Textiles have been the binding factor in the cultural history of India and Southeast Asia from times immemorial. As the foremost currency they were carried by the traders from the banks of river Ganga to the fertile areas around the river Mekong and to the rich spice islands of Suvarnadvipa, Indonesia.
Over the centuries, these textiles turned into vehicles of culture that built the foundation for an enduring multilayered and multi coloured relationship.
The painted textiles from the Coromandel coast, the block-printed fabrics and the double-ikat patola from Gujarat enticed Southeast Asian royalty and masses alike. These trade textiles, considered ritually powerful and imbued with magical qualities played an integral role in binding India with Southeast Asia while becoming a part of the regional folklore, ceremonies and rituals. Over time they were seamlessly assimilated into the local culture.
This cultural amalgam was here to stay as solid as the rocks of Borodudur and Konark and as intricately woven as the double-ikat patola which is the cultural legacy of India in southeast Asia.
Hema Devare, a gold medallist from Nagpur University, is a freelance writer and playwright. She has written both fiction and non-fiction in Marathi, English and Hindi.
Hema Devare’s writing on cross-cultural themes is inspired by her extensive travels with her diplomat husband. She produced the much acclaimed documentary Threads that Bind, which emphasizes the metaphor of historical textile linkages between India and Indonesia. Hema Devare’s long association with Southeast Asia motivated her to write two dance dramas: Bali Yatra and Swapna Sakaram, based on cultural link between India, Southeast Asia and China. The productions were staged in Singapore, Bangkok and Bangalore.
She is the editor of Sari Sutra, a catalogue that traces the ancient commonalities between Indian and Indonesian silk textiles.
There is these days much talk about the routes of communications from Ganga to Mekong, especially in the domain of building infrastructure, roads, rail routes, etc. While all this is welcome, perhaps those engaged in the enterprise of infrastructure have overlooked, or at least seem to have overlooked, the long and sustained history of communications between India and the many countries of Southeast Asia, which Hema Devare pertinently calls the Ganga to Mekong: A Cultural Voyage through Textiles. Hema's is a personal voyage or certainly a journey of exploring and identifying the many levels of communications between India and countries of Southeast Asia over a long period of history. Of course, there is a body of literature which has spoken about either Indianized states of Southeast Asia (e.g. Coedes) or Greater India (R.C. Majumdar). However, Hema Devare, explores this dialogue with sensitivity and a rare sensibility. The narration is most engaging.
I believe Hema Devare's painstaking study on a hitherto not-much-trodden path opens the door to understanding a new facet of India-Southeast Asia relations. She argues that an item, seemingly fragile, has been the vehicle for ensuring cultural and civilizational ties. With delicacy but full conviction, she points out that the tradesmen, whether from the Coromandel coast or Gujarat, were the carriers of the textiles, but through them the bonds that were created were extraordinary in each case. While one can identify an Indian element or an Indian nucleus, the effervescence was not only regional but even local. This is evident to anyone who has looked at the variety of textiles in different parts of Indonesia, be it Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Solo, Bali, etc, or in Vietnam or in Thailand.
Hema Devare convinces us that the relationships between India and Southeast Asia were certainly not restricted to monumental architecture, be it Angkor Vat or Borobudur, or Champa or Ayutthaya; it is necessary to note that textiles were equally important. Needless to mention here that today this interaction is not sizeable, although there may be again a sea-change. One can identify parts of similarity of specifics when one looks at the tradition of textiles.
Her description is clear, and her perceptions are indicative of an extremely observant mind and eye. Of course, no one can escape noticing a kind of family semblance between the textiles of India and Southeast Asia. Even more impressive is the fact that this resemblance takes on many shapes and forms, not only with different countries but regions within a country, especially in the case of Indonesia. Through the many years that Hema Devare has spent in these countries, she has been able to identify the special flavour and distinctiveness of these many traditions. Trade has been a vehicle of communications, unlike today's creation of infrastructure where trade has been dissociated from the cultural symbiosis which took place through trade in an earlier era. It was the tradesmen, boatmen and the others who carried with them cotton from the Coromandel coast or double ikat patola from Gujarat. It was a dialogue between countries expressing themselves through the techniques and designs of textiles.
There has been of late some significant writing on the textiles of India and Southeast Asia. However, Hema Devare's text navigates smoothly through the many levels of interaction between India and countries of Southeast Asia in the sphere of textiles.
Most engaging is her account on the historical movement of colonization. When the Europeans came on the scene in Asia in the sixteenth century they saw in Indian textiles a ready opportunity to build a worldwide trading regime, and eventually their empires, on the strength of the textile trade. This is similar to what has happened in other spheres, such as making of Kashmiri shawls in the mills of Manchester which we recognize as Paisley, not to speak of the very complex history of how indigenous indigo was used, exploited and then replaced by synthetic indigo in the colonial period. It was ironical that the very Indian textiles, which for over 1,500 years were prized trade items from Indonesia to Egypt to Rome, were used to finance the Industrial Revolution in England and subsequently to colonize India.
Hema Devare's text very gently reminds us that there needs to be a certain shift in the very ideas of earlier writers. Her book is yet another important step in asserting that it was a two-way traffic, and perhaps should continue to be a two-way or multiple-route traffic of creativity between India and Southeast Asia.
