The Allure of Fine Jamdani
This old Mughal miniature depicting Mughal Emperor Jahangir reflects his love for all things fine especially rich textiles - around his waist he has a sash which was made using the finest Dhaka Jamdani that his family loved. In fact it is believed that the Jamdani - which combined Persian motifs on the finest Dhaka muslin was so prized by the Mughals that only the royals were allowed to wear it. So why was it so prized and how did it come to be so coveted?
Jamdani and the Royal Courts
The Jamdani is a fine weave that gets its name from the Persian word "Jama" meaning cloth, and "dana" which refers to fine repeat designs . While Bengal and the land around the Ganga was known for its exquisite muslin - the finest of cottons, the art of Jamdani reached its zenith during the Mughal rule in the 17th century. We get references to a number of towns around the city of Dhaka, such as Sonargaon, Dhamrai, Titabari, Jangalbari and Bajitpur that were famous for making fine quality jamdani muslin. Over the centuries European merchants, along with those from Persia and Armenia would flock to the region to buy fine muslin. Muslin was used not only for sarees but also for scarves, kurtas, turbans, skirts, handkerchiefs, screens, and tablecloths.
So prized was this Muslin even in the Mughal court, that the local Mughal governors appointed a special officer ‘Darogha-i-Mulmul’ or the ‘Chief Officer for Muslin’ to oversee its production and procurement. The Daroga diligently oversaw every stage of production, ensuring that the quality was maintained. Late 17th century records show that the Darogha procured Muslin worth Rs one lakh and sent it to the Mughal court at Delhi and Agra. Historic records reveal that in the year 1747 muslin worth Rs 550,000 was purchased for the Emperor of Delhi and the Nawab of Bengal.
The Making of Fine Jamdani Muslin
The mastery of Jamdani weaving depends on the art of yarn-making. Traditionally, weavers would carefully select the early morning hours when the air carried the highest moisture for optimal yarn production. The weavers work on the muslin looms between 4 to 10 am in the morning to get the best results. The weaving cannot be done during high noon, as the heat and the high humidity make the threads harder, which in turn makes them more prone to breaking. In fact the high quality of muslin, with 600 to 700 thread count, can only be woven for an hour a day!
With the aid of a bamboo basket (taku), a shell, and a stone cup, they would create yarns and utilize rice, or barley for starching. Then the yarns were dyed with natural dyes and intricate Jamdani designs are meticulously woven by two weavers sitting side by side at a loom.
Jamdani was known for its traditional designs. For example, a Jamdani with small flowers embroidered on the fabric is known as ‘butidar’, while if these flowers are arranged in a reclining position, it is known as ‘tersa jamdani’. A particularly beautiful pattern is the ‘Jalar Naksha’, in which the entire length of the Sari is decorated with a pattern of creepers and peacocks.
The almost transparent softly gossamer-like qualities of the Jamdani muslin fabric made it very popular in Europe. In the early 18th century, muslin replaced silk as an item of luxury clothing, especially under the patronage of French Queen Mary Antoinette and Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Such was the demand for Indian fabrics like Calico and Muslin, that the British Parliament had to pass a series of laws in the 1720s banning their import.
Following the battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India company took over the administration of Bengal from the 1760s. They began brutal exploitation of weavers as well as started edging out rival Indian merchants from the Muslin trade. These brutal trade practices coupled with a series of famines, led to a decline in the textile industry. According to British East India company records, while in 1787, Muslin worth Rs 50 lakhs was exported to England, by 1817 this export had completely stopped. The industrial revolution and competition from machine made fabrics led to an eventual deterioration of the condition of the weavers.
Revival of the Jamdani
But in the last fifty years, Jamdani has seen a remarkable revival, in Bangladesh as well as Kalna region in West Bengal. Textile revivalists like Ruby Pal Chaudhary and the Craft Council of West Bengal have worked with master weavers to set-up looms and revive old designs. The white muslin adorned with floral Jamdani designs, once prized by the Indian royals, began to be reproduced for modern connoisseurs.
Today, Jamdani is being reinterpreted for modern tastes. While the base is no longer muslin, fine dresses in 100% organic cotton are becoming very popular. The lightweight breathable fabric has become very popular summer wear and is being reinterpreted by modern designers.
From the royal courts of India to designer boutiques today, Jamdani fabric has kept its timeless allure. At Peepul Tree we are trying to get this fine fabric into modern wardrobes. Check out our Jamdani and fine cotton collection of women's wear.
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