Back in the first century, the Roman philosopher Pliny expressed concern over the Roman people’s obsession with Indian textiles. The textile imports from the Gangetic plain were depleting Rome’s gold reserves. One of the reasons for this trade imbalance was the import of a very particular fabric whose legend dated back to antiquity. Popularly known as ‘morning dew’ and ‘woven air,’ the Dacca Muslin was a highly sought after fabric, especially among royalty and nobility. It is mentioned in the Mahabharata that Yudhisthira received muslin as a precious gift and in Arthashastra, ‘Kautilya’ mentions that the finest handlooms came from the ‘Vanga’ province which is near the present day Dhaka. The Mughal rulers patronised muslin and the Dacca muslin was a part of the official tribute sent by the Governor of Bengal to the Mughal Emperor at Delhi.
It is interesting to understand the reasons that catapulted muslin into the fabric hall of fame. Talking about the special qualities of muslin, Aroop Rakshit of Mahatma Gandhi Gramodyog Sewa Sansthan says, “It is very difficult to make muslin, as it made from a particular strain of cotton called photee kapas, which only grows in the Brahmaputra valley. Since this is a short staple cotton, only women with nimble fingers could weave the yarn. The yarn was made in the early hours of the morning because that was the only period when the humidity and temperature were suitable. This made production really slow but the fabric had a thread count of 1,500-1,600 which is a lot more than the 500 thread count that we can make today.” Historical sources reveal that the premium muslin was weaved in Bangladesh and in the Nadia and Burdwan districts of West Bengal. The British took an interest in Muslin as they were invested in the cotton trade. Forbes J Watson, a British researcher who was conducting research in India in the 19th century, said, ‘With all our machinery and wondrous appliances, we have been unable to produce a fabric which for its fineness and utility can compare to the ‘woven air’ of Dhaka.
The production of muslin was a sore point for the British. Aroop says, “The British tried to steal the technology behind the production of muslin. When they realised that the process could not mechanised or made in a mill, they used taxes and duties to destroy local production. A 25 per cent duty was imposed on export of Indian muslin. The weavers could only sell the cotton to the East India Company at a price that was decided by the company officials. On the flipside, the British imported cheap duty free cotton from Manchester and dumped in the Indian market. The technology is gone and today no muslin is produced in Bangladesh. It is now manufactured in India in Burdwan and Nadia.”
The production process for Dacca muslin was highly intricate and was subject to the harvesting of the crop during favourable weather. A large group of artisans worked together closely to finish this process. Spinning was done with a spindle, rather than the commonly used wheel, to ensure finer yarn. The Dacca muslin yarn was perhaps the supreme example of the triumph of manual skill over mechanised production, for tests clearly established that, both in terms of the fineness of the yarn, as well as the durability of the cloth (because of the greater number of twists in the yarn), the Dacca muslin was superior to the finest machine-made cloth in Europe. Aroop adds, “When the English came they destroyed all the information regarding the manufacture of this particular strain of muslin. One of the steps we have taken to revive production is by reverting to production in mud houses. This allows us to control the temperature and humidity.” A jaw of a particular fish was used to make the fine and thin yarn. The main steps of spinning, carding and weaving were done with utmost care and it took months to produce a single piece of muslin.
Though it is no longer possible to manufacture the famous muslin of the past, there have been efforts by the West Bengal Government to revive the lost art of producing the fabric. Samrat Saha, a major retailer of muslin says, “The government set up Biswa Bangla to boost awareness about muslin. If sales increase, the benefits will accrue to weavers and artisans. Many shoppers prefer muslin and its rarity has increased demand. The delicate silk like cotton takes months to weave and is naturally quite expensive. With a growth in sales, weavers stand to earn more money but not enough to convince their children to continue in the profession.” Speaking about the condition of weavers Aroop adds, “The main issue is that even today weavers, spinners and farmers are not getting a lion’s share of sales. If a muslin sari sells for Rs. 12,000, less than 50 per cent of that reaches the producers as the bulk of the money goes into administrative expenses.”
Bengal handlooms like muslin are back in fashion and have grown popular in foreign markets. Speaking of handloom exports, Samrat said, “We frequently export muslin to foreign markets. Our store has an online presence from where we export to global buyers. Today, we have diversified into muslin wall hangings and decorative pieces. There are also new motifs and designs emerging in jamdani. There was a decline, but muslin has come back in a big way.” Perhaps, the legendary fabric will in time reclaim its status as the pride of India.