Overview of Jamdani

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Jamdani an ancient fine muslin cloth with geometric or floral designs. Although jamdani usually means sari, there are jamdani scarves, kurtas, turbans, skirts, handkerchiefs, screens and tablecloths as well. In the 17th century, dresses were also made of jamdani fabric. Towards the end of the Mughal Empire, a special type of jamdani cloth used to be made for the Nepalese regional dress 'ranga'.
The origin of the word jamdani is uncertain. One popular belief is that it came from the Persian words 'jama', which means cloth and 'dana', which means buti or diapering. Jamdani therefore could mean diapered cloth. It is probable that Muslims introduced jamdani weaving and the industry was their monopoly for long.
The earliest mention of the origin of jamdani and its development as an industry is found in Kautilya's book of economics (about 300 AD) where it is stated that this fine cloth used to be made in Bengal and pundra. Its mention is also found in the book of Periplus of the Eritrean Sea and in the accounts of Arab, Chinese and Italian travelers and traders. Four kinds of fine cloth used to be made in Bengal and Pundra in those days, viz khouma, dukul, pattrorna and karpasi.
From various historical accounts, folklore and slokas, it may be assumed that very fine fabrics were available in Bengal as far back as the first decade before Christ. Cotton fabrics like dukul and muslin did not develop in a day. Dukul textile appears to have evolved into muslin. Jamdani designs and muslin developed simultaneously. The fine fabric that used to be made at Mosul in Iraq was called mosuli or mosulin.
In his 9th century book Sril Silat-ut-Tawarikh the Arab geographer Solaiman mentions the fine fabric produced in a state called Rumy, which according to many, is the old name of the territory now known as Bangladesh. In the 14th century, ibn batuta profusely praised the quality of cotton textiles of sonargaon. Towards the end of the 16th century the English traveler ralph fitch and historian Abul Fazl also praised the muslin made at Sonargaon. The art of making jamdani designs on fine fabric reached its zenith during Mughal rule. There were handlooms in almost all villages of dhaka district. Dhaka, Sonargaon, Dhamrai, Titabari, Jangalbari and Bajitpur were famous for making superior quality jamdani and muslin. Traders from Europe, Iran, Armenia, as well as Mughal-Pathan traders used to deal in these fabrics. The Mughal Emperor, the Nawab of Bengal and other aristocrats used to engage agents at Dhaka to buy high quality muslin and jamdani for their masters' use.
The golden age of Dhaka muslin began with Mughal rule. Since then the demand for jamdani and muslin fabrics at home and abroad grew and this prompted further improvement in their manufacture. According to 18th century documents of the east india company, a high official of the company was posted at Dhaka to buy mulmul khas and sarkar-i-ali. He had the designation of Daroga-i-mulmul. Every weaving factory had an office, which maintained records of the best weavers and other exports. Weavers had no fixed salary. They used to be paid the market value of the jamdani or muslin they produced. It was the duty of the Daroga to keep a sharp eye at every stage of production. Mulmul khas worth about Re. 100,000 collected from Dhaka, Sonargaon and Jangalbari used to be sent to the Mughal court every year.
According to a 1747 account of muslin export, fabrics worth Re 550,000 were bought for the Emperor of Delhi, the Nawab of Bengal and the famous trader jagat sheth. The same year European traders and companies bought muslin worth Re 950,000. Towards the end of the 18th century, the export of muslin suffered a decline. After the English gained diwani in Bengal in 1765, Company agents resorted to oppressing the weavers for their own gains. They used to dictate prices. If weavers refused to sell their cloth at a lower price they were subjected to repression. To stop this repression the East India Company started buying the textiles directly from the weavers.
According to James Wise, Dhaka muslin worth Re 5 million was exported to England in 1787. James Taylor put the figure at Re 3 million. In 1807, the export came down to Re 850,000 and the export completely stopped in 1817. Thereafter muslin used to go to Europe as personal imports.
