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The splendour of Amritsari textiles

by nishaan@magazine

It might be the undisputed food capital of North India today, but once upon a time, Amritsar was a major textile trading centre too, as Jasvinder Kaur writes:

Around 200 years ago, as Maharaja Ranjit Singh, aided by his legendary French generals, was consolidating his kingdom, the latter were introducing rich northern Indian textiles to Europe. At the heart of this trade was Amritsar, the undisputed food capital of North India today, but a major centre for textiles in the not too distant past.

Amritsar, for many centuries, has in one way or the other been associated with textiles, either as a producer or as a trading centre. In fact, it became a centre of production of shawls and was at the forefront of exporting these to Europe during Ranjit Singh’s rule.

Kashmir became a part of the Sikh kingdom in 1819 after Ranjit Singh had incorporated this area. Shortly afterwards, in 1822, Ranjit Singh engaged officers from Napoleon’s army, JeanFrancois Allard and JeanBatiste Ventura, as his generals. But beyond soldering, by 1835 these generals were also exporting shawls to Europe, Amritsar having become centre of the Kashmiri shawl trade.

Weavers and dyers from Kashmir settled in the plains and hills of Punjab during this period. One of the factors that pushed them to do so was famine, and Kashmiri colonies were soon established in the Punjab, particularly Amritsar and Ludhiana and also Nurpur and Tiloknath in what is today’s Kangra in Himachal Pradesh.

Shawls made in Amritsar — jamavar or kani and amli — were of high quality. Writing in 1872, Baden Powell mentions that shawls from Amritsar were close in quality to those from Kashmir. The striped shawls were called jamavar or kitraz, and were particularly popular in Iran and Turkey. These were made by the complicated kani technique. As these were used to make jamas, the word jamavar was also used for them. The amli shawls, on the other hand, were embroidered Kashmiri shawls.

A complex weave

Weaving of kani shawls in the early 19thcentury Kashmir was a slow and laborious process. A single shawl could take up to 18 months or more. Owing to their high demand, a method was devised to weave the shawl in pieces on two or more looms. This way, the shawl was made in much less time.

These pieces were then handed over to the rafugar or darner. He would join them with such precision that it was hard to tell. William Moorcroft, an English explorer mentioned this in his writing in 1821 and called it a recent innovation. He undertook a detailed study of the shawl industry between 1820 and 1823 and wrote an account that has been preserved at the India Office Library, now part of the British Library, London.

Early 19th century saw the beginning of the amli or embroidered shawls. These were introduced in Kashmir at the instigation of Khwaja Yusaf, an Armenian, who came to Kashmir in 1803 as an agent of the Constantinople Trading Company. He saw a chance to produce the embroidered shawls in a much shorter time than kani or jamavar. Since these shawls did not fall into the category of woven shawls, he was also able to escape the duties levied on kani shawls.

His company thus made huge profits and ushered in embroidered shawls. This also pushed the demand for plain pashmina shawls which were then used as a base for amli shawls.

By the third quarter of the 19th century, the important centres of weaving plain pashmina were not only in Kashmir but also in Ludhiana and Amritsar, the holy city becoming a major source. At an art exhibition held in Lahore in 1864, shawls – pashmina, amli, and kani or jamavar – from Kashmir, Amritsar and Delhi were exhibited.

With time, the shawl industry declined and the carpet industry came up to fill the gap. Trade in carpets rose partly on the ruins of the pashmina shawl trade. By 1911, Amritsar was exporting carpets worth Rs 5 lakh and picked up a steady pace after the ‘Great Depression’. Among other specialties made in Amritsar were different styles of embroideries. Powell, in 1872, writes about Lahore and Amritsar ‘as the centres for gold embroidery or salma work’. Amritsar was also producing some of the finest phulkaris, some of which were even exported to America.

During the British Raj, the most important item of import were piece goods, and Amritsar was trading in silk and woollen cloth. Silk trade centre was located at Batti Hattan. It was later shifted to Katra Ahluwalia, which, in turn, became the centre of trading in piece goods. Sant Ram Reshamwala was one of the importers of silk from Europe.

The fabric imported in early 20th century did not just include pure silk, but also artificial silk from Japan, Italy and France. It was cheaper and came in attractive colours. In the 1930s, majority of silk was imported from Japan, so much so that many firms from Amritsar opened offices in Japan. From Europe, cottons with European motifs like roses were imported.

From Amritsar, the fabrics made inroads into other parts of Punjab, and became popular with women, who used them to make suits and dupattas. The designs, patterns and textures were different from what was locally available. Women here knew them by various names like Lady Minton (probably Lady Hamilton), Malaysia, Dil-kipyaas, Aap-ka-nasha, Do-ghorae-di-boski (probably from China), Shangai (probably from Shanghai). The most famous among these was the Do-ghorae-di-boski or double horse boski from China. The brand still sells on alibaba.com.

Fashion fabrics from parachutes

In the Punjab, another interesting fabric that came from abroad and became very popular among women was the one used for making parachutes. Known as ‘parachute cloth’, it was not sold as continuous yardage, but in pieces. The stitched parachute would probably be opened up and sold in triangular pieces or chattrian (umbrellas) about 67 feet wide and 10 feet long. These were probably the surplus parachutes that were cleared for sale after World War II was over in  1945. In the initial years of the war, the material used for making parachutes was silk. After America joined the war by the end of 1941, the Allies used parachutes made of nylon as they were now unable to import silk from Japan.

In Britain, there are many stories of women making their wedding dresses, blouses, petticoats with the RAF parachute material. These were white, lime green and sometimes orange in colour. It was, however, not an easy material to get as it was illegal to obtain this while the war was on. Even the used parachute had to be turned in to the authorities for investigation. Women in England used any material available to them during the war for their wedding dresses, whether it was parachute silk or blackout material, which had been duly bleached.

Many of the fashion fabrics that were used by women in the Punjab before India got  Independence were used as a base for doing salma or gota work. Velvet, another popular fabric, was used not only for garments but also for palangposh (bedcover) or other household articles like cushions. All the fabrics sold during the British Raj were available at shops in big cities. And Amritsar, being a trading centre, played an important part in the textile trade and in distributing it to other parts of Punjab.

Jasvinder Kaur who has worked as a consultant with Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva, is also author of the book: ‘Attire and Textiles of Punjab– Influences of the British Raj.

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