Fig. 7

V&A IM 24-1994 unrolled in the Raphael Cartoon gallery for measurement and conservation assessment © Avalon Fotheringham

V&A IM 24-1994 unrolled in the Raphael Cartoon gallery for measurement and conservation assessment © Avalon Fotheringham

A Patchwork Portfolio: Thoughts on a Kathi bhitiyav

In 1994, a very remarkable object arrived at the V&A by way of some very strange circumstances. Sometime earlier, a Mr Jerome Burns had discovered the object abandoned outside a New York warehouse. A note from curator D A Swallow in its acquisition records reads: Mr Burns told us when we met that he found the textile in a heap thrown out on to the pavement near a Brooklyn East-side factory/warehouse. He returned to his office, and when he could get help with a lift went back to fetch it. Other objects left in the same heap were crates or covers for barrels of alcohol! Therefore there is no real clue as to the source of the cloth. Perhaps feeling it rather large for display in their living room, Mr Burns and his wife made a present of the object to the V&A. It is a 16.8 x 2.5 metre long appliqued bhitiya, a wall hanging of the variety made in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. It is thought to date from roughly the 1920s to the 1940s, over which time it is possible the work was sold along with many other pieces as a result of famines in the region in 1922 and 1940.[1] As both textile art and cultural artefact it is a spectacular piece. But on closer inspection it is also revealed as an impressive – if unexpected – record of industrial textile design – a patchwork portfolio of printed cottons likely designed and printed in Britain for the Indian market.

V&A IM 24-1994 detail © Victoria and Albert Museum

V&A IM 24-1994 detail © Victoria and Albert Museum

There is already much authorship on the consequences of British textile exports to India in the 19th and 20th centuries. From economic to sartorial treatises, the effects of the European industrial revolution on the sub-continent is a well-explored, though still contentious, academic arena. Investigated through political satire, import and export rates, manufacturing volumes, and industrial patterns books, the resources for research on the British-Indian textile trade are plentiful. Less well documented, however, has been the actual use of British textiles in India through surviving objects.

A young woman wearing a possibly European printed choli, c. 1880 © 19cphoto.com, and V&A 8250 (IS), a similar European printed cotton choli in the collection © Victoria and Albert Museum

A young woman wearing a possibly European printed choli, c. 1880 © 19cphoto.com, and V&A 8250 (IS), a similar European printed cotton choli in the collection © Victoria and Albert Museum

This bhitiya would have been made by members of the Kathi community of Gujarat, used for celebrations such as marriages. Hung up, the piece creates an enclosed space the size of a small room, complete with window panels that can be rolled open. All along the length of the piece parades of figures marching towards one of two central sun-like medallions are depicted through katab (applique). This parade corresponds with J M Nanavati’s description of Kathi bhitiya compositions: In the pictorial class scenes connected with marriage ceremony such as of Krishna and Rukshamani or Usha and Aniruddha wherein are staged gay processions depicting chariots, cavalry, elephants, camels, trumpeters, escorts, the marriage pandol and the auspicious deity Ganesh attended by his consorts Wealth and Achievement. This iconography is explored further by V Rivers in Decoding the Divine: Kathi Embroideries of Saurashtra. Rivers analyses the many cultural references in Kathi work, arguing that Kathi embroideries typically incorporated a range of influences, ‘from Zoroastrianism, Mesopotamia, trade with the Egyptians, and dispersions through the Greeks and other peoples of the Mediterranean world.’[2]

Indian tie dyed (now degraded) and brocaded silk scraps used for the toran (doorway hanging) portion. © Avalon Fotheringham

Indian tie dyed (now degraded) and brocaded silk scraps used for the toran (doorway hanging) portion. © Avalon Fotheringham

Applique work on Kathi bhitiyas is typically composed of a mix of old cottons and silks – as indeed this piece demonstrates. What makes the V&A’s bhitiya so interesting in the context of British industrial history is the kinds of cottons used in making up the figures.

A marching figure of industrially printed cotton © Avalon Fotheringham

A marching figure of industrially printed cotton © Avalon Fotheringham

Many of the figures are appliqued of cottons with flat colours and crisp graphic lines, indicating they were industrially roller printed. The shade of red consistent across all the patterns is arguably that of Turkey red, which further points to European production. But most convincingly, the designs themselves are strongly suggestive of British manufacture – quite possibly the productions of the United Turkey Red Co. in Scotland.

Marching figures made of industrially printed cottons © Avalon Fotheringham

Marching figures made of industrially printed cottons © Avalon Fotheringham

The United Turkey Red Company Limited (UTR) operated between 1897 and 1961. Turkey red, being a bright and fast dye, was in high demand internationally, and the Scottish Turkey red production was mainly focused on goods for export. It was in fact this export industry that was the impetus for the union’s creation. As N Tarrant explains in ‘The Turkey Red Dyeing Industry in the Vale of Leven’: The Vale of Leven [in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland] was by the end of the nineteenth century a highly specialised and sophisticated industry, geared to its markets and able to withstand most competition. However, because of its specialisation and dependence on overseas markets it was vulnerable to changes in those markets, and these began to affect it in the 1890s. The government of India was anxious to make the country more self-sufficient in textiles and it proposed to introduce new tariffs to help keep out the foreign competition from both the British and Continental firms. The Turkey red dyers were amongst to most vociferous in trying to force the Indian government to rescind the tariffs. To help themselves they decided, in October 1897, to form a virtual monopoly company to be called the Turkey Red Company Limited (UTR).[3] But even with a monopoly, the UTR’s exports to India had to appeal to Indian consumers if they were to compete against India’s domestic textile productions, and their cotton designs relied on understandings of what Indians wanted. These understandings have been long and roundly criticised as poor, and resulting in garish patterns. Sharply printed imitation tie-dyes, cartoonish depictions of dancing girls and a wide variety of peacocks are some of the most recurrent themes.

