No Two Motifs are Alike

Explore how design in Indian trade textiles was identified, imagined or imitated

Museum of Art & Photography

‏ Detail of a palampore (wall hanging or bed cover) (Early 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

Historical Context

Indian artisans have produced some of the finest textiles, in every region of the subcontinent, since many centuries. In the second century, manufacturing of objects was dependent on the availability of raw materials and the tradition of practicing a craft within communities. However, the opening of trade centres and routes led to new “distribution possibilities,” and made ports in Gujarat and the southeast coastal region of India the major centres of textile production. From weaving a fine cotton fabric to dyeing a silk sari, every technique from India reached different corners of the world. 

‏ Detail of a palampore (wall hanging or bed cover) (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

No Two Motifs are Alike

Indian trade textiles were not only “desired” around the world but were also “imitated” in an attempt to achieve similar quality of design. Exquisite patterns, spectacular colour combinations and the durability of the textiles made them important for ceremonial use, and as objects of luxury. The designs became indicators of changing economies, cultural exchanges, social interactions and fashion systems. This exhibition explores the endless interpretations of motifs in Indian trade textiles. By linking the “hand skills” of makers, the “colour chemistry” of dyers and the complex networks of traders, 'No Two Motifs are Alike' asks how trade textiles evolved from a local craft into a global phenomenon. 

Kalamkari Panel (21st century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

The Role of Hand in Kalamkari

Cotton cloth which was hand painted and dyed had several names, and was referred to as kalamkari in the Indian subcontinent. Kalamkari (qalamkari in Persian) was a process of mordant and resist dyeing, in which, the natural dyes from plants were used with metallic salts like iron as mordants, and applied with a bamboo pen on cotton cloth. Weaver and spinner communities of cotton were excellent in producing the finest cotton cloth. Kalamkari was widely practiced in the Coromandel coast in the southeast coastal region of India. Kalamkari with non-figurative motifs was practiced in Machilipatnam and later exported to European, Persian and South-East Asian markets. On the other hand, Srikalahasti kalamkaris were made to narrate religious myths and stories. Under the patronage of rulers like the Nayakas and Golcondas, the kalamkari evolved in technique and design. Artisan communities in Machilipatnam and Srikalahasti had specific styles of designing their bamboo sticks and painting by hand, however, contemporary examples of kalamkari are often block printed.

Kalamkari Panel, Unknown Maker(s), 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Block printed prayer mat, Unknown Maker(s), 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Block printed kalamkari hangings are called mehrabs in Machilipatnam today. They were formerly designed for the Persian market.

‏ Patola (Vohra Gaji Bhat) SariMuseum of Art & Photography

Early Trade in Gujarat

Indian artisans in Gujarat were excellent at producing natural colours and using wax or mud resist to create spectacular motifs on cloth. Textiles like patolas (using the double ikat technique) were the earliest known examples, which were produced with natural dyes and resist. They were exported to Egypt and Southeast Asia as early as the fifth century. In Indonesia, patolas were considered to be auspicious and were collected by the Toraja family in the Sulawesi region. Although patola saris were traditionally dyed in silk, the patolas which were exported to Indonesia were created on cotton, and were often referred to as maa’ ceremonial cloths. The designs on maa’ ceremonial cloths imitated the ikat-like patterns of lozenges, animals and birds, and mythical figures. 

Patola (Vagh Haathi Bhat) sari, Unknown Maker(s), 18th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Silk patola saris were prized possessions in India and Indonesia.

See the exhibition 'Saris, Odhanis and More: Woven Tales from India' for more information on the technique of patola.

Patola sari, Unknown Maker(s), 18th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Detail of a patola sari with lozenge motifs in double ikat technique.

Block printed imitation patola (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

Maa' ceremonial cloths were resist dyed and block printed to resemble a silk patola sari. Imitation patolas were often made for the Indonesian market and traded by the Dutch East India Company.

Fragment of a Ceremonial Cloth (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

A detail of a maa' ceremonial cloth depicting female musicians.

Mata ni Pachedi (20th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

In addition to patolas, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Sind in the northwestern coast of India also specialised in printing on cotton cloth with blocks. The Mata ni pachedis (mother goddess hanging) of Gujarat are a great example of block printing and hand painting on cloth. Made by the Vaghri community in Gujarat, the pachedis narrated stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other folk paintings.

Powerful female figures in the form of sacred goddesses were depicted in Mata ni Pachedis and worshiped by communities in Gujarat since the 17th century.

‏ Detail of a ceremonial cloth with palampore design (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

From Gujarat to Indonesia

Textiles made for the Indonesian market were not only produced for wealthy families but were also made for the masses. Consisting of two or more panels, maa’ ceremonial cloths with palampore designs were assembled with additional borders. They were often dyed in just two colors – red and brown, to decrease the time of production.

