Weaving Histories. The Transformation of the Handloom Industry in South India, 1800–1960

Dietrich Wielenga, Karuna
Anzahl Seiten
288 S.
£ 80.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Nikolay Kamenov, Chair for the History of the Modern World, ETH Zürich

In her book Weaving Histories: The Transformation of the Handloom Industry in South India, 1800–1960, Karuna Dietrich Wielenga sets out ambitiously to write a longitudinal story of textile production in south India. The stakes here are clear. South Asia was the erstwhile garment-maker of the world in the early modern period.[1] The long 19th century saw not only India ceding this rank to European producers (proportionate) but also a general decline of the industry (nominal). Did colonialism bring about a "de-industrialization" in South Asia and how was it related to European (or more precisely Lancashire’s) industrialization.[2] What role did market forces play and what role did the state play in these processes? As there were new industrial pockets – Bombay and Ahmedabad – and handlooms rebounded and started to grow again in the 20th century, did a market driven reorganization industrialize the sector?[3] What were the human costs? Weaving History is an exceptional scholarly work that not only engages lively with these debates but indeed also offers answers and insightful analysis.

To begin with the book combines different traditions to produce an excellent outcome. It bridges economic, social, cultural, and labor history while it rarely compromises on any of these fronts. The length and breadth of the sources employed in the book is similarly truly impressive. One particular type of source and the respective methodology applied to its interpretation deserve to be mentioned here. Wielenga provides the reader with 32 color plates ranging from reproductions stemming from the Forbes Watson textile collection to company gouache paintings, and contemporary photographs of different settings and stages of the production process of textiles. Importantly, these visual materials do not just accompany the text but are rather skillfully utilized for the sake of historical arguments. The engagement with the secondary literature is also imposing. As already noted, the book is squarely positioned in a number of debates – it certainly does not follow a set of fashionable research questions and does not employ the jargon of the latest vogue. Instead, it is exceptionally argumentative but still manages to maintain an enviable degree of balance and could hardly be accused of unnecessary polemics. If pressed hard to point to any minor deficiencies, one can only mention some surprising omissions in the secondary literature. In the context of South Asia, there is no engagement with the literature dealing with cash crops – particularly cotton – and their relation to famine.[4] On a broader level, old debates surrounding "archaic globalization" and the question of mode, garments, and their circulation are absent. Although the bibliography is certainly updated since the submission of Wielenga’s dissertation, there is no engagement with the most prominent publications in recent debates on cotton and its role in the rise of global capitalism.[5] As it is clear that these omissions were not inadvertent, the reader is left to ponder over the reasoning behind this decision. The exclusion notwithstanding, the book is exhaustive in its engagement with the set of issues at its core.

Weaving Histories consists of seven chapters. It begins by describing the geographical setting or rather settings of textile production and consumption in south India. Men wore a piece of cloth for the lower part of their body – a dhoti, mundu, or veshti – and a matching piece over their shoulders – dupatta or angavastram. Women wore primarily saris. This general picture, however, was subject to a segmentation reflecting social hierarchies – poor people wore white. Men and women of the lowest strata would have their upper bodies bare. Mirroring this segmentation there were also different weaving communities producing in different locales. There were regions devoted to an overseas export production, other places would produce for the broader South Asian market, and yet others for local (sometimes subsistence) consumption. Chapter two details the sources that provide a quantitative assessment on the production in the 19th and 20th centuries. A palpable change in the structure of weaving took place in the early 19th century as the East India Company (EIC) left the trade. A steep decline is evident in the coastal regions that were dedicated to overseas trade, while the hinterland regions fared much better. A general trend was the shift to coarser cloth. Imports of cloth continued rising through the century. In chapter three, the commodity chain is followed – picking, cleaning, ginning, spinning, dyeing, weaving, etc. Here the author pays particular attention to the question of gender – women were actively involved in the cultivation (sowing, wedding, harvesting) as well as in the household spinning. Many of the stages in the commodity chain would gradually mechanise – big cotton gins came to dominate the ginning process due to their capacity to buy, store and clean. By the 1920s hand spinning was also practically dead. However, these changes were not simply brought about by market forces. They rather reflected a form of capitalism abetted by the state (p. 102). The next chapter turns to this issue, detailing the historical overhaul of the system(s) of weaving in connection to market forces and state involvement. Of particular importance is the EIC’s dual mandate – an employer of weavers and the state, endowing it with both coercive and legal powers. At the time, the system was marked by free weavers and the EIC used intermediaries such as cobdars and careedars. By contrast, the modern master weavers of the 20th century were not community leaders, but rather capitalist entrepreneurs (p. 131). Although the issue of caste, class, and labour is present throughout the book, chapter five is dedicated to the issue of caste and details how, for example, Pariar weavers – making for 25 percent of the weavers and in some districts up to 50 percent in the early 19th century – disappeared from the textile industry and how other groups/castes came to dominate artisanal weaving. Chapter six broaches the question of labour and resistance and shows how different markers could bring about different forms of solidarity. There is evidence for organized resistance, written petitions, and mobilization already in the 1810s (p. 169). While such struggles were directed at the EIC, by the end of the period struggles were between weavers, master weavers, yarn dealers, and factory owners. The state was now an arbitrator between capital and labour. The final chapter then turns to the 20th century state intervention, the formation of cooperatives, and the more recent history and fortunes of the handloom industry in the postcolonial period.

All in all, Wielenga excels in depicting a complex and dynamic picture. There were different producers serving different market segments. These groups responded in a non-linear way to state (dis)incentives and market forces. As different stages of the production process industrialized – particularly the spinning of yarn – a rearrangement in the system took place. Importantly, the long cycle of bust and revival was not just a reorganization for more efficient production but also involved a high degree of social cost. Weaving History is thus an outstanding contribution to existing debates and would hopefully bring new life to some of the classical questions concerning the economic/social nexus.

[1] Giorgio Riello / Tirthankar Roy (eds.), How India Clothed the World. The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500–1850, Leiden 2009.
[2] Prasannan Parthasarathi, The Transition to a Colonial Economy. Weavers, Merchants and Kings in South India 1720–1800, Cambridge 2001.
[3] Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India. Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900–1940, Cambridge 1994; Tirthankar Roy, Artisans and Industrialization. Indian Weaving in the Twentieth Century, Delhi 1993; Douglas E. Haynes, Small Town Capitalism in Western India. Artisans, Merchants, and the Making of the Informal Economy, 1870–1960, Cambridge 2012.
[4] Laxman D. Satya, Cotton and Famine in Berar, 1850–1900, Delhi 1997.
[5] Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton. A New History of Global Capitalism, New York 2014.

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