The Art of Cloth in Mughal India

This article appears in the forthcoming West 86th Vol. 30 No. 1 / Spring–Summer 2023 issue

The Art of Cloth in Mughal India
Sylvia Houghteling
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022.
280 pp.; 162 color ills., 1 table.
Hardcover $65.00
ISBN: 9780691215785

The Art of Cloth in Mughal India begins with an intriguing seventeenth-century hand-painted, mordant, and resist-dyed cotton wall hanging depicting traders, hunters, aristocrats, and monarchs from diverse parts of an early modern world intimately linked by Indian Ocean trade. In Sylvia Houghteling’s The Art of Cloth, the monumental seven-panel textile, now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, serves not simply as a visual record of early modern global mercantilism but as a synecdoche to the capacious worlds of the production, circulation, and consumption of cloth in South Asia. For the author, analyzing the visual—that is, what can be seen—is only one aspect of studying textiles. In its place, Houghteling emphasizes an approach to the study of textiles that brings together “material, visual, and cultural analysis” (10). While much has been written on the early modern circulation of South Asian cloth over the last few decades, Houghteling compels us to rethink the history and historiography of textiles from the subcontinent through methodological forays that engage recent debates on global/local binaries, ecology and the environment, sensorial histories, artisanal practices, and commodity cultures, among other themes. 

Beginning with the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), the book proceeds in a chronological order. Each chapter focuses on a particular site—imperial and regional courts, centers of textile production, and domestic spaces in Britain—to explore the early modern art of South Asian cloth. For the author, the art of cloth is an expansive intermedial arena that certainly includes the production and embellishment of textiles but also incorporates the embodied arena of sartorial cultures, the arts of furnishing, and cloth as an active subject that allows for an exploration of the “ways that textiles shaped the social, political, economic, religious, and aesthetic life of early modern Hindustan” (9). 

The innovative nature of the book is evident in Chapter 1, which focuses on the many varieties of fibers and manufactured textiles that were both produced in and circulated across South Asia. Evidence drawn from texts such as Jyotirisvara’s fourteenth-century Varna Ratnākara (Ocean of description) and Abu’l-Fazl’s sixteenth-century Ā’īn-i Akbarī (Institutes of Akbar), alongside a close analysis of paintings depicting textiles, allows Houghteling to explore how a “place-based sense of cloth” emerged in the early modern period in relation to the ecologies of fabric production (28). This close attention to the natural environment through an engagement with the ecosystems that sustained plants, such as cotton (Gossypium herbaceum), in riverine Bengal and animals, such as the now-endangered Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), whose hair was used to make shawls, is indeed an innovative methodological intervention. At the same time, the author shows how a situated awareness of place in the context of fabric production and the sourcing of raw material allowed the Mughal emperor, who was frequently portrayed wearing textiles from across the imperium, to articulate an embodied kingship or “bodily immediacy” through cloth (30). The deep histories of the local, nevertheless, is effectively counterpoised in the first chapter with the global circulation of textiles, such as mulberry silk. In the process, a productive tension materializes between local-global binaries that allows for “a sensitivity for the resolutely local practices of textile production with insights derived from cloth’s mobility” (11). 

Equally important, the first chapter, and the book more broadly, offers an incisive critique of a particular strand in the field of global art history that still presents Western Europe as the center of the early modern world. Despite the genocidal histories of European colonialism and ecological imperialism, recent exhibitions, such as the Rijksmuseum’s Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (2015–16) and the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga’s The Global City: Lisbon in the Renaissance (2017), are demonstrative of the art-historical and curatorial foci that continue to privilege European cities, such as Amsterdam and Lisbon, as cosmopolitan centers where one would innocuously encounter objects from across the world. The global early modern world seen from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, one could argue instead, makes visible centers everywhere and peripheries nowhere. As Houghteling correctly notes, “This book demonstrates that the global reach of Indian textiles was not the result of European imperialism but preceded it. Cloth had woven together an empire and imagined distant worlds long before Europeans crowded onto Hindustan’s shores” (25).

Chapter 2 focuses on a remarkable Persian silk robe of honor or khil‘at gifted by the Mughal prince Salim, who would later reign as the emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–27), to Rai Singh (r. 1571–1612), the ruler of the western Indian kingdom of Bikaner, in 1597. As the earliest extant Mughal robe of honor, the textile no doubt is of great art-historical significance. Yet, the garment has received limited scholarly attention. Unlike the vast geographies covered in the first chapter, Houghteling skillfully unearths the history of a single garment in this chapter to explore how cloth carried the “unique potential to communicate across distance” (74). Here the mobility of cloth is framed through multiple geopolitical scalarities that we already encountered in the first chapter. On the one hand, the importing of silk textiles from Safavid Iran situates the robe in the global world of early modern trade. On the other hand, the gift of a garment by Jahangir to a Rajput kingdom in western India brings to the fore regional networks of exchange enabled by the Mughal postal system. It is this specific intersection between the long-distance trade of cloth and local networks of gifting and exchange that gives value to the robe as both a physical and symbolic object that facilitated an “intimacy of social relationships” between the Mughal imperium and a regional court (102). 

