Lores of the lost legacy of the muslin

muslin magic

There is something decipherably delicate about a piece of cloth long eulogised as a luxury so fine that enabled it to pass through a ring. And not, not just a patch of cloth, not even ‘just’ a meter or so of it, but rather an entire ‘bolt’ of it, some 100 yards to be precise that could easily slip through the width of a ring with an ease that also has been drawn in another similar analogy. Some 60 feet of this cloth could as easily fit inside a mere matchbox, of such fineness is its airy flamboyance that rendered it therefore to be equated with something as ‘the light vapours of dawn’, making for a surreal, almost magical world of drapery, entwined in the sheer luxury of its feel, soft and ‘evocative’, as only can be said of something, even when that is a mere fabric, that has been referred to, rather honoured as “baft-hawa”, literally “woven air”. The allusion here is one so dreamy that can very well pass of as something that can be interpreted as a curious case of a misplaced letter, as an illusion therefore of a cloth woven by mermaids, fairies and even ghosts, and belonging hence to the realm where magic stems from. Even persisting rumours pertaining to the real world had it lay claim to being a rather intricate weave worked out underwater but this luxuriant blend of what had understandably come to capture the fancy of royalty and the like could never do without the element of the exotic that had come to define its glorious premises.

As a fabric now existing only in the annals of history, the Dhakai muslin sure sounds much like some element of a fairytale, conjuring up images of princesses and fairies and damsels decked up in luxurious sheaths of finery, grandiose yet gauzy, graceful and gossamer to an extent conceivable only in the realms of the imagination. And yet throughout history this delicate but still extravagant fabric has enthralled a whole legion of gods and demigods- from having been deemed worthy of clothing statues of ancient and ethereal Greek goddesses to having found precious favor amongst royalty the world over, the malmal ka kapda, as it is locally know has been one of the most exquisite pieces of fabric to have come across in such luxury that is very deservedly the result of an elaborately intricate making process. In its labour intensive endeavor that encompasses an exclusively specialist 16-steps process, dhakai muslin would obviously be expensive but what also made it as rare was its stemming in origin from a really rare variant of cotton. With the Phuti karpas species of cotton that only grew along the banks of the holy Meghna river as the exclusive medium from where the finest quality muslin was handspun in an India of the ancient times to make such fine handwoven fabrics that fetched high prices and enjoyed even higher reputation, it was no wonder that the cloth was considered one of the great treasures of the age and was regularly imported to Europe for much of the 17th and early 18th centuries.

And yet, it is by no means only in the precincts of the recent past wherein the identity and charm of the Dhakai muslin rests. Perhaps the earliest mention of the muslin that sheds light on the exquisite folds of it is also its most exalted praise- what Chinese Buddhist monk and traveller Yuan Chwang attributes as the light vapours of dawn, upon his encounter with the fabric on a certain visit to India in as early as the 7th century. Prior to that however, Indian muslin had also been recounted in the The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, that is probably a mid- first century book by an anonymous Egyptian merchant. Traversing even beyond that time had been the Greek historian Megasthenes who wrote of Indians wearing ‘flowered garments made of the finest muslin’. The first-century Roman author Petronius in his book Satyricon, formulated the dominant trope about muslin as ventus textilis (woven wind) and that which later imperial poets agreed upon with their similar evokations including such poetic terms like abi- rawan meaning flowing water and shabnam or evening dew. Finding mention also in 1298 in the book The Travels by Marco Polo is muslin as a product of Mosul in Iraq while the accounts by Roman authors recognised ‘Generic Muslin’ as the most coveted of luxury goods in the ancient civilised world. Popular therefore with the ancient Romans and their Greek contemporaries of times long back, the muslin has forever held its place of sheen in the fabric world, earning praise also in other recollections through history, as from the 14th-Century Berber-Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta and the prolific 15th-Century Chinese voyager Ma Huan, among still many others.