Screenshot 2015-04-14 10.42.28

Fabric samples from United Turkey Red Co Ltd Sample Book © Archive Services, University of Glasgow 2013

Fabric samples from United Turkey Red Co Ltd Sample Book © Archive Services, University of Glasgow 2013

Beyond the economic debates around India’s real or perceived de-industrialisation as a result of British industrialisation, or the resulting political consequences of such printed cottons, criticism of the actual designs themselves has been grounded in issues of taste and authenticity. Critics argued that the designs were poor as a result of a combined lack of care on the part of the manufacturers (concerned wholly with what could be produced cheaply) and a clichéd understanding of Indian aesthetics and culture.

Fabric samples from United Turkey Red Co Ltd Sample Book © Archive Services, University of Glasgow 2013

Fabric samples from United Turkey Red Co Ltd Sample Book © Archive Services, University of Glasgow 2013

However, Professor S Nenadic of the Colouring the Nation research project, argues differently. Over the course of the project, which investigated the cultural and global impact of Scotland’s decorative textile industry, it became evident that the UTR took great pains to ensure their patterns were wanted. Though as manufacturers they were still motivated by sales, a great deal of communication with representatives in India doing market-testing and, to an extent, amateur anthropological research, went into the designing of these patterns. There were concerted attempts at religious sensitivity regarding iconography, and specific regional preferences of colour and technique. As Nenadic explains in a Historical Association podcast:

I think the area of the industry that we’ve most been involved in is to do with design, and I think this has challenged a dominant paradigm […] There were great debates in the nineteenth century about ‘good design’ […] There was a lot of sniffiness about Britain being associated with poor design […] ‘Manufacturers didn’t want good design, what they wanted was what they could sell and what they could sell was low grade cotton and poor design’. That is plainly not true […] Looking at the way in which textile designers working in Glasgow or in the Vale of Leven, where much of the Turkey Red industry was based, looking at the way they engaged in design innovation for the market place – much of the market was in Asia, India in particular, so this kind of design exchange with India, I mean some people would probably say it is not ‘good design’ in purely aesthetic terms, but my goodness me it is interesting, and I think just looking at the engagement with colour, engagement with patterns, with design motifs, with the design process and taking new design to the market and getting market feedback, that is what I think is the most interesting and exciting part of this project.[4]

And this is where actual object assessments become so valuable to the discussion – they represent the subaltern voices of this engagement: those who actually bought and used these prints. Questions of success or failure in aesthetics or authenticity cannot be philosophically or one-sidedly resolved – what is actually consumed by the society in question determines the answers to these questions, beyond any undue assumptions of influence on or ignorance of the consumer.

A young woman wearing a possibly European printed cloth, ca. 1865 © Getty, and a similar fabric sample from the United Turkey Red Co Ltd Sample Book © Archive Services, University of Glasgow 2013

A young woman wearing a possibly European printed cloth, ca. 1865 © Getty, and a similar fabric sample from the United Turkey Red Co Ltd Sample Book © Archive Services, University of Glasgow 2013

What the V&A’s bhitiya provides is the other end of the engagement Nenadic discusses. In one piece Indian and European textiles are recycled and combined to create something wholly independent and new. Its Kathi makers, tribal people from rural India with a long and rich cultural tradition, did not perceive any aesthetic or cultural boundaries that would prevent their using these fabrics in even in an important ritual textile. On the contrary, as they had many other cultures before, these Scottish productions were assimilated by the makers – applied as parts to a whole to create something uniquely Kathi, in keeping with their own perceptions of taste and tradition. Which, in the absence of conflicting primary evidence, is what matters most in any discussion about the validity of these patterns and their use.

Patch of industrially printed cotton showing tennis rackets strung diagonally, a racket style popular in the early 1930s. The pattern may have been designed for the Australian market following a 1933 win at Wimbledon © Avalon Fotheringham

Patch of industrially printed cotton showing tennis rackets strung diagonally, a racket style popular in the early 1930s. The pattern may have been designed for the Australian market following a 1933 win at Wimbledon © Avalon Fotheringham

The whole bhitiya will be mounted and displayed for the first time during The Fabric of India exhibition at the V&A starting October 3rd. It will be a rare opportunity to see industrially printed Western cottons in the context of Indian use – one that should be taken advantage of by anyone interested in the subject. There is likely much left to discover in this incredible piece.

Avalon Fotheringham

To learn more about Turkey red and UTR patterns, visit https://colouringthenation.wordpress.com/ or http://issuu.com/glasgow_dyes/docs/tr_print_book_6f9bac4d9674b8 to see a digitised sample book.

[1] J. M. Nanvati, M. P. Vora, and M. A. Dhaky, The Embroidery and Beadwork of Kutch and Saurashtra (Gujarat: Dept. of Archeology, 1966), 17-18

[2] V. Rivers, “Decoding the Divine: Kathi Embroideries of Saurashtra” (2000). Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. Paper 783

[3] N. Tarrant, ‘The Turkey Red Dyeing Industry in the Vale of Leven’, Scottish Textile History, ed. J Butt, K Ponting (Aberdeen University Press) 1987, p. 45

[4] S. Nenadic, ‘The Scottish Textile Industry’, The Historical Association: Early Modern History Podcasts, 2013 http://www.history.org.uk/resources/student_resource_6905,6906_108.html [accessed April 12 2015]

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