Here is Haider Hussain from Bangladesh singing Abujh duti chokh (Baffled pair of eyes) about the Rohingya refugees. Some of the images are graphic so skip this one if you find such content distressing, and go onto his next, Ami Faisa Gechi (I've got entangled) - a lighter track.
The next track, a golden oldie - Hey Dola (O Palanquin), is from Bhupen Hazarika, a well-known singer-songwriter-composer from Assam, who sang in multiple languages including Bengali.
And lastly, a track from the film Hemlock Society, Amar Mawte Tor Moton Keu Nei (In my opinion, there's no-one like you), playback by Lopamudra Mitra, composed by Anupam Roy.
The origins of Indian handloom cloth go back into deep antiquity – the handwoven sari has an unbroken history of nearly 4000 years in the subcontinent. Ancient India was known for its excellent textiles the world over. Pliny the Elder (1st century CE) once complained in the Senate that too much Roman wealth was being spent in the import of Indian cloth. Mummies wrapped in fine Indian muslin have been dated to 2000 BCE in Ancient Egypt. Herodotus wrote in 450 BCE that in India he saw fruits bearing fibre burst open when ripe, from which the people spun and wove their garments.
Bengal was one of the main textile hubs of ancient India. Chanakya (350-275 BCE), the Prime Minister to Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, mentions in his a textile sector already fully developed in Bengal at the time of writing. Old Bengali literature records foreign traders coming to Bengal to pick up fabric at Saptagram in the middle ages.
Chinese pilgrims and monks coming to Bengal from the 13th century onwards have noted that ‘there was an abundance of gems and cotton stuff.’ Subsequent travellers have listed various types of textiles that were imported into China from Bengal. A Bengali encyclopaedia compiled in the 19th century lists around 25 subcastes and castes of weavers dispersed through different regions in Bengal showing the extraordinary diversity and numbers engaged in this occupation. In other words, there is no dearth of evidence to show Bengal had a thriving handloom industry more than a millennium old. Dhaka in East Bengal was the centrepoint of the Muslin trade, the superfine, translucent cotton fabric so prized all over the ancient world. And in West Bengal, Murshidabad specialised in silks of rare fineness and the most delicate weaves.
Bengal came to dominate the Indian Ocean trade from the very beginning. But the muslin described by foreign writers as ‘light vapours of dawn’ and ‘garments of the winds’ was a small, niche market, the cotton grew only in East Bengal in restricted localities on the banks of river Brahmaputra and in tiny yields. The art and science of growing, combing, spinning and weaving those yarns finer than a baby’s hair was limited to a few textile artisans/weaver families too. Less than 10% of the overall cotton yield was of the type, phuti kapas, which was made into the finest Muslins.
The Mughals, those indefatigable patrons of arts and beauty, conquered Bengal in the 16th century and elevated the best quality Muslin further by reserving it for royalty alone. Ain-e-Akbari, the biography of Emperor Akbar records the imperial Muslin with a thread count of 2400 per sq inch, so fine and so light that it could reportedly be packed into a match box. The names of those fabrics themselves are so evocative as to conjure up their delicacy and translucence – Nayansukh (eye-pleasure), Tanzeb (body-ornament), Abrawan (flowing water) Shabnam (evening dew), Bakthawa (woven webs of winds) and more. But fabrics with lower thread counts also continued to be produced and worn by commoners. And all kinds of Bengal cottons continued to be traded across the world.
The story of Bengal is inextricably woven with its political fortunes. The British displaced the Indian rulers, colonised India and prosperous Bengal became their trade hub. For a couple of centuries, they took shiploads of Muslins back to Europe to meet the ever-growing demand. At the beginning of the 18th century, around 40% of the cargo shipped to Europe by the British and the Dutch East India Companies consisted of textiles from Bengal, both muslins and calicoes.
But all that changed when the first textile mills were set up in Manchester in mid-18th century. The Brit output was coarser and rougher than Bengal Muslin. Naturally, no-one was falling over themselves to buy the mill products.
There’s a story on which every Bengali is raised, I was too - that the British solved this problem by cutting off the thumbs of the Bengal weavers to stop the production of the fabric. While this is largely apocryphal, it is an apt metaphor for the way they killed the competition – they just set a crippling tax on the handwoven cloth Bengal had made for centuries with such passion, precision and profit. The milled British cloth was of course pegged at a lower price point than the indigenous Muslin. Looms in Bengal fell silent after a thousand years and whole families starved. In a double blow, the specific type of cotton, phuti kapas - that gave the fabric for those ‘woven winds,’ went quietly extinct in a famine, and then growers turned to other crops which were more profitable. The pool of formidable weaving skills to make those ‘flowing waters’ that ‘pleasured the eye’ were gradually lost. But it wasn’t just the textiles - a whole slew of colonial policies gradually deindustrialised Bengal. However, all is not doom and gloom - the good news is there are studious efforts to revive Bengal Muslin in both in Bangladesh and West Bengal as of now, read about that and .
Like the legendary muslins, the origins of the silk handloom industry in Bengal is also lost in antiquity. Silk was a part of tribal culture in Bengal and the Ganges Delta region for centuries, silk spinning in Bhagalpur in modern Bihar can be traced back for more than a thousand years among the forest dwelling tribes. Tamralipta, the ancient city in the Bay of Bengal was part of the Silk Route in Mauryan times (3rd century BCE). Sericulture, unlike cotton, was limited to the spinning of yarn till recent centuries. Most of the European trade of silk the 16th/17th century consisted of raw silk yarn rather than woven cloth. The Bengal silk handlooms started during the times of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan (1660-1727) who moved the capital of Bengal from Dhaka to Murshidabad. The most well known among the silks was the Baluchari sari – woven with narrative motifs from the mythologies and epics of Hindu, Buddhist faiths, and other scenes depicting contemporary life including the lifestyles of the nawabs and the Europeans. The Baluchari saris were woven from the early 1700’s onwards till about the 1900, when the craft was lost due to the last Baluchari artisan’s death without a successor. These weaves were researched and restored, the motifs reimagined in the 1950’s under a government initiative. Read more here.
Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019