The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore is presenting its latest installation in the Fashion and Textiles Gallery of garments and cloths from India. Indian textiles have been traded to South East Asia for nearly 2,000 years and were highly prized as wedding dowry, ritual objects, ceremonial dress and even as currency. As with India’s other export markets, many types of cloth were made specifically for the different tastes of this diverse region. They included block-printed cottons, ikat fabrics, and woven silks from Gujarat, and fine chintzes from coastal southeast India. As well as treasured heirloom pieces, simpler printed cottons were made to cater for everyday use.

This installation features pieces from the National Collection, as well as loans from private collections and explores the historic global impact of textile production in India along with its role as evidence of trade and cultural exchange between India and other regions such as East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe. An important trade that spanned the 14th to the 19th centuries, and is still in evidence, to a lesser extent, today. The show also looks how Indian textile designs influenced local designs where these goods were imported and traded.

Among the earliest surviving examples of Indian textiles are cottons made in Gujarat and intended for export. Their designs range from botanical motifs and mythical birds to figural depictions of women entertainers and hunting scenes. Such important early fabrics did not survive in India, but were preserved in places where they were traded. Numerous fragments have been found in Egypt, but some of the largest and best-preserved examples have been collected in Southeast Asia. Notable are the cloths that were prized for centuries within Toraja family treasuries in Sulawesi. There such textiles are known as maa’, sacred cloths believed to possess tremendous spiritual powers, and their use was strictly reserved for major ceremonial events related to life transitions of birth, marriage, and death.

The patterns on these early cotton plain-weave cloths were block-printed and/or hand-drawn with mordant before dyeing with red and brown. Further use of wax as a resist could protect an area of colour from the next dye bath of indigo blue. Deliberate over- dyeing of indigo with red was often used to add another layer of depth to the colour palette. Indian dyers excelled in the use of mordants to achieve colourfastness.

Indian textiles played a major and historic role in the trade across Maritime Southeast Asia. A different style developed for Southeast Asia based on the ikat technique. Gujarati weavers made patola especially for the Indonesian market using techniques such as the double-ikat patolu (plural patola in Gujarati) method. Today, the term patolu refers to a type of sari made in the town of Patan, in Gujarat. These saris are characterised by a rich red colour and bold patterns composed of small squares, created by first tying and dying the warp and weft threads, then weaving the pre-dyed threads to reveal the complete design. Used in India as wedding saris and ceremonial cloths, patola hold a very important place in the history of Indian textile exports to Southeast Asia.

This primary market for these types of textiles had a huge influence on locally produced designs with many Indonesian textile patterns deriving from and interrelated to the major designs found in Indian ikat textiles. In Java, for example, the sultan and members of his court wore waist-sashes and trousers made from patola sporting a variety of geometric patterns based on stylised flowers and leaves. Such patola were not only for garments, they were also used for furnishings and display.

Patola boasts a variety of patterns, but those with geometric and floral motifs were subsequently adapted as items of attire for the priyayi, Javanese nobility, in the courts of Jogjakarta and Surakarta. The kain dodot, a voluminous ‘skirt cloth’ gathered at the waist with a sabuk, ‘sash’ became male court dress. Some were transformed into trousers. Less expensive patola were reworked into formal selendang, ‘shoulder cloth’ for noblewomen and as kemben, ‘breast cloths’. An example of this type of cloth on show in the gallery is seen in a pair of 19th-century breeches with an eight, pointed star pattern, tailored in Indonesia, but of silk patola (double ikat) original from Gujarat. These tailored garments made from silk patola were worn by the wealthy elite of Indonesia.

Some documented examples of Gujarati cloths found on other Indonesian islands, appear to reflect the scale of mediaeval Indian trade. The cloths assumed new functions in their destinations. Islam, introduced earlier from the Arab world, had created Muslim communities who approached textiles as precious items of wealth. They played an important part in the local social contract and were exchanged as reciprocal gifts. Markers too for rites of passage, such as birth, circumcision, marriage and death, they were highly valued as pusaka, ‘heirlooms’. They were ascribed with spiritual and protective qualities as ancestral shrouds passed down the generations. Some were used as coffin covers. However, faced with unforeseen circumstances, supplies of Gujarati cloths gradually dwindled and local cloths became to be made.

An example of an early textile from Gujarat in the gallery is a ceremonial cloth with a betel-leaf design (daun bolu) and dates to 14th to 16th century. This long textile is divided into two halves, one with a denser pattern than the other – sometimes called a pagi sore, meaning night/day. Only one edge has a border, suggesting that it was designed to be cut in two and joined together to produce a square. Both halves are decorated with stylised flowering trees, or daun bolu. Cloths like this were popular in eastern Indonesia, especially in Toraja, Sulawesi. They were used as hangings in house building and harvest ceremonies. Cloths with similar designs dated to the 14th century have been found in Egypt.