But nothing surpasses the glory bestowed on this specimen of handcrafted finery that came to characterise the muslin during the heydays of the Mughal rule in India. As aristocratic royalty who had the riches and never squandered any opportunity to live like it, the Mughal rulers had literally lived their larger than life existences in the sheer luxury of the muslin, in its fanciful finesse. The Mughal emperors as well as their wives were in absolute awe of this maverick piece of beauty, patronising it therefore exclusively, with the best weavers being directly employed and making sure that the finest quality of cloth was available as exclusively to them. Equally phenomenal had been the place of pride and prestige accorded to this really royal, almost divine fabric of sorts in other circles of imperial opulence globally, as has been the French case. Receiving the patronage of Queen Mary Antoinette and the favour of Empress Josephine Bonaparte, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte as well as that of Jane Austen’s mother, Dhakai muslin evolved further from its already celebrated origins to a phenomenon held in great stature, even in its famously, or infamously, see through premises, in its particular coveting even over the luxurious shimmer of silk. Crossing over obviously to the expanse of the English empire, by virtue of the hold it exerted upon India by then, was the muslin, first introduced to the colonial powers by Duchess of Devonshire Lady Georgiana when she sent a lace sleeved gown made of the finest quality muslin to her niece Caroline Lamb as a wedding gift.

The American lands remained no stranger as well to this floaty fabric in its wispy weavings as by the late 17th century, it attained immense popularity there to become the fabric that would come to dominate weddings and party dresses as also everyday items such as children’s clothes and curtains. But it was in this veritable expansion of its domain that the muslin began to die out, ironically not as a piece of history that fizzled out on its pride but one that rather bowed down to the lack of it. With the British merchants pushing the muslin weavers into debt and with cheaper alternatives being produced closer to home, the diaphanous textile of the Daedalian failed to make it matter in its ingeniously impressive but extravagantly expensive essence. Eventually, as the muslin began to fall from grace, it lost further its identity, that which was couthed to quite an extent in its already rare and remarkable origins, that which proved to be the cause for the invincibility as well as otherwise of it.

The dying of this rather recherché piece of what is only a naturally exuberant endowment can be understood in terms less vague when we draw attention to the no any dampened demands the muslin exercised even in its delicateness. With a thread count that existed in the range of 800-1200, even as there had existed varieties that saw the count go up to an astounding 2425 threads, that too in a premise exclusively handbound, the Dhakai muslin reveals itself immediately as quite a challenge to work out. While it was to this extravagant thread count that the cloth owes its as extravagant embrace, rendering it the softness and the fineness and also somewhat of a durability that which manifests as the supreme qualities of it, it also meant that it would stand no chance against the far more convenient machine spun options of a technologically advanced world. Produced through community effort in the times gone by which are not easy to replicate in the world of today is this particular piece of history that which calls for specialised expertise not just on part of the people involved but also in the many traditional equipments that are so indispensable to the production of it. From cleaning the cottonballs with the teeth of a certain species of fish to spinning the fibres under exact conditions of humidity and weather to weaving equally intricate designs that mirrored the famous royal tapestries of medieval Europe, every aspect of the Dhakai muslin needs to be acted upon with perfect precision and precise perfection.

Despite however being so ‘endemic’ to Dhaka, at least at a certain point of time in the past, the term muslin has evident European connections. Cotton cloth imported from Mosul to Europe was known as muslin and when the Europeans encountered even finer cotton goods from Dhaka that then was a part of India, the term became more generic a name, extending also to goods imported by the Europeans from other parts of India like Gujrat, Golconda, etc. The authenticity of such basis of its etymology though cannot be exactly verified, with also another theory devising the term muslin to be a derivation from the name of the Indian port town Machilipatnam which was more commonly known as Maisolos in the ancient times. Whatever that might be, the slipping legacy of the muslin meant that today it is a term used to refer to almost any lightweight, gauzy, mostly inexpensive, machine-milled cotton cloth, losing therefore much of its dignity- that persisted despite the immensely satirized transparent nature of it- and exclusivity along with the loss of its identity. The authentic Dhakai muslin is nowhere to be seen today in common view, unfurling its sheer beauty and grace only from behind closely secured and guarded cabinets of museums, out of which not one authentic strand of it can be seen anywhere in its place of origin. A lost craft now, with neither the means nor the method available in exact measure to recreate the magic of moments in history, the muslin today persists as nothing more extraordinary than regular cotton, with however the same weaving technique, the weaving of Jamdani muslin continuing to this date- even bolstered in its recognition by the UNESCO under the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity as well as the granting of a Geographical Indication status to it as recently as in 2020. Even as efforts continue in several regions across the subcontinent to somewhat revive the marvelous might of this magical muslin, sometimes in a decent 300 thread count, sometimes in an extravagant 600 but still falling short of the ‘desired’ thousand by more than a couple hundreds, it indeed is the sad state of reality reinforcing once again the superfine sensibilities of a cloth of cotton, silky enough to slip away with surprising ease, whether it be through something as visible as the aperture of a ring or something as profoundly perceptive as the sands of time.