Maa’ ceremonial cloths made for the Toraja families in Indonesia contained extremely detailed floral and leaf motifs. They were used as wall hangings, as gifts and also worn by men during rituals. 

‏ Ceremonial cloth with palampore design, Unknown Maker(s), 18th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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‏ Ceremonial cloth with palampore design, Unknown Maker(s), 18th or 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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‏ Ceremonial cloth with palampore design, Unknown Maker(s), 18th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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‏ Ceremonial textile, with a sunburst (matahari) design, Unknown Maker(s), 18th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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‏ Detail of a ceremonial textile, with a sunburst (matahari) design (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

‏ Detail of a palampore (wall hanging or bed cover) (Early 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

Chintzes and Palampores: Playful Motifs

Textile historian Rosemary Crill traces the origin of the term “chintz” from early East India Company records which documented it as “chint.” Crill specifies that the term might have originated from “chita” or spotted cloth. Similarly, “palampore”, identified by glorious tree of life patterns, traces its origins to Portuguese traders who derived the term from “palang posh” (bed cover in Hindi). Both chintzes and palampores were considered to be fashionable in France, England and Portugal. Their large tapestry-like appearance and hybrid designs made them attractive to wealthy families.

Bouquets, garlands and bow-like motifs on a palampore from the 19th century. The central motif in the border resembles a sacred lotus. Two pheasants surround the motif giving it a heraldic appearance.

Animals and birds in palampores "add humour and wit to the rather standardized formats" according to Rosemary Crill. Seen here are three animals with large ears on a rocky mound.

‏ Banyan or Robe, Unknown Maker(s), 18th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Chintzes and palampores which were originally used as bed covers, sheets, wall hangings, and as upholstery were recycled eventually to construct dresses.

‏ Detail of a banyan or robe (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

A detail of a chintz robe from the 18th century, created in the Coromandel coast for the European market. They were often glazed brown to give them a fashionable appearance.

‏ Detail of a banyan or robe, Unknown Maker(s), 18th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The quality of chintzes were so exquisite that they could be repurposed several times before being given away. These robes or gowns were neither casual nor formal attire. Their in-between nature made them appealing to dapper European men.

‏ Detail of a sarasa textile, with a red madder ground (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

There was no single ingredient which was used to create chintz but every element like sunshine, water, buffalo milk, tree gum and cotton fibre contributed to achieving the “perfect formula.”

Sarasa textile, with red ground (Late 18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

Asian Aesthetics

Chinese, Japanese and Indian design influences on Asian motifs were very evident in chintzes which were popular in the Western market. European traders often travelled and facilitated the exchange of antiquities like silver boxes and furniture, spices like pepper and nutmeg and trade textiles between different markets in Asia. Often fascinated by the “exotic” motifs, collectors of chintz commissioned designs which included flowers, leaves, fruits and mythical creatures which were native to Asia. As the designs evolved with time, the motifs blended elements from western heraldic emblems with Asian birds, plants, animals and anthropomorphic creatures.

‏ Detail of a sarasa textile, with a red madder ground (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

Botanist Deborah Metsger analyses floral motifs through multiple “lenses” and identifies them on the basis of form, pattern or imagination of the maker.

The motifs resemble lotuses, cotton flower and leaf patterns in this textile from South Asia.

‏ Detail of a palampore (wall hanging or bed cover) (19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

Indian artisans were meticulous at imitating and imagining nature. The detail of a palampore pattern here depicts branches with horizontal stripes in red, brown and blue.

‏ Detail of a ceremonial cloth with palampore design (Late 18th to early 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

In this textile, two Garudas surround the rocky mound of the ceremonial cloth. In Hinduism and Buddhism, Garuda serves as a vahana or vehicle for the god Vishnu.

Civet or ginsengs are perched on leaves next to the border with diagonal lines. Different species of pheasants are scattered across the ceremonial cloth.

‏ Detail of a ceremonial cloth with palampore design (Late 18th to early 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

‏ Detail of a hanging, Unknown Maker(s), Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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‏ Detail of a hanging (Early 20th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

A detail of a hanging made for the Persian market. The tiger-like motifs resemble the tigers in the vagh pattern of silk patola saris.

Detail of a patola (Vagh Haathi Bhat) odhani, Unknown Maker(s), 18th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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‏ Palampore (wall hanging or bed cover), Unknown Maker(s), 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The petals of the central flower in this palampore are similar in form and shape to motifs on a silver box from China and a stereoscopic card depicting chrysanthemums in the MAP collection.

A Chinese export silver box, Unknown Maker(s), Late 19th or early 20th centuries, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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‏ A stereoscopic card depicting the opening day of the Chrysanthemums Exhibitions, Japan (recto), The Fine Arts Publishing Co., London, 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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A stereo-card indicating the importance of chrysanthemums in Japan. Chrysanthemums were considered to be auspicious, and were very popular in chintz textiles.