With Chapter 3, we move to the reign of emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58) to encounter the cultures of collecting textiles in another regional court in western India. This time we turn to the adjacent court of Amber. The focus on textile cultures in nonimperial courtly contexts, we learn, is a cognizant attempt on part of the author to circumvent “top-down” histories of textiles while questioning the relevance of art-historical periodizations centered around the Mughal empire, that is, the “usefulness of ‘Mughal’ as a designator of time or period of production” (106–7). In this chapter, we thus move from the intimacy of a worn garment to courtly accoutrements arranged around the display and use of textiles. While much has been written on interactions and exchanges between Rajput courts, such as Amber and Bikaner, and the Mughals in the domain of painting and architecture, Houghteling explores vernacular poetry, inventory records from the Amber court, paintings documenting the display of textiles, and imported and local textiles in the royal collection to show how “regional rulers created layered spaces that expressed the partial nature of their sovereignty” (24). 

Chapter 4 addresses an entirely different set of themes as we travel from the arid deserts of Rajasthan to villages located along the Krishna and Godavari rivers near the coastal city of Machilipatnam in southeastern India. Globally recognized as the center of production of the celebrated kalamkari or pen-worked cloth that was enthusiastically collected across East Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America, the history of textiles from this region has, not surprisingly, received significant scholarly attention. In this chapter, Houghteling takes a refreshing approach by analyzing the role of the natural environment—dyes such as chay root (Oldenlandia umbellata) that allowed for luminous crimson hues and the exceptional water with calcium from seashells that improved dye colors—in producing these incredible textiles that were coveted globally. Alongside addressing questions of commodity cultures, histories of labor, and global mercantilism, the attentiveness to the particularities of the local environment that made possible the vibrant hues and delicate designs of painted cotton cloths from the region is indeed groundbreaking. 

However, rather than taking the natural environment as constant or stable in the period under consideration, one would have hoped for a more granular account of environmental transformations that may (or may not) have affected the manufacturing of textiles. While Houghteling briefly mentions the catastrophic droughts of the 1630s that led artisans to migrate to Machilipatnam, how did textile producers cope with water scarcity that was part and parcel of monsoon failures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the unusually high occurrence of El Niño–induced droughts? Of course, the early modern archive in South Asia, as we know, offers scant direct historical data regarding climate change and its effects on cultural and artistic production. Scholars are thus compelled to read such archives against the grain to trace the interconnected histories of climate change and art. Given that the making of kalamkari textiles was especially dependent on the availability of abundant water, an analogous attention to, or even a gesture toward, the history of climate variability and erratic rain patterns and its impact on textile production would have thus further enriched the book. Nonetheless, bringing together diverse fields of art-historical research—from eco art history to material studies—the chapter does offer a rich and variegated narrative that links the natural and cultural history of textile production in South Asia.

With Chapter 5, we move to England to explore how painted cotton cloth from South Asia remade “the visual and material world of late seventeenth-century Britain” (188). The move from the hyperlocal, that is, the specific quality of soil and water in the Coromandel Coast discussed in the previous chapter, to the global flow of textiles in this chapter certainly emphasizes the multiple scalarities of the production and consumption of cloth from South Asia. We also return to the theme of the intimate physical encounter with cloth; this time, however, the encounter is staged in British homes rather than in the regional courts of western India. The question of gender is also significant in this chapter with Houghteling’s exploration of how women reused kalamkari fabric fragments in crewelwork embroideries to localize distant worlds in a completely different milieu. At the same time, Houghteling notes how the keen interest in amassing and reusing South Asian textiles with vegetal decoration in the late seventeenth century paralleled a growing interest in the collecting of live tropical plants. This analogous development, the author argues, led to the domestication of both exotic plants and exotic cloth “through innovations in greenhouses and gardening and through technology to replicate Indian cloth” (208). In the process, textiles “gained in density” as perceived connections (or disconnections) between the natural and cultural worlds of South Asia engendered new imaginative practices in the northern hemisphere (209). 

Taken together, the five chapters in the book offer a multidisciplinary account of the aesthetic and affective histories of cloth. In striking contrast to earlier scholarship on textiles from the subcontinent, The Art of Cloth probes the constitutive role played by performative, literary, and courtly cultures, alongside the contrapuntal pressure of the natural environment, in shaping the multisensorial world of textiles. Deliberately taking a longue durée approach, the book explores how textiles operated as material that enabled “forms of aesthetic enjoyment and courtly entertainment, and worked to link together distant geographic spaces and to secure or unsettle hierarchical arrangements” over time (16). What emerges from this insightful study, then, is a dazzling social, cultural, political, and aesthetic history of textiles. Lavishly illustrated and exquisitely produced, The Art of Cloth in Mughal India will undoubtedly become a major landmark in the field of early modern art history.

Sugata Ray is Associate Professor of South and Southeast Asian art in the History of Art Department and the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.


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