Sahib, Bibi, Nawab: Baluchar Silks of Bengal: REVIEW by Susan S. Bean

CSMVS Museum Mumbai, India. December 11, 2014- February 15, 2015
Accompanying cataloguer by Eva-Maria Rakob, Shilpa Shah and Tulsi Vatsal.
Surat: Tapi Collection, 2014. For availability contact the Tapi Collection

Sahib, Bibi, Nawab is a pioneering project, at last tackling one of the most intriguing late developments in Indian textiles. Baluchar figured-brocade silks have long been admired for their whimsical representations of the colonial elite – Indian princes enthroned on traditional cushioned musnuds; hoo- kah-smoking courtesans seated on chairs; Europeans riding elephants, horses, steamships and trains. Such motifs, playing on the hybrid culture of colonial India, were popular in other genres as well, including painting and clay sculpture.

Europeans in a train; detail of sari anchal, mid-19th century, catalogue #16: courtesy Tapi Collection

Europeans in a train; detail of sari anchal, mid-19th century, catalogue #16

The florescence of Baluchar silks coincides with the extension of British rule across the subcontinent. Until recently, art his- torians passed over colonial India as an era of artistic decay typified by clumsy imitation of the West and lack of imagination. Sahib Bibi Nawab’s presentation of Baluchar weaving adds to the growing revision of this perspective, documenting a much more complicated scenario for colonial art. Although policies benefitting British export textiles and suppressing technological innovation hastened India’s eclipse as a leading global producer of fine cloth, India’s long ascendency in textile arts continued to generate remarkable products, some of which like the Baluchar silks, were very much attuned to their time. Indeed, the elephant-mounted Europeans holding flowers, the courtesans and their hookahs, and the nawabs with cannoneers project a light-hearted, gently barbed perspective on the era. The colonial elite, Indian and European, is served up with a tinge of the subversive by a collaboration among weavers, designers and patrons.

Shilpa Shah and Tulsi Vatsal curated Sahib Bibi Nawab for the CSMVS Museum, Mumbai, a leading innovator among India’s museums. The museum mounted the exhibition in the Curator’s Gallery, a small square space for special changing exhibitions. In a boon for viewers, the curators installed almost all the textiles without glass, stationing two guards in the room to insure the safety of the display. The effect is jewel-box like. One is surrounded by a sensation of color and invited to look closely. The aesthetically pleasing ambiance and intimate size of the exhibition encourage leisurely viewing. The exhibition presents about thirty Baluchar silks. Most are saris, the predominant product; a few are shawls including intricate namavalis with brocaded devotional mantras. Nearly all the cloths are plain-weave, extra-weft brocades in shades from pinky reds to dark purples, figured in golden yellow, green and creamy white. The silk, usually s-twisted warps and untwisted wefts, appears soft and lustrous. Most of the colors are from natural dyes, though later examples incorporate new aniline colors. Naqshabands, master patternmakers, prepared the designs and the means for transferring these to the loom. Weavers executed the designs on a drawloom fitted with a pattern harness operated by a drawboy.

Viewer at the exhibition;courtesy Tapi Collection

Viewer at the exhibition;courtesy Tapi Collection

The Baluchar silks exhibited are from the Tapi Collection, India’s premier private collection, The Tapi’s owners, Praful and Shilpa Shah have been combing the world for Indian textiles since the 1980s. Just over a decade ago, they initiated a series of exhibitions and publications based on their collection: Trade Temple & Court eds. Ruth Barnes, Steven Cohen, Rosemary Crill, 2002; Masters of the Cloth: Indian Textiles Traded to Distatn Shores, ed. Deepika Shah, 2005; In Adoration of Krishna: Pichhwais of Shrinathji, eds. Kalyan Krishna, Kay Talwar, 2007; Peonies & Pagodas: Embroidered Parsi Textiles, eds. Shilpa Shah, Tulsi Vatsal, 2010. Sahib Bibi Nawab is the latest in this series. In the near future the CSMVS Museum will be opening a dedicated textile gallery that will feature exhibitions from the Tapi Collection.

Horse-drawn carriage; detail of sari, early- to mid-19th century, catalogue # 8: courtesy Tapi Collection

Horse-drawn carriage; detail of sari, early- to mid-19th century, catalogue # 8: courtesy Tapi Collection

For the Sahib Bibi Nawab catalogue, the Shahs enlisted Eva-Maria Rakob, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on Baluchar silks. The catalogue essays, and contributions by Shilpa Shah and Tulsi Vatsal, assess the present state of research on Baluchar silks and identify questions that remain unanswered. The center of Baluchar production, presumed to have been the village of that name, now vanished – obliterated by the river’s changing course, was at the time located in the province of Murshidabad, now in the state of West Bengal. The authors evaluate probable sources for the development of Baluchar weaving in Bengal. They note strong connections with Gujarat including similarities between Baluchar saris and Asavali bro- caded silks. They suggest that Jain merchants, traders in silk yarns from Bengal to Gujarat, may have introduced the frame drawloom to the region or that the Nawab of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan, may have brought weavers from Gujarat in western India when he shifted his capital to Murshidabad. Rakob, Shah and Vatsal also include Varanasi as possible source for drawloom weaving, and they note that Cooch Behar in northern Bengal and the adjoining area of western Assam had a drawloom industry with some shared pattern motifs. They also align Assam and Baluchar brocades, which are woven entirely in silk, in contrast to Asavali and Varanasi (Banaras) brocades, which incorporate metal-wrapped silk yarns. While these scenarios presume the drawloom is an import from beyond Bengal, the authors refer to a tantalizing East India Company letter of 1709 mentioning pattern woven silks of undetermined structure in Bengal as an already established export commodity.

The history of Baluchar’s patronage, like its origins, is riddled with uncertainties. The preponderance of saris and devotee’s shawls indicates a clientele primarily of Hindus. The authors wonder, however, if the Bengali elite would have found the colonial motifs on Baluchar silks too bold for customary attire. They postulate that the saris may have been popular among courtesans, professional dancers, singers, and musicians who regularly performed in the palatial homes of Muslim and Hindu aristocrats. They also note the production of Baluchar silks for markets beyond Bengal. Some saris have anchals (deep decorative borders for draping over the shoulder and head) that fall in the correct orientation when draped Gujarati rather than Bengali style. And, Baluchar saris have turned up in Delhi, Jaipur (Rajasthan), and Patna (Bihar) collections, indicating they were likely commodities of the river and coastal trade carried on by Gujarati and Rajasthani merchants.

The demise of Baluchar silk weaving around the turn of the 20th century is also shrouded in mystery. The authors suspect changing fashions in Bengal and elsewhere, including a growing preference for Banaras brocades and Europe-inspired designs. In recent decades Baluchar-patterned saris have been revived, but woven on Jacquard looms with a modern reliance on synthetic dyes.

Sahib Bibi Nawab, the exhibition and the catalogue, succeeds in ensuring a secure place for Baluchar silks in India’s textile her- itage, formulating a plausible historical trajectory and provid- ing clear direction for future investigation. Sahib Bibi Nawab sends an open invitation for new scholarship to further investigate the origins, development, patronage, and demise of Baluchar’s brief efflorescence.

–by Susan S. Bean,, is currently a TSA director-at-large; she was a member of TSA’s founding board.