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Muslin -Our Story

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Muslin -Our Story
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Muslin -Our Story

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Item Code: NAR651
Author: Shahidul Alam
Publisher: Bangladesh National Museum
Language: English
Edition: 2016
ISBN: 9789843400130
Pages: 245 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Other Details: 11.50 X 10.00 inch
weight of the book: 1.7 kg
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Few fabrics in the world have acquired - and retained - the mystique of Bengal's 'woven air': the incredibly fine cotton muslin that has been prized in the subcontinent and far beyond for millennia. The exquisite fineness of Bengali mul-mul made it the preferred fabric of Mughal emperors, who teamed muslinjamas with ropes of costly pearls and rubies to emphasise the understated elegance and symbolic simplicity of their clothing. The delicacy of the finest muslin garments meant that they were reputed to last only one night of wear, and this very real fragility also accounts for the scarcity of surviving historic pieces even in museum collections today.

The beauty and skill of plain muslins and their woven jamdani counterparts have led to their inclusion in many surveys and exhibitions of Indian textiles, but they have only rarely been accorded a whole book of their own. This new publication takes the reader on a journey through some of the locations visited in search of the elusive cotton plant itself, which is of course the key to the production of the legendary muslin yarn. We also visit the people involved in today's muslin production, from cultivation to spinning and weaving. While this output is massively diminished in comparison to the historical situation, the book also explores the products being made today and looks to the future of muslin growing and weaving in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

The author looks in detail into the history of production and trade in muslins, both within South Asia and externally, and explores the impact of muslin on the culture and economies of Bengal and India. Evocative photographs depict a craft that awaits revitalisation, and this book will surely contribute to that new life.


Having heard Saif speak of muslin over the last three years, I had gained some knowledge, albeit second hand. Going out filming with him to museums, arboretums and libraries, I had met some of the world's leading experts. Lived part of the history. A surprise awaited me. It is not a book written by an expert but a labour of love, written by a hungry enthusiast, not yet jaded by the weight of authority.

It has all the facts. The rigour of research. The scholarly precision. The concern for one's fellow human. The hurt and the anger of having been wronged. These, however, were milestones along the way. The book took me elsewhere. It placed me not only along the forty miles of a meandering river, unique in its topography, geology and climatic character, but in the homes of the weavers, in the plush residences of colonial rulers, in grand Mughal palaces. I heard the ghazals, the landing of the big ships, the whispers of conspiracy. I saw the taxman at the door, the worried brow of a hapless farmer. I heard the gnawing hunger in a starving child's belly. The crack of rifle fired by one's own people serving a foreign master. But these too were subplots. Bit players who played their roles and moved on. The play has a bigger plot.

The spirit of a ghostly fabric led me by the hand. It was not an evil spirit that wanted harm, but a spirit that had been hurt, and wronged and forgotten. A spirit that had walked the corridors of power, felt the delicate touch of a young woman's fingers smoothed by mother of pearl, spinning the yarn. It had passed through the fine toothcomb of the predatory boot's jaw. It was not a spirit returning to haunt us, but to lead us along long untrodden paths. It opened creaky doors with rusted locks, blew the cobwebs off musty shelves, opened an old page revealing a long-pressed leaf, with faded colours. It was not here for vengeance, for this was not a fearful ghost, but a playful child. It wanted to dance, to light the chandeliers, to play with the children, to listen to poetry. It was a spirit longing to be human. To bathe in the mild waters of the Meghna, to walk barefoot. sensuously along marbled corridors. It enjoyed music and laughter and while it showed me the horrors of greed and the evils of power, it also took me on a magic carpet. A carpet that not only crossed seas and floated over clouds, but went across time, across races, across cultures.

As I leafed through the pages, pausing at an arresting image, or smiling at an anecdote, the spirit took me between the lines, underneath the images, beyond the ink and paper, into the mystery of the lives themselves. It pointed me to Jane Austen's writing desk, gnarled and smooth with use. To Josephine's collection, shielded from prying eyes. To Clive's acquisitions caged in glass in ivy-cloaked castles in remote Welsh hillocks. It also took me to Gandhi's ashram, to secret meetings. I heard the clanging of brass plates laden with home-made pitho, freshly made on a winter morning, felt the fine mist in narrow corridors as the warm monsoon rain beat against bamboo walls. I saw the cotton rise as it wafted upward in the humid air on a boat moored by the bank. I also heard whispers of rebellion, hopes of freedom. Promises made to children that things would be different.