My sojourn in Southeast Asia began in the early 1980s when I lived in Myanmar (then Burma) for more than two years. With my diplomat husband we had been criss-crossing countries and continents for many years. One obsession which remained with me all along was my penchant for textiles. The passion for textiles and the zeal to acquire them, never left me. My travels through diverse cultures and exposure to the rich, colourful world of textiles made me a firm believer that they in fact personify a country. Textiles not only project the personality of the weaver but they are also the perfect symbols of the culture they represent. Women of each country are especially synonymous with the textile tradition.
The thick weaves of the Burmese silk is a perfect example of the strong character of the Burmese women, their enduring and uncompromising character. The way they tie their longyis tightly around their waist show that they are ever ready to take on the world, with their grit and determination.
My tryst with Southeast Asia continued again in the 1990s when we were in Indonesia for three-and-a-half years. Travelling across the length and breadth of the numerous islands and interactions with the people were treasured experiences. These voyages of the Indonesian islands opened a whole new world of fabrics for me, fabrics which looked familiar yet were not Indian.
The Javanese batiks looked like block prints straight from Gujarat, the songkets of Palembang resembled Banaras brocades, batiks of Jambi reminded me of kalamkari motifs from Andhra — the same resist dyed and painted fabrics, with fruits and lotus tendrils. Thousands of miles apart from each other — what did these fabrics have in common? The jumputans of Java looked no different from the bandhej of Gujarat and Rajasthan. My visit to Palembang in south Sumatra further endorsed the remarkable connection between the eight-pointed stars of patola and the eight-rayed flower of kainlimar. The tumphal (triangular) ornamentation of the local fabrics with all over motifs in the central field kept reminding me of Indian fabrics. The feeling of deja vu never left me across Indonesia.
The towering statue of Ghatotkacha in the middle of the buzzing streets of Jakarta and the Ramayana wall-hangings in the temples of Bali, patola textiles decorating the Sultan's Palace in Solo in central Java, painted and printed fabrics etched on the temple interiors in the form of frescoes from Pagan, Myanmar to Vientiane, Laos, everywhere there were signs of past connections between India and Southeast Asia. Intrigued, I felt like an archaeologist, wanting to dig deeper to discover the historical secrets between India and Southeast Asia.
How did this sisterhood of textiles begin? My mind was restless with questions for which I wanted to find answers. A visit to the National Museum of Thailand reinforced my resolve to unravel the mysteries of the past. The museum had the portraits of the kings and queens of Ayuthya wearing Indian brocades in the same kaccha (dhoti) style as our forefathers did in India in ancient times. The silk lengths with butas of zari and woven motifs took me back to the era of the Mughal kings and queens who wore similar garments. But on closer inspection they looked different. Very Indian in style and yet uniquely Thai. Why do I feel as if these fabrics are kith and kin of my own country?
The more I researched into the past, the thicker the weaves became between the two worlds. The geographers of the first millennium, Erythraei, and Ptolemy started appearing like characters from our own mythology Even as far back as 2,000 years ago we see the beginnings of globalization, where people and goods travelled and flowed freely. Indian traders hobnobbed with the Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula, exchanged their goods, took them to Southeast Asia where Indian textiles were exchanged for spices and from there, went all the way to China. How fascinating the world must have been then when the Indian textiles united the Red Sea with all the countries around the Indian Ocean and beyond in the Pacific. These textiles reached as far as Europe enticing Roman women with their soft lure, soft as the morning dew and thin as air, thus earning the sobriquet of 'woven air'.
The textiles from Furstat in Egypt to all the way in Southeast Asia had much in common. The same block print and the same motifs. They became my 'soul-mates' during the course of this study. I was fortunate to travel across Southeast Asia, from the island countries of Indonesia and Singapore right up to Vietnam and Laos where I could see the ancient heritage of Indian textiles from close quarters either in the museums or personal collections, meet the weavers and understand their own interpretations. In the night market of Lawang Prabang in Laos I saw the nak (naga) motifs on the black sarongs reminding me of our north-east. While moving around in Phnom Penh the elegant Matmi weaves of Cambodia created in my mind images of intricate pochampallis of Andhra Pradesh. Through them I could feel the close cultural bond.
My imagination travelled far back in time when the traders would have brought bundles of cloths in small boats selling them to the local people, establishing close ties, marrying local women and yet feeling at home away from home.
The textile trade between India and Southeast Asia continued to flourish for hundreds of years. The turning point came when the Europeans sailed into Asia, and started to establish their own supremacy over this lucrative business. They monopolized Indian textiles, eventually leveraging this trade to consolidate their political power. Patola textiles, for example, were used as a means of statecraft by the European powers to exploit the royalty and the nobility of Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia.
What sort of power did the Indian textiles possess and how and why did they impact Southeast Asia? What was the genesis of this textile trade? I was fascinated by the legacy Indian textiles have left behind, in lands so far away from home.
As Ivan Tirtha, the famous batik designer of international repute and a scholar of textile history from Indonesia says, traditional Indian and Indonesian textiles are linked by family resemblance and historical association. What he said is true for entire Southeast Asia.
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