Chintz, calico and seersucker – Hindi words that are now part of the Queen’s English thanks to the links the between the textile industries of England and India during the 19th century.
This was when cotton was king, at least in so far as Britain was concerned. Its domination of India, first via the East India Company and then under the British Raj, sought to undermine India’s flourishing textile industry by imposing duties on Indian imported cloth. Soon Lancashire mill owners were exporting their own manufactured ‘Indian’ cloth to India.
Social Fabric, a new exhibition and programme of talks at the Rivington Place gallery in Shoreditch, explores the history of the textile trade between Britain and India with colonialism as a starting point, focusing on works by two contemporary artists, Sudhir Patwardhan from Mumbai and Berlin-based Alice Creischer, presented alongside a range of archive material.
This includes texts from Karl Marx who wrote at length about cotton’s boom and bust cycle and its affects on both British and Indian workers. For example, when the American civil war cut off the supply of the slave-grown crop in 1861, English mill owners imposed a three-day week before turning to India as a source, briefly lifting the fortunes of India’s sector.
Examples of Indian floral patterned chintz are also on display. It was greatly sought after in 18th century England, much to the dismay of Huguenot weavers in Spitalfields who staged a protest in 1719. Technologically sophisticated and inexpensive, Indian fabrics like this continued to be popular until English manufacturers restricted imports and began producing machine-made textiles using synthetic dyes.
Mumbai was one of the major centres of India’s textile industry, employing one in three of the city’s workers up to the 1970s. By the 1980s, the mills were closed to free up several hundred acres of prime land for property developers in the centre of the city. It all sounds horribly familiar.
Patwardhan’s 2001 mural Lower Panel depicts an empty factory next to luxury apartment and office blocks. Archive newspaper material and recorded interviews with workers reveal how closures and gentrification were fiercely resisted.
Inspired by a trip to India where poverty sits alongside fantastic riches, Creischer’s spinning wheel-shaped installation, Apparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the Pressure of Wealth during the Contemplation of Poverty at first appears as impenetrable as its title. But its examination of the economic and social imbalance created by European colonialism and, now, globalisation deserves a closer look and there are detailed notes to explain it all.
As she points out, Gandhi chose the spinning wheel to be a symbol of the independence struggle since textiles lay so much at the heart of India’s subjugation.
Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts)
Rivington Place, London EC1
February 2 2012