often say after a lengthy silence and with great seriousness and thought, “Rubecca [Indians often pronounce my name this way], suppose you make those flowers in the carpet red?”  As if this is the most important decision I will ever make.  I love it.

Sketch of possible block print design

I am slowly getting my designs to the point where they will be ready to hand over to block carvers.  I am working on these repeat patterns that involve electrical and cell phone towers.  It’s been a while since I’ve done repeats, so I’m getting myself up to speed again on the technical aspects.

Indigo swatch that I made

Printing some indigo samples

Now onto cotton… one of those topics that you could write an entire book about, like those books about salt or cod that explain all of world history with one singular topic.  (I will also present unrelated photos throughout this little history so that you don’t get bored.)

[Throat clearing noise.]

Cotton is a plant that is native to hot climates.  India, being very hot, has grown cotton for a long, long time.  Apparently, there are fragments of woven cotton fabric from the Indus Valley dating to around 3000 BC—which proves that they were already spinning, weaving, dyeing, and printing cotton then—but there is evidence that cotton was cultivated over 7000 years ago.  (One big problem with textile history is that plant and animal fibers—unlike say, stone—don’t tend to last very long, historically-speaking.  Pests love to munch on the cellulose and protein fibers, and heat and humidity also do a number on them.)

The little girl's shirt says "Surfer Dude"

Weaving is also a craft that goes back a long time, as far back as Paleolithic times (this according to the internet, so don’t quote me).  The idea of a warp and weft—some kind of loom technology—is found in every culture throughout the world.  In India the mythology goes that the warp threads are the sun, the weft threads the moon.  In the Indian sagas this is how the world is created, the sun and the moon weave the celestial tapestry.  They call the warp “tana” and the weft “bana” – and like to think that the strict geometry of the horizontal and vertical grid molds itself onto the minds of the weaver, so that weaving was actually considered a fairly exalted craft.  Weavers were so prized that they were often taken from one Indian kingdom to another as part of a bride’s dowry, or given over as spoils to a victorious conqueror.

Sacred cow -- probably some relation to cotton

India has been trading their cotton wares for a long time as well. Cotton prints from Gujarat were found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Alexander the Great, during his war campaign into the subcontinent, apparently introduced Indian cotton to the Greeks and Arabs.  One ancient Greek traveler wrote about Indian “trees that bore wool, surpassing in beauty and in quality the wool of sheep; and the Indians wear clothing from these trees.”  The Romans were fairly addicted to the stuff, referring to the breezy Indian muslins “nebula” (mist) and “venti” (winds).  Under Pliny the Elder, the trade in Indian cotton cost the Roman Empire 500 million gold sesteri annually.  Later, the invading Mughals were also cotton-crazy.  Under the Mughal emperor Jehangir, the royal court in Delhi required one million pieces of muslin a year.

Me at monkey temple -- no relation to cotton

The India of antiquity was able to trade handsomely on cotton fabrics, and even under Mughal rule there was an element of mutual exchange (ie, the Mughals were consumers of cotton, thereby keeping the industry alive).  However, under British colonial rule the Indian handloom industry was nearly strangled (as I’ve already talked about in a previous post).  The cotton that was previously hand-spun and woven on Indian soil was now being brought raw to England and processed mechanically in English mills.  (Also, along the way the American South started cultivating cotton and supplying it to England for even less and so for a time they didn’t even get the raw cotton from India.  Remember 8th grade American History?  Good old Eli Whitney and the cotton gin of 1793?  “King Cotton,” that fueled slavery in the American South?  Well anyway, that cotton was being bought and processed and printed and then sold—by force of British colonial law—to India.)

Colorful saris

By the early 20th century, a core part of Gandhi’s independence movement centered around khadi, the term used for homespun, handloom cotton cloth.  He boycotted English-produced cottons as part of his swadeshi policy, an economic strategy to take away British power and to become more self-sufficient by reviving domestic cottage industries.  Since he deemed it ludicrous (indeed it was) that any Indian should wear cotton made abroad, he himself mastered the art of spinning raw cotton into thread, on the charkha (spinning wheel) and wore only a white dhoti, or loincloth.  In the color-coded, caste-conscious culture of India, to wear white khadi was a sign of poverty and low caste—this would have seemed shocking for an Oxford-educated, upper class Indian such as Gandhi—however, white also symbolized both purity and mourning.  So he found a perfect symbolism in this dress: he simultaneously was criticizing the caste system, expressing the dignity of poverty, and so marking the purity of his inner conviction as well as his mourning for his nation under foreign rule.  That’s a lot of significance to put on a simple white piece of cloth!

After independence, the Indian Constitution included the protection of khadi in the creation of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, which would provide home spinners in even the smallest village with cotton, and then buy the yarn and distribute it to weaver cooperatives.  They established shops, or khadi bhandars, that sell the cloth at a fair price.  You can still walk into a khadi shop today and find a picture of Gandhi proudly featured on the wall.  Every year for Gandhi’s birthday they sell khadi at a discount for about 3 months—from October 2, the day of his birth, until January 30, the day he was assassinated.  You gotta love a country that does this kind of thing!  So poetic!

Another thing you gotta love is that they have a Textiles Minister.  An actual Minister of Textiles!  (Who, of course, presently is immersed in some kind of government corruption scandal, but still!)  True, the government’s management of khadi has become notoriously shabby, and there is a growing movement to try to free khadi from the bottomless pit of bureaucracy.  But I still love the fact that you can walk into a khadi shop and get handspun, handloom cloth, just as Gandhi dreamed.

I’m sure what I’ve just written is a much-simplified picture, but you get the idea.  In sum: cotton is a big deal here.

And now, more pictures!

Ladies at the monkey temple

Sketch for a possible rug design

Jeff and I had dinner at our rickshaw driver Kumar's house

Sketches for designs

Woman and kids at indigo printing farm

Monkeys in Pushkar

Jeff and Kumar at the monkey temple



About rebeccalayton

I am an artist traveling and studying in India and Southeast Asia. You can see some of my artwork at
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