Legends of the Loom – the historic travails of muslin

By Smita Sarkar in London

Smita Sarkar

The opening film of the London Bengali Film Festival (LBFF) this year was a radical, historic documentary – Legends of the Loom illustrating the 2000 years journey of the finest cotton in the world, the fabric of Bengal – muslin. The inspiring documentary made in partnership with the Cultural Affair Ministry of Bangladesh, BNM and Aarong was received with stunned silence, followed by a heavy round of applause and some hard-hitting questions from members of the fashion industry, media, filmmakers and activists. 

The 43-minute documentary directed by Purabi Matin, traces the history of muslin from its earliest days where it originated from the ‘phuti karpas’, the cotton species that produced the muslin plant on the riverbanks of the Meghna, Shitalakhya and Brahmaputra. 

“The entire objective of this documentary was to make a statement – a strong statement that we have a product that was never considered Bangladeshi,” said Saiful Islam, the researcher, writer and producer of the film. “Sonia Ashmore’s book ‘Muslin’ for example, never mentioned Bangladesh as the main producer of muslin. This unique craft was from a country whose current profile is very understated.”

Recreating the elaborate, rustic and delicate production processes that the yard had to undergo before being spun and weaved into muslin, the documentary touched upon its journey from the riverbanks to the courtrooms of Moghul and Indian royalty, that patronized the fabric for its delicate and sophisticated custom. Muslin thrived in India under the Moghul patronage and while Hindu weavers wove it, Muslims mainly did the embroidery and motifs. 

A still from the film ‘Legend of The Loom’

The fabric’s popularity soon stretched worldwide – with the Arab traders transporting the merchandise to countries of the Middle East, Jordan, Turkey and finally making its way to Europe. The United Kingdom and France becoming the main consumers. The finely woven muslin became a favourite with the French queen Marie Antoinette, Napoleon’s wife Joséphine de Beauharnais and the British author Jane Austen. 

The documentary extensively shot in different parts of Bangladesh, India, United Kingdom, Scotland, Switzerland, Germany, Jordon, France, Italy and the United States, tracking the finest samples and stories of muslins preserved in different museums across Europe. 

Machine looms soon replicated the hand-woven and delicate fabric, to meet the demands of its growing popularity that devoured the middle-class in Europe. The brutal oppression of the weavers, unfair trade policies imposed on weavers by the British East India Company and the loss of Moghul patronage (as the Moghuls lost their power to the British Colonial Rule) led to the ultimate demise of the hand-woven, delicate and legendary muslin. 

A coarser version of the cotton or Khadi became a part of the independence movement of India, with Mahatma Gandhi taking up the Charkha (spinning wheel) as a symbol of Swadeshi. This movement started the revival of the loom when it called nationalists to abandon machine-made fabric and products from England. 

The documentary ends with a positive note on the reinstating of the weavers communities in Bangladesh and India, with the support of the government and non-government organisations in those countries. It ends with the resilience of weavers in Bangladesh and India in upholding an undying art.   

Saiful Islam

Saiful made the documentary to inspire the next generation to take pride in their cultural heritage and retrieve elements of Bangladesh’s heritage that has not been lost.

But embarking on this project had challenges for him and his team. The lack of artifacts and historical documents in Bangladesh, because of the decades of bureaucratic neglect, partition, and wars made it difficult to find evidence for visual documentation. The initial project was to gather information, but the scope magnified and the intellectual adventure turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Famed actress Mita Rahman narrates the documentary and the film will be showcased at the Nice Film Festival this year. 

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