I heard the hum of the spinning wheel and felt the taut twine, as a hand stretched out from the wheel in ever-measured pace, silently counting, 200, 250, 300 ... 500. I saw the gossamer being born.

I heard the lapping of the waves, the squeaking of wood against wood, the sound of the shuttle, the sobbing of the weaver. Most importantly, I heard the silence of a loom as it finally stopped.

The spirit had a story to tell. Tales of great adventure, but also quiet stories, of spinners and weavers and small-time traders, for whom muslin meant much more than a fabric to be worn. It represented not only a livelihood, but life lived at a different pace, where people gathered around storytellers, where journeys over land and sea, could take months or years. Where a letter arriving was village news, as was the selection of a sari by a princely ruler, validating the craft of an entire community. It was a spirit that wanted freedom from dark rooms and musty walls. A storyteller that yearned for a listener.

On a wintry evening, huddled around a bonfire, with flames licking the darkening sky and the crackle of logs punctuating its soft voice, the spirit takes a deep breath. Hush, dear reader, sit cross-legged around the fire and warm your hands. You are the listener the spirit has been waiting for.


Muslin - what magic does the name hold) What mystery lies enfolded in the filaments of this fabric) Who wove it? who wore it? To look upon it today is to view a discorded rag, off-white, slightly awry, sometimes studded with floral patterns, or plain, with at best a golden edge framing the central cloth. Did the fool and his lady fair' fall for the hallucinatory spin of the wooden wheel, the monotonous shuttle of the handloom or get swept off their feet in a medieval designer's hysteria) Was this the start of the 'wannabe' culture that continues with the Diors of today)

Textiles have been spun, embroidered, shaped and draped across the shoulders of both the common people and of royalty in every culture. We know that more intricote designs have been printed or embroidered into the body of a cloth, grander tapestries have been hung and richer silk has been spun. Muslin, after all, was simply cotton, fine and fragile, which most Mughals discorded after a day's wear, so diaphanous and see-through Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb chided his daughter for appearing nude, while she actually wore seven layers of it, one that provided neither strong shelter from the weather nor was an effective barrier to unwanted gazes. Tedious and time-consuming to make and almost impossible to hold, a full dress of 'woven air' was beyond a measurable weight, the final product rare and only fit as supreme leisurewear and little else.

Perhaps herein lies its allure; the arachnidan pattern, the interwoven threads providing only a semblance of protection, the perpetual caress of cloth feeling like a second skin. The skin of the moon' said Abul Hasan Yaminuddin Khusrow, Indian poet (7253-1325 CE), its reality was an illusion in texture. While wearing jamdani (interpretations of the term differ but one translation is 'flowers in a container'), the master weaver's goal was to ensure that the flora on the fabric would appear to float, to trick the eye into beholding a design suspended across the body by the beauty of its wearer and subsume the skill of its maker, to carry the beloved garden of the Mughals around oneself like a scent without a source, for an audience to discover a third dimension long before 30 was officially discovered.

Did it thumb its nose at royal conventions, daring that courtly gossip be fuelled by its transparency while the power to obtain it and the glory of wearing it remained on the wearer's side) To hold the fabric gaze upon it, is to be transported into a timeless past, where the sheen of antiquity on the soft cloth is heightened by a luminescent after-glow Lighter than a lover's sigh, softer than a butterfly's wings, in its transparent simplicity lay its subtle pull upon the imagination of poets, and on the pockets of those who could afford it.

How many poems did it ink? How many loves did it inspire) If the threads could speak, would they reveal more than we core to know) Would we feel guilty that the cloth that had brought us such perpetual fame was not protected by us from the changes in its environment? How many wars did it provoke) How many deaths did it determine) What was the weight of the greed that it added to the misery of its makers) Why was its lustre allowed to fade?

Today, we can only conjecture the answers to these questions, while in our mind's eye and our inner ear we imagine the early morning whirring of the spindle, the late night slide of the shuttle, the dip of the needle and gaze through its finished threads to wonder at the magic and mystery of it all.

At the least, muslin's full story needs to be known and todoy's survivors of those legendary spinners and weavers of the past deserve our collective core.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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