As part of 'Europe's Asian Centuries', Professor Maxine Berg has developed an innovative oral history project focused on the artisans and crafts of Kachchh, Gujarat, in northwest India. Supported by two research assistants in India - Dr Chayya Goswami Bhatt (University of Mumbai) and Mohmedhusain Khatri - the project collects oral testimonies of families and groups of craftspeople in this unique region.
We recently launched the project in India through a series of presentations in Mumbai, Ahmedadbad and Bhuj. Click here for photos and press coverage.
India’s textiles are one of the keystones of world economic history. Before the nineteenth century they provided global markets from South East Asia and Japan to Europe, the Americas and the Pacific. Fine craftsmanship and local nodes of artisan skill adapted with a dynamic mercantile culture to the specific demands of global markets. That story of the past is now once more a story to be investigated in the present globalization of domestic and world markets. The skills and adaptive creativity which once ‘clothed the world’ are now once again deployed in globalized markets and fashion and design initiatives. Craft skills remain central; ‘tacit’ or unwritten knowledge of techniques is transmitted within and across communities and generations.
This project is a study of local craft skill and knowledge in one region of India - Kachchh in Gujarat - and its adaptation to newly globalized markets. The region of Kachchh has a rich craft culture with a long history. Its textiles were renowned in world markets from ancient times. It remains a strong craft community, and faces new challenges of globalization. There are thousands of pieces of textiles from the region in the world’s museums. But we know little of the area's current ‘knowledge economy’, the skills and working practices of its artisans, nor of its past. The project aims to collect the oral life histories of Kachchh’s artisans through digitised recordings and translated summaries; and to place these on a website connecting Warwick University to museums, design institutes and NGOs in India and Europe. The project therefore aims to place the voices of a remote community on the world stage which their craft-intensive products have long occupied.
We can connect the ways in which global pressures and opportunities were dealt with in the past in Kachchh to how craft communities are now responding to those challenges. These are the issues the project is trying to understand in the much earlier global framework of trade and production of Indian textiles to Europe. Accessing present local understandings of recruitment and training in the crafts and designing and adapting products for world markets provides an insight into past practices and challenges.
India’s main areas of cotton textile production for export in the early modern period were Gujarat, the Coromandel Coast, Bengal,the Punjab and Sindh. Gujarat traded to the Western Indian Ocean, supplying the East Coast of Africa, and from the Red Sea through to Egypt and the Mediterranean from ancient times.
Merchandise coming out of the Gulf of Kachchh was much sought after by Indian Ocean merchants, especially cotton, printed cottons, and textiles. Mandvi in the mid eighteenth century was a cosmopolitan destination of many Indian Ocean merchants especially interested in cotton and textiles. The main destinations for these were the coast of Africa, Zanzibar, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Malabar Coast. With the coming of the Dutch these goods entered into the VOC’s extended intra-Asian trade network with markets in Bengal, Malacca and Batavia and China, and also to the Dutch Republic. Archaeological evidence dates these fabrics in Egypt from the fifth century AD; tenth-century fragments traded to Egypt with vibrant indigo-dyed fragments are in the Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum. There was an extensive trade to Africa in exchange for ivory, and later slaves. The region was annexed by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1573, its ports became linked into a global trading network; its textiles renowned. European trade extended rapidly with the Portuguese ports in Diu from the sixteenth century, and with the Dutch in Surat and in Mandvi in the seventeenth century, followed by the British from the mid eighteenth century.
The crafts developed under the patronage of the royal courts, for long distance trade, and for local ceremonial use. The Kutch dynasty ruled from Bhuj from 1549 until the merger with the Indian Union in 1948, but was marginalised from the later eighteenth century as a princely state under British rule.
Bhuj was also long a ‘knowledge node’ of the crafts including bandhani (silk tie dye), ajrakh (resist cotton printing), embroidery, batik prints, cotton and woollen weaving, lacquerware, enamelling, woodcarving, and silver and gold jewellery work. These crafts developed under the patronage of the royal courts, for long distance trade, and for local ceremonial use among Jat, Ahir, Harijan and Rabari tribes.
We now think of craft as locally embedded; its markets in traditional dress and its skills locally sourced. But the craftsmen of this remote region supplied both the sumptuary and ordinary dress of the nomadic cattle herders of Banni in Northern Kachchh, fine fabrics for the court in Bhuj, and merchants trading from Mandvi to Diu and Surat, and from there to markets in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and South East Asia.
Present Day Artisans, Craft and Global Markets
Kachchh became known in the wider world in the wake of the 2001 earthquake. NGOs converged on the region, and the Indian government developed the area leading north from Ahmedabad into southern Kachchh as the Kandla Special Economic Zone. Today trucks, cars and camels jostle on a four-lane highway leading past many factory developments.
Kachchh in particular is an area where there is a long continuity in craft production. This continues today with families who have practices their skills over many generations, and others who have revived crafts once followed in their families. They have faced an earthquake in 1819 which changed the course of the Indus, and most recently that of 2001 which devastated the region and killed 13,000. Yet many of the crafts have revived even in face of a decline in traditional domestic markets due to the competition of synthetic fabrics, screen-printed prints and mass produced bandhani. Today, craftspeople trade through NGO and Fairtrade craft development organisations (Khamir, Shrujan, Kala Raksha) and some international outlets (Maiwa in Vancouver, Canada). They are otherwise accessing where possible international folk art markets, such as that at Santa Fe, but artisans are competitively selected to participate in these. They also sell to local, regional and national markets in India. Some seek design initiative, working with the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and the National Institute of Fashion and Design in Delhi. Markets, design and training are major challenges in the global setting of the region today. There is a formalization of practices, design and knowledge in NGOs, schools and international trade, but tacit knowledge is not necessarily incorporated into these new contexts. The opportunities and challenges of new national and global markets now are helping some; others seek these.
- To collect oral histories of craftspeople to connect to the histories of material culture in the craft communities of Kachchh, India.
- To collect the current perceptions of craftspeople on the challenges of world and local markets, on new technologies and products, and on training opportunities for new generations.
- To place digitised recordings (most in Kutchi, some in English) on a website with access by permission. To place summaries in English and Gujarati on a public website.
- The collection of life histories will to provide both local and world museums with what they do not have – they have the objects, but not the history of how and why these were made.
- To provide through the interviews and summaries the views of craftspeople at all levels to researchers, design and training institutes, NGOs and government policymakers.
Further Reading and Links
Ruth Barnes, Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection at the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1997).
Rosemary Crill, Textiles from India: The Global Trade (Calcutta, London, New York: Seagull Books, 2006).
Arindam Dutta, The Bureaucracy of Beauty: Design in the Age of its Global Reproducibility (London: Routledge, 2007).
Eiluned Edwards, Textiles and Dress of Gujarat (Ahmedabad and London: Mapin; V&A Publishing, 2011).
Douglas E. Haynes, Small Town Capitalism in Western India. Artisans, Merchants, and the Making of the Informal Economy, 1870-1960 (Cambridge: CUP, 2012).
Christopher W. London, The Arts of Kutch (Mumbai; Marg Publications, 2000).
Abigail McGowan, Crafting the Nation in Colonial India (Palgrave: New York, 2009).
Ghulam Nadri, ‘Exploring the Gulf of Kachh: Regional Economy and Trade in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, 51 (3) (2008), pp. 460-486.
Giorgio Riello and Tirthankar Roy (eds), How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500-1850 (Leiden: Brill, 2009).
Azhar Tyabji, Bhuj: Art, Architecture, History (Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2006).
Websites and Online Resources