The story of India’s great export, chintz, is told at the Royal Ontario Museum this spring. Using the museum’s world-renowned collection of Indian chintz, the exhibition marks the collection’s first public display in 50 years (since The Origins of Chintz, 1970). The exhibition Cloth that Changed the World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz celebrates the technical mastery, creativity, and far-reaching influence that these colourfully painted and printed cloths have had on the world, from their origins 5,000 years ago to the present day.

On show are Indian textiles from the 13th to 21st centuries that explore the consequences of the global consumer desire for these textiles, not only as coveted luxury items over the centuries, but also by looking at their role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade to present-day environmental concerns.

Exploring this phenomenon in global trade through trade routes, encounters, and exchange, the exhibition shows how this highly coveted cloth connected cultures – and quite literally changed the world. With a focus on costumes and home furnishings, the exhibition features 80 objects spanning 10 centuries and four continents. Religious and court banners from India, gilded wall hangings for the homes of the nobility in Europe and Thailand, and luxurious female clothing all demonstrate the versatility and global desire for Indian chintz.

Textile Trade from India to Egypt

It is believed there was a textile trade from India to Egypt from at least AD 800. However, since medieval times, documents show that cotton textiles from India were also exported and traded across Asia by land and sea. Thailand, Iran, Japan and Indonesia all avidly desired and sought the colourful Indian cloth and, in turn, this shaped the design repertoires of Indian artisans.

From the 16th to early 19th centuries, these luxury fabrics, of novel colour and design, were some of the most highly desired objects in the world. Artisans in India had, over thousands of years, devised ingenious techniques to fix bright dyes to cotton, using complex chemical formulae that modern science still cannot entirely explain. As Sarah Fee, Senior Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the ROM, explains in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, ‘Textual sources – Roman, Greek and Vedic indicate that from at least the first and second centuries, Indian cottons were moving across the breadth of the Indian Ocean to East Africa, Arabia, the Persian Gulf, the regions of the Red Sea, and Southeast Asia.

Oldest Surviving Cotton Chintz

The oldest surviving pieces of cotton chintz have been found in Egypt in the Red Sea ports – there is a textile from Western India for the Egyptian market in ROM’s collection that dates to circa 1400, featuring stylised images of birds. From as early as the Middle Ages, chintz was a key trade good for acquiring the highly coveted spices from the Indonesian islands. Portuguese traders, from 1498 sailed directly to India around the tip of southern Africa, opening up new maritime routes for Western merchants’.

Merchant companies from The Netherlands, Britain and France

By the 1600s, merchant companies from The Netherlands, Britain, Denmark and France were actively trading goods between East and West. In England, during the reign of William and Mary (1689-1694), it has been recorded that the queen had a taste for ‘Chintz and East India calicoes’. Defoe wrote ‘Her Majesty had a fine apartment (at Hampton Court) … most exquisitely furnished, particularly a fine chintz bed, then a great curiosity’.

By the mid-17th century, there was a dynamic change in men and women’s fashion in England; the upper classes had abandoned the traditional heavy broadcloth, as they wanted light and elegant clothing. This demand was first met with silks and linens from France that was subsequently superseded by India’s brightly painted and printed chintzes. This taste for lighter and more brightly coloured cloth also moved into the bedroom.

Rosemary Crill, in the catalogue states that the earliest surviving chintz made for the European market date from this period, the late 17th century, although pintado (using the Portuguese term) were recorded to be on sale in London in 1613. As Crill points out, in the bedroom one of the most common images was of ‘an exotic tree with flamboyant, multicoloured flowers that has come to epitomise India’s textile trade with Europe. While this striking design may be the most dramatic of the patterns that transformed Europe’s interiors in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was only one pattern among many. What all the designs have in common is that they are hybrid inventions, many of them combining Chinese, Islamic, European and Indian elements to form a new category of textile that appealed to the Western taste for the exotic’.

A Boom in Bedhangings in the 1680s

The East India Company (EIC) records indicate a boom in pieces made specifically as bed hangings in the 1680s, with quilts and palampores (many depicting giant flowering trees) that were ordered in great quantities. Crill points out that in 1722 Wanstead House in Essex, the home of Josiah Child, then head of the EIC, was furnished in chintz in its minor bedrooms and dressing rooms.

