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Calico Museum – The story behind

August 2, 2020

At times, when one comes across the word Calico, little does one know that it represents the craftsman’s triumph, civilization’s pride and the legendary fabric’s worth.

One of the oldest Indian fabrics in recorded history is called Calico, which is typically a plain white or unbleached fabric made of cotton threads. The Europeans used to visit Kozhikode in Kerala, known as Calicut for fabric trade during 11th century. The fabric got its name from the city Calicut accordingly. One of the major exports of ancient times was Calico fabric.

The traditional weaver community Chaliyans in Kerala, used to weave the plain fabric and printing on fabric was done in western and northern India. The Calico cloth was Koracotton fabric made from the finecotton sourced through hot and dry Tamil areas, the areas near Palakkad gap in Western Ghat and also from northern Malabar villages.  These printed fabrics became popular in Europe as Calico prints, also termed as ‘Chintz’. With time, Europeans became fascinated by these fabrics and began taking Chintz printed fabrics with them.

Calico became quite popular with European women andanticipating the surging demand, East India Company laid its foundation in India primarily for trade purposes. By 1631, heavy imports were being carried out from Calicut. Soon Manchester, UK saw the emergence of large textile mills and the trade flourished.Now theindustrially manufactured fabric was being shipped to Indian portsand thisgravely affected the handloom industry. In preceding years, Indian exports mainly constituted dyed, printed and painted Calico, which then diminished with industrialization in Manchester.

The merchants who visited India for spices began taking Chintz printed fabrics with them for themselves and soonrealized the great demand of these fabrics at homeland and Chintz fabrics became a commodity of interest across Europe. John Ovington an English priest came to India in 1689. He summarized his observations by saying: “In some things the artists of India out-do all the ingenuity of Europe, viz., the painting of chintes or callicoes, which in Europe cannot be paralleled, either in their brightness and life of color or in their continuance upon the cloth”.

In 12th century, the calico fabric prints with a lotus design was described by Hēmacandra, the writer, in Indian literature. By the 15th century the Calico fabrics found their way to Egypt from India. From the 17th century onwards trade with Europe followed.

Since the 15th century Ahmedabad was a major trading centre of the textile industry in the sub-continent. The proximity of the city to the coastal shores aided export of finished cotton goods and the black soil of the region was a major advantage in cotton plantation. During the British rule Ahmedabad became famous as ‘Manchester of India’ for these reasons. Due to its growing popularity, a Calico mill was established in Ahmedabad in 1880.

The mill production was stopped in 1998. A major problem for the company has been liberalized imports and the dumping of industrial raw materials by giant foreign corporations.

The Sarabhai family was predominantly Textile Mill owners and later diversified into manufacture of fibers, plastics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Ambalal Sarabhai was the founder of Calico Textile Mills and Sarabhai Textiles. In 1904, Ambalal Sarