In 2010 Dr. Sharif Uddin Ahmed from Bangladesh visited London, who runs the Centre for Dhaka Studies and President of Bangladesh Archives and Records Management Society (BARMS). He has written several books, including ‘Dhaka – A Study in Urban History and Development, 1840-192’. During his visit he delivered a seminar on ‘Muslin: The Famous Textiles of Bengal’, organized by Brick Lane Circle In 2010 Dr. Sharif Uddin Ahmed from Bangladesh visited London, who runs the Centre for Dhaka Studies and President of Bangladesh Archives and Records Management Society (BARMS). He has written several books, including ‘Dhaka – A Study in Urban History and Development, 1840-192’. During his visit he delivered a seminar on ‘Muslin: The Famous Textiles of Bengal’, organized by Brick Lane Circle .
The packed seminar, held at the Whitechapel Idea Store, prompted the Stepney Community Trust to look into the subject matter further. From the research that Brick Lane Circle carried out on East India Company with a group of young people it emerged that the British and other European trading companies exported a large quantity of textiles from Bengal. According to records of the East India Company’s import figures from the Indian subcontinent, during most of the 18th century, Bengal’s share was more than the total amount of textiles imported from the whole of India. This fact led the Trust to ask many searching questions, such as what happened to those textiles that came from Bengal and India into the UK, what kind of dresses were made from such textiles, etc.
Internet searches and other enquiries produced very little information on these questions except for a small period covering the late 18th to early 19th centuries. This was also the span of time that has become known as the Empire and Regency in the fashion field when Jane Austen was living and writing her novels. Internet searches on ‘Bengal muslin textiles in 18th century fashion’ and ‘Regency fashion’, for example, produced a range of useful results. Articles and information found from internet searches were very good introductory sources of information on Bengal and Indian textiles in western and British fashion of the period. The majority of the information and images relating to muslins in western fashion found on the internet and on museum websites were in relation to women’s fashion. Although men also wore the fabrics very little information was found on the topic from the research that the Trust carried out prior to the start of the project.
The Trust, for a period, continued to make further enquiries in general and on specific museum sites, which started to reveal more about the significance of the historical Bengal textiles. At the Victoria and Albert Museum there are a few muslin items on public display and their website contains details of more items from Bengal. Searches on other museum sites also produced information about other muslin collections at various heritage institutions in the UK. A number of museums were contacted to explore the nature and extent of their collection of Bengal textiles, including Museum of London in Barbican, Victoria & Albert Museum and National Maritime.
The idea of the project ‘How Villages and Towns in Bengal Dressed London Ladies in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries’ slowly began to emerge. It was thought that a very exciting and creative project, if developed, could enthuse people from the London’s diverse communities to take part. Enquiries with Museums were followed by face to face meetings with Rosemary Crill (V&A) and Hilary Davidson (Museum of London) to explore what they have in their respective collections and how they may be able to assist the Trust in developing and delivering this unique project. While the Victoria and Albert Museum had a few items – a complete dress / handkerchief, etc. made from Bengal muslins on public display they had a large archival collection of muslin fabrics. The Trust was invited by Rosemary Crill to visit the museum to discuss the project idea. Subsequently, the museum had agreed to support the Trust’s application to the Heritage Lottery Fund and invited representatives of the Trust to visit the museum again to look at some of the muslin items in their collection. Several items seen from the V&A’s muslin textiles collection was really astonishing, however, not all were from Bengal. Some of them have originated from various other parts of India. The common knowledge among Bangladeshis is that only Bengal, and no other place in the undivided India, produced muslin.
Examples of some muslin fabrics at the V&A
Before visiting the Museum of London in Barbican for a meeting with Hilary Davidson, it was not known what a treasure house of muslin dress collection was archived in that institution. There were no original muslin items on public display at the museum, except a recreated dress. During discussion with Hilary Davidson she revealed that the Museum of London had quite a large collection of Indian muslin items in their archive. Subsequently, the museum agreed to support the project by providing advice and running a number of workshops for the participants.
During the project development phase the research that the Trust carried found no traces of muslin dresses surviving or paintings depicting British and Western people wearing them except for around the Regency period. The British Library however has comprehensive records of East India Company’s orders sent to India, including Bengal, items that came back and how they were sold in the UK. Also it emerged that approximately between thirty to forty per cent of East India Company’s textiles imports from India, most of which came from Bengal, were re-exported to Africa to purchase African slaves. Although it is known that the majority of re-export of Indian textile to Africa were from western India, namely Gujarat, a sizeable amount must have also originated from Bengal. This conclusion is based on the sheer volume, varieties and proportion of British textile imports that came from Bengal (see chapter on History of Bengal Textiles).
The project ideas was discussed with Penny Brooks and Dr Margaret Makepeace from the British Library. Subsequently, they agreed to support the project by running workshops for the participants and showing how to access records and archives of the British Library. The National Maritime Museum, which in 2011 opened a new East India Company section called ‘Traders Gallery’ also enthusiastically agreed to support the project and provide a range of help, including to host the end of project celebration.
The rational for the project was based on a number of elements. First, it was thought that there was a very important heritage and story to tell. Second, there was an opportunity to engage members of the UK diverse communities, through using creative means, to bring out the story of Bengal textiles, particularly the heritage of the muslin fabrics. Third, a number of British heritage institutions contained a vast amount of information, data and items which could be worked on to reveal a very important and deep historical connection between UK and Bengal. Based on these reasons an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund was made in 2011. A successful outcome during the same year led to the initiative starting in October 2011. The delivery of the project consisted of a number of stages.