The British Empire Library

Sahib, Bibi, Nawab. Baluchar Silks of Bengal: 1750-1900

by Eva-Maria Rakob, Shilpa Shah, Tulsi Vatsal

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This is a beautifully produced book about a fascinating and unusual subject - Baluchar silks. It was published to coincide with an exhibition of these lovely fabrics, usually saris or shawls, from the Tapi Collection at Surat. 'Baluchar' in the Bengali language means a sandbank, an odd name for a particular type of silk. But one has to remember that the Bhagirathi which separates the little town of Murshidabad from its sister town on the left bank, is a capricious river that has been known to change course in historic times. In doing so, it has thrown up sandbanks which have become amalgamated over time into the fertile soil of the twin towns, or has slipped back into the river. The area round Murshidabad was particularly suited for mulberry trees, the habitat of the domesticated silk-worm moth. It produced a creamy silk which took and held dyes beautifully although it is the extraordinary richness of the woven patterns which distinguish Baluchar silks. The deep sari borders typically show figures in procession, or individually framed in small alcoves. Many of them are of course Indian people - rajas shown in profile, holding a flower, men and women smoking hookahs, carriages pulled by prancing horses and so on. But there are Europeans here too, woven into the fabric.

A fine example has a European couple in early 19th century dress seated in a carriage , the man holding what looks rather like a beer bottle. In another three English soldiers stand guard around a large cannon and in a third, a steam locomotive puffs happily along the woven border with its carriages and European engine driver. Passenger trains were operating from the early 1850s, presenting as the writers say , a new and exotic subject for Murshidabad weavers. There is tantalisingly almost no written evidence about the origin of Baluchar silks and it is only from internal evidence like the woven train that approximate dating can be made. It seems to have started about 1750, possibly earlier, and this coincides with the heyday of Murshidabad, before it lost its place as the capital of Bengal to British Calcutta. Stylistically there are links with Gujarati saris, and the suggestion is made that Jain merchants from India's west coast brought patterns to Bengal when they emigrated to the rich Murshidabad court. Baluchar saris were exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1855 and the Royal Jubilee Exhibition in Manchester in 1887. Fashions change however, and the plainer 'Bombay sari' was introduced by upper-class, westernised Bengali women, which meant the multi-coloured Baluchars were subsequently seen as over-ornate and old - fashioned. By 1894 there were only six naqsha (pattern) looms left in Murshidabad and only one man who knew how to set them up. Thirty-four pieces, mainly saris, are illustrated here in colour, with explanatory notes. A lovely book.

British Empire Book
Eva-Maria Rakob, Shilpa Shah, Tulsi Vatsal
First Published
Tapi Collection
Review Originally Published
Spring 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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