By the 1730s the craze for chintz had crossed the Atlantic (by way of Britain) and around 1758, George and Martha Washington furnished a bedroom at Mount Vernon with flowered chintz textiles and India figurd [sic] wallpaper. By 1796, the EIC was making its greatest profits by importing cloth, rather than spices. A craze had begun in Europe that would last for centuries – as Indian textiles are still popular for furnishings and clothes throughout Europe today.

Indian Chintz in Western Asian markets of Iran and Armenia

However, Europe was just one small part of the trade. There were also other specialised markets for the cloth, including the Western Asian markets of Iran and Armenia (for the Armenia Trade, see article Asian Art Newspaper, October 2018) that had flourished over the centuries. Steven J Cohen comments in the catalogue that export to Iran was a massive enterprise involving, at its peak, the weaving over a million pieces of cloth a year. However, this figure does not just represent the domestic market, it also includes goods that were transhipped through the Iranian ports of Hormuz and Bandar Abbas on their way to the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and the Central Asian and European markets. A great deal of the Indian painted and printed cloths exported to Iran was in the form of lengths of dress fabric with small design repeats.

Indian Chintz in Maritime Southeast Asia

Indian textiles also played a major and historic role in the trade across Maritime Southeast Asia. The region already had strong ties to the sea-faring merchants of neighbouring countries, well before the Portuguese and Dutch arrived. Indian textiles were deemed valuable by the local population so naturally became a trade ‘currency’. As Ruth Barnes states in the catalogue: ‘These textiles, in Southeast Asia – particularly Indonesia –became integrated into a complex political and social system, where they moved from a secular into a ceremonial context and would eventually be elevated to the high status of heirloom items’.

Specialised markets were also developed in South and Southeast Asia. In Thailand, the court’s thirst for fine imported textiles made the country, from early times, an avid, but discerning, consumer of the best quality Indian chintz. India produced these trade cloths to meet the local tastes of their export markets and in many cases can be seen as being quite distinct from each other.

The Thai Trade

This is especially the case in the Thai trade. As Ruth Barnes points out: the Thai-market chintzes, known as phaa lai and phaa lai ter (if there designs were considered foreign) are among the most easily recognised. There are colour combinations characteristic of the group: darker browns, black, wine reds, and dark violets, as well as pale turquoises and greens that one rarely encounters as dominant colours on the chintz and block prints made for other markets. However, it is the complete opposite in the Sri Lankan (Ceylon) market, where the surviving trade cloths from 17th/18th-century India seem to show that consumers had wide-ranging tastes and were happy to accept a variety of cotton cloths: Coromandel Coast hand-painted chintz; Gujarati and South Indian block-printed cloths and even European roller-printed cloths. Ruth Barnes observes that most of these Indian export cottons closely resemble those that scholars would have otherwise label made for the European, the Thai, Malay, Sumatran, and Javanese markets.

Indian Chintz in Japan

Peter Lee, in his chapter on chintzes in Japan, reveals that in the 17th century, the English and the Dutch were equally involved in the early textile trade in Japan. Known as sarasa in Japanese (the name for the general group of textiles – rather like chintz in English), these cloths were mainly used in Christian rituals, as fabrics for the tea ceremony (tea wares were kept in sarasa pouches), garments for the samurai, merchant classes and in costumes for Noh theatre. Japanese artisans became adept at imitating Indian sarasa to fulfil demand and sarasa come to include textile types such as batik, European printed cottons, and Japanese stencil-dyed cottons – a perspective and demand that continued up until the middle of the 20th century that creates a common genealogy of diverse textiles that originated in India’s export painted and printed cottons.

Of course, there was a huge domestic market for Indian painted and printed cottons, from the block-printed textiles from Rajasthan to the hand-drawn temple hangings created in the south. This exhibition comprehensively covers the whole world of these patterned textiles, from the earliest trade cloths to the modern block-print revival we see today. As these textiles are in as much demand now as they were in the 16th century, it can be seen as an homage to their uniqueness and enduring beauty.

Cloth that Changed the World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz, , at Royal Ontario Museum, Catalogue available.