According to an account from the middle of the 19th century, white muslin with floral jamdani designs costing Re 50,000 was used by the rulers and nawabs of Delhi, Lucknow, Nepal and Murshidabad. There were a number of factors behind the decline of the jamdani and muslin industry in the middle of the 19th century. Among these were the use of machinery in the English textile industry, import of cheaper yarns from England and lack of patronage from the Mughal Emperors and the aristocracy. After the Partition of Bengal in 1947, official patronage was extended to the jamdani industry. After the liberation of Bangladesh, a jamdani village was established at Demra near Dhaka to provide financial support to weavers. Jamdani weavers of other areas, however, suffer from lack of patronage and support of their labour and expertise. The silent looms of village Madhurapur in bajitpur upazila of kishoreganj district speak volumes about the decline of this industry. This village was once famous for producing jamdani cloth and fancy textiles with yarn of 100/300 counts. Another famous village Jangalbari in the same district has the same story to tell.
Manufacturing technique The fineness of muslin cloth used to depend usually on the art of making yarns. The most appropriate time for making yarns was early morning as the air then carried the highest moisture. For making yarns weavers needed taku, a bamboo basket, a shell and a stone cup. They used popcorn, rice or barley for starch. Before making jamdani designs they used to dye their yarn and starch it. For dye they used flowers and leaves of creepers. For quality jamdani they used yarn of 200 to 250 counts. These days weavers buy fine yarn from the market and use chemical dyes instead of herbal dyes. For making jamdani two weavers sit side by side at a loom to work on the delicate designs. Jamdani designs are made while the fabric is still on the loom. Coarse yarns are used for designs to make the motifs rise above the fabric. Originally, the motifs used to be made on gray fabric. Later on fabrics of other colours were also used. In the 1960s, jamdani work on red fabric became very popular. The Victoria and Albert Museum of London has a fine collection of jamdani with work in white on white fabric.
Varieties of jamdani work The main peculiarity of jamdani work is the geometric design. The expert weavers do not need to draw the design on paper. They do it from their memory. Jamdanis have different names according to their design. For instance, panna hajar, dubli jal, butidar, tersa, jalar, duria, charkona, mayur pyanch, kalmilata, puilata, kachupata, katihar, kalka pad, angurlata, sandesh pad, prajapati pad, durba pad shaplaful, baghnali, juibuti, shal pad, chandra pad, chandrahar, hansa, jhumka, kauar thyanga pad chalta pad, inchi pad, bilai adakul naksha, kachupata pad, badghat pad, karlapad, gila pad, kalasful, murali jal, kachi pad, mihin pad, kankra pad, shamukbuti, prajapati buti, belpata pad, jabaful and badur pakhi pad. Present day jamdani saris have on their ground designs of rose, jasmine, lotus, bunch of bananas, bunch of ginger and sago. Efforts are underway to revive traditional jamdani designs. A jamdani with small flowers diapered on the fabric is known as butidar. If these flowers are arranged in reclined position it is called tersa jamdani. It is not necessary that these designs are made of flowers only. There can be designs with peacocks and leaves of creepers. If such designs cover the entire field of the sari it is called jalar naksha. If the field is covered with rows of flowers it is known as fulwar jamdani. Duria jamdani has designs of spots all over. Belwari jamdani with colourful golden borders used to be made during the Mughal period, especially for the women of the inner court.
Decline of jamdani craft For a long time the Mughals used to regulate the production of expensive jamdani. The Daroga of the mulmul khas factory in Dhaka used to engage weavers, who were paid wages in advance. Increased demands for jamdani weavers caused a rise in their wage and subsequently, the prices of jamdani too. Most expansive jamdani exclusively for the royalties were produced in royal karkhana (factory). The aristocratic people also engaged expensive karigar (craftsman) for manufacturing jamdani. Expensive Jamdani had a world market too. Asian and European royalties regularly put up orders for Dhakai Jamdani through various companies. The production of expensive jamdani suffered set back in the early 19th century when cheaper machine-made jamdani began to capture the world market for jamdani.
However, the long tradition of jamdani craftsmanship is still alive. At present, a major problem of the industry is that the weavers do not get adequate wages for their labour. A good piece of jamdani sari needs the labour of one to two months and the wage paid to the weavers does not compensate for their labour. The producers often do not have direct access to sari markets and because of their dependence on the middlemen, who often form informal cartels, they are deprived of their share of profit. Sometimes, the producers fail to recover the costs.
Many organisations now patronise jamdani industry and this is helping the production of superior quality jamdani. Some jamdani saris now sell for up to Tk 10,000 a piece. Sometime in the 1990s, the bangladesh national museum bought a jamdani sari with designs of bunches of grapes and grape leaves for Tk 35,000. The common people cannot afford to buy quality jamdani saris because of their high price.

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