The famous Dhaka muslin fabric, once much loved by royal figures in Indian history such as Empress Nur Jahan and European royals of the time, is being revived in Bangladesh. Even though muslin is available now, its quality is not as good as it was in the past. It is the old variety of Dhaka muslin which is sought to be resurrected and popularized in the international markets. Manufacturers are also trying to make it more durable to meet modern demands.
According to a report by Al Jazeera, weavers in Bangladesh painstakingly recreate the fabric that was once worn by Mughal emperors, kings and queens of Europe and many well-known celebrities. There is indeed still a chiffon dress from Dhaka that belonged to Jane Austen, the famous author of the novel Pride And Prejudice published in 1813.
The ancient Dhaka variety of chiffon was said to be so fine and delicate that an entire six-yard sari could be folded and placed in a matchbox. Dhaka’s muslin industry was at its peak in the 17th and 18th centuries before the East India Company managed to eradicate it for commercial purposes. The company imported and sold British fabrics in the Indian market and launched several policies to crack down on Indian weavers. As a result, muslin production dropped dramatically and eventually disappeared.
The word muslin comes from Mosul in Iraq where it was originally made. The traveler Marco Polo who was born in Venice (Italy) in 1254 and traveled all over Asia, mentioned it in his writings. Later weavers located it in and around Dhaka, became world renowned makers of this cloth. It has been manufactured in different grades ranging from delicate sheer fabric to coarse sheets for heavy duty use.
There are many stories about this fabric. One such story is that on one occasion Emperor Aurangzeb was unhappy with a girl when he discovered that her skin could be seen through her clothes after she wore a very delicate chiffon dress. She argued with her father that she wore seven layers of cloth and couldn’t help it if it was still insufficient to cover herself. It wasn’t his fault.
The Ain-i-Akbari document which was written by Abul Fazl ibn Mubarak during the reign of Emperor Akbar, mentions different varieties of muslin which were then used. These included Khasa, Tansukh, Nainsukh and Chauter (sometimes also written Chaotaer) who was called Shahi Mulmul. Chinese traveler Ma Huan wrote about its delicate quality. It was said to be as light and thin as paper and as soft as a breeze.
The Mughal emperors, including Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, took great interest in the manufacturing industries within their domain. These included textile manufacture which received their patronage. It has been reported that in Akbar’s time, eleven thousand tailors were employed for the provision of household items. Later Empress Nur Jahan directly controlled a few karkhanas (factories). It is said that his favorite variety was Malboos Khas. An officer was appointed with the designation of Darogah-i-Malboos Khas whose duty it was to oversee the production of this superb cloth.
There were exclusive karkhanas for royal families, such as the karkhanas of Sonargaon in Bengal (now Bangladesh) which produced the Malboos Khas variety (a superior mulmul cloth reserved for the aristocracy and royals). Other well-known centers at the time were Teetbadi and Kapasia.
During the Mughal period of Indian history, other nobles also controlled these textile karkhanas. Mughal clothing was sewn into these karkhanas from exclusively selected fabrics, for example, silk interwoven with gold and silver. The Ain-i-Akbari mentions various fabrics with zari work and embroidery from Gujarat and Bengal.
Bangladesh has once again become a global textile hub. It is home to countless factories and supplies clothing, bags and accessories to major brands such as Walmart, H&M and other international outlets.
Now Dhaka Chiffon is also promoted. According to a weaver, working with fine threads is like saying prayers. One must concentrate completely and drive all other thoughts out of one’s mind. The government of Bangladesh is making wholehearted efforts to recreate the ancient quality of Dhaka muslin. The plan is to restore this fabric to its former glory. If the move is successful, the world will once again experience the tastes and dress sense of India’s great rulers.