The Bride might as well clothe herself with a garment of the wind as stand forth publicly naked under her clouds of muslin.”
— Galius Petronius Arbiter
We may be familiar with the term ‘muslin’, but do we know the real muslin? Have we felt that fine fabric which Marco Polo likened to ‘white gold’, or seen anything close to the delicate and diaphanous folds of Bengal muslin kameezes that were packed in snuff boxes, and gifted to Madame de Pompadour? Do we know the rigour of those that farmed the phuti karpas, spun the shimmering silvery, cotton fibre into extremely fine yarn, and the ardour of hands that wove it into the finest of fabrics, whose very charm became the crux of its demise?
Working with mulmul some years ago, I researched the fabric to discover that I was working with machine-made cotton voile that merely mimicked the muslin of yore. Muslin was unique. A fabric so fine that Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb is said to have chided his daughter for appearing in the nude when, in fact, she was draped in seven layers of it.
Making it involved an arduous process that engaged 10 different professionals from spinning to packing, and its history dates back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. To refer to the mulmul we get in the marketplace today as muslin was a travesty. The story of muslin is the stuff that legends are made of, carrying within its folds a telling tale of power and politics, poetics of fashion, and the declining value of working with the hand.
Muslin defined a broad category of fabric generally implying fine, white or off-white cotton cloth. There are few indicators to tell us how fine this fabric was, but 250 count and above was the starting point for what was called muslin. It was mostly plain, edged with gold or red, woven or embroidered with motifs, and rarely dyed. Among the few places that produced fine muslin in undivided India, Dhaka muslin was considered the benchmark. Its cotton was glossy, feather-light and transparent. Its fibre was capable of being spun into threads of above a thousand count.
The weavers produced both plain fabric and the flowered jamdani — also called ‘Aurangzebi’ because it was favoured by this Mughal emperor. Mughal rulers adopted muslin, especially the mulmul khas, as the fabric of their choice. The fine, loosely-woven cotton fabric allowed air to move easily through the material and was suitable for a hot and dry clime. It was also befitting from the ascetic view of Islam that frowned upon male ostentation. Plain white muslin jamas teamed with pearls and rubies emphasised the understated elegance and symbolic simplicity of the clothing of the Mughals.
The unique Dhaka muslin, woven from a special cotton plant called the phuti karpas, was identified by William Roxburgh, the father of Indian botany, (1751-1815) as Gosspypium arboreum (tree cotton). Grown along the mud-lined banks of the Brahmaputra, this rain-fed cotton was nourished by flood-borne nutrients of the Meghna river in East Bengal. It is now extinct and nothing quite resembles the red-stemmed plant that had bloomed in Bengal’s unique riverine nursery. The fact that the plant which created this legendary fabric has been wiped out, speaks of the ethics adopted by mechanisation.
The use of muslin was not confined to the subcontinent alone. Muslin circled the globe with trade dating back to the ancient Greeks, who bought it from Machalipatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Roman statesman and scholar Pliny lamented on the expensive tastes of Roman women for muslin that withdrew “from our empire one hundred million of sesterces every year — so dearly do we pay for our luxury and our women.”
References of trade with the Roman and the Chinese empires are found in Ptolemy’s Geography, in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, and documents by ancient Chinese travellers. Roman trade started to decline in 475 CE, and by early 17th century, Arabs became India’s dominant trade partners. Italian traveller Ludovico di Varthema (1503-1508) noted that “fifty ships are laden every year in this place (Gaur or Bengal) with cotton and silk stuffs…these same stuffs go through all Turkey, through Syria, through Persia, through Arab Felix, through Ethiopia, and through India.”
An item of luxury
European historical records are replete with accounts of muslin as an item of luxury; an accessory for royalty, a necessity for the privileged and an aspiration for the emerging merchant class. Marie Antoinette was introduced to the fabric by her milliner, and despite Napoleon’s aversion for a fabric symbolic of his arch enemy, Josephine owned 100 dresses of muslin. Europe used to procure the muslin through Iranian and Armenian merchants, but with the establishment of European companies and their settlements in Bengal in the 17th century, export of Muslin from India increased enormously. Its later decline was due to loss of patronage from the Mughal emperors who lost power, prestige and buying capacity. With the establishment of East India Company’s monopoly, trade with other European companies diminished.
However, the most significant reason for change in the status and decline of the muslin handloom production in India was the industrial revolution in England. Costly handcrafted cotton goods, particularly muslin, lost out in competition with cheaper fabric produced by machines. As Karl Marx noted, “It was the British intruder who broke up the Indian handloom and destroyed the spinning-wheel. England began with driving the Indian cottons from the European market… and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons.”
When muslin fever began to sweep across England in the 1680s, English weavers and wool manufacturers lobbied for restrictions and eventually, it was their sophisticated mechanical inventions which replaced the handmade muslin forever. Exports of muslin from Britain sky-rocketed between 1760 and 1780, cotton exports from Dhaka dropped 50% between 1747 and 1797, and by 1817, had ceased altogether. Incompatible with mechanised spinning, the short-staple cotton of the phuti karpas was replaced by long-staple American cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), leading to the extinction of phuti karpas. Aided further by the famines in Bengal, the fabric that had once captured the imagination of poets as “woven air” with “light vapours of dawn”, vanished forever.