‏ A stereoscopic card depicting the opening day of the Chrysanthemums Exhibitions, Japan (verso), The Fine Arts Publishing Co., London, 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The phrase in the stereoscopic card, "No two chrysanthemums are alike" can also be applied to hand painted floral motifs in Indian trade textiles.

‏ Multipurpose Cover (Mid 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

Islamic Elements

Textiles were not just exported to the European and Indonesian markets but also to Persian markets. Indian artisans introduced Islamic design elements in wall hangings and bed spreads which were sent to different markets. The mosques built during the Mughal period contained floral designs which influenced motifs on chintz hangings. A large central medallion, buteh or kairi (paisley) like elements in the corners of the cloth, and tree of life patterns can also be compared with motifs present in Islamic architecture, shawls, carpets and ceramics. Persian designs also inspired the silhouettes and structure of textiles.

‏ A Kashmiri Shawl, Unknown Maker(s), Circa 1880, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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‏ Detail of a Kashmiri Shawl (Circa 1880) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

The central medallion in this Kashmiri shawl can be compared with the central motifs in wall hangings made for the Persian or Armenian market. Several kairis or butehs patterns are also depicted here.

‏ Detail of a palampore (wall hanging or bed cover) (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

This is a detail of a chintz fabric with a central medallion and densely packed floral motifs.

‏ Chintz coat with patchwork (front), Unknown Maker(s), 18th or 19th centuries, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Another area of trade textiles where Islamic influences were visible were chintz coats for men. The straight silhouette of the coat and the triangular patterns resemble Islamic talismanic jackets with patchwork.

‏ Chintz coat with patchwork (back) (18th or 19th centuries) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

‏ Detail of a palampore (wall hanging or bed cover) (18th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

Endless Mutation in Tree of Life Motifs

The origins of the tree of life motif are complicated, however, the textile scholar Lotika Varadarajan makes an interesting observation about the motifs’ significance in trade. She states that “the English and the Dutch developed a syncretic form which evolved into the Tree of Life design which could be depicted in endless mutation. The genesis of this motif was linked to a greater extent with Sino-Persian decorative elements rather than concepts of kalpa vriksha and bodhi tree depicted in Indian sculpture.”

Intricate lattice work window at Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, Ahmedabad (19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

This is a view of a window with intricate latticework at the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, Ahmedabad, which was constructed in the 16th century. The "Sino-Persian" tree of life motifs resemble the lattice work.

‏ Detail of a palampore (wall hanging or bed cover) (19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

From India to Britain

The Indian chintz designs were gradually adapted by local British and French cloth producers. Many cloth producers in Britain had protested about the decline in consumption of local cloth and had demanded a ban on the export of chintz, however, textile scholar Giorgio Riello states that “many European printers struggled to match the rich and durable colors of India.”

‏ A card from a set of stereoscopic cards depicting Exposition Universelle 1900 (recto), Underwood and Underwood Publishers, Kansas, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, London and the Paris Exposition,1900 had derivations of chintz designs in the form of wallpapers and prints, which is highlighted in a stereo-card in MAP's collection.

‏ Detail of a palampore (wall hanging or bed cover) (19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography

Geography and Cultural Patterns

According to cultural studies scholar Saloni Mathur, in the 17th century, when  trade relations between Indian and Britain began, the commercial interests of the East India Company were taken into account and “new desires, interests, opportunities were created in pursuit of Indian ‘things'.” The designs made by the artisans were not just a result of their hard-work and determination but was also part of a system which was segregated according to class, caste, race and geography. In conclusion, trade textiles provide a maker-centric analysis of cultural patterns in geographies, however, they also open up new areas for interdisciplinary research.

Credits: Story

Content and Curation: Vaishnavi Kambadur

Bibliography

Barnes, Ruth. “Early Indian Textiles in Maritime Southeast Asia.” in Traded Treasure: Indian Textiles for Global Markets. Edited by Ellen B. Avril. Ithaca, New York: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 2019.

Fee, Sarah, Rosemary Crill, Ruth Barnes, Steven J. Cohen, Deborah Metsger, Giorgio Riello, Divia Patel, Peter Lee. et al. Cloth that Changed the World:The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz. Edited by Sarah Fee. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2020.

Guy, John, and Karun Thakar. Indian Cotton Textiles: Seven Centuries of Chintz from the Karun Thakar Collection. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK : ACC Art Books, 2015.

Mathur, Saloni. India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to A.D.1300. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2015.

Varadarajan, Lotika. "Designs in Cotton: Horizons of the Past and Present." India International Centre Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1984): 69-78. Accessed May 1, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23001705.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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