Through the generations, Indian cloths were seamlessly absorbed into the Indonesian textile repertoire and continue to play a significant role today. The patola has survived to form revered Balinese double ikat cloths with the sacred cosmic geringsing motif. However, it is the pagi-sore, ‘morning- evening’ double format batik that has an exceptional ancestry. Revealing a different pattern when worn in the reverse, it might be traced to identical Indian leaf motifs from 14th- and 15th-century fragments found among the Toraja and on Egyptian archaeological sites. These and other cloths are emblematic records of links between India, Southeast Asia and elsewhere that go beyond trade, religion and history and contribute to an entirely new chapter on scholarship.

Another source in India for textiles was the Coromandel Coast. Finely woven cotton cloths with exquisite hand-drawn designs in a palette dominated by red and blue were produced along this coast, known for trade, in southeast India. The towns of Masulipatan, Pulicat, Negapatam, Pondicherry, and Fort St George (Madras) served as ports of call for trade vessels and became centres of thriving textile production both for domestic and trade textiles. These cloths, which were sometimes given a burnished surface, came to be known in the West as chintz, and because their designs were drawn using a kalam bamboo pen, the term kalamkari (literally ‘pen work’) came into common usage to describe them. Artisans used the kalam to apply mordants and resists that would reveal the designs upon immersing the cloth in successive dye baths of chay red and indigo blue, with only the occasional painting on of dyes, such as yellow, for particular details.

Coromandel Coast textiles were exported to Southeast Asia from as early as the 5th century, but the volume of trade increased significantly with the participation of Portuguese and Dutch traders, who at first acquired them in India mainly for re-export to Southeast Asia where they could be bartered for spices and other forest products. In the mid-17th century, chintz began to be exported in large quantities to Europe. European taste for chintz favoured undulating floral patterns in brilliant reds, blues, and greens on a light or white background. Such fabrics were used for a variety of purposes, from hangings to household furnishings to dress cloths. Europeans also creatively manipulated chintz cloth through techniques such as piecing, appliqué, and quilting to produce unique garments or furnishings that reflected a distinctively Western aesthetic. Soon these textiles also gained popularity in European markets where, by the 18th century, they were commonly being used as hangings, in furnishings, dress fabrics and scarves at many levels of society.

An example of the craze for chintz in Europe, on show in the exhibition, is an open cotton gown from the Coromandel Coast, dating to the late 18th century. Since imported Indian fabrics were expensive, clothes were rarely discarded, and were instead altered to suit changing fashions. The delicate floral design on a white background on this gown was popular in Britain in the later part of the 18th century and the current gown has been altered from a robe of the 1780s to suit the neoclassical fashion of the period. The bodice has been folded to shorten at the waist, and the skirt re-pleated to join a higher waistline. It would have been worn over a petticoat of silk or matching chintz.

At times the growing popularity of chintz led to restrictions on importation of Indian cloths in efforts to protect local European textile manufacturers, which in turn fuelled a practice of recycling and repurposing precious Indian chintzes. There were specific preferences for each market, and textiles made for the French, Dutch, and English markets are easily distinguishable. The considerable variation in skill, aesthetic detail, and composition by the individual artist producing the textile can be discerned in many extant works.

This repurposing of fabrics was also seen in Japan. The Japanese trade came from India via Banten, Batavia (Jakarta), Pattani, and Ayutthaya (Siam), with the same textiles traded to Southeast Asia also traded to Japan. And an intriguing example in the exhibition is a man’s inner kimono (aigi), from the Taisho period (1912-26), made of silk with Indian cotton patches, drawn and painted, mordant and resist dyed, from the Coromandel Coast dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, with 19th century with European chintz . This kimono was tailored in the early 20th century using much older patches of Indian trade cloth, including a striped gingham (a plain-woven fabric typically with striped check patterns in two tones) and European chintz.

The Japanese sometimes referred to Indian trade cloths as kowatari sarasa, meaning ‘old sarasa of foreign origin’. These fragments were preserved, treasured, and reused for new garments. Sarasa in Japanese is used for the general group of textiles – rather like chintz in English – and 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 became to include textile types such as batik, European printed cottons, and Japanese stencil-dyed cottons, which continued up until the middle of the 20th century, creating a common genealogy of diverse textiles that originated in India’s export painted and printed cottons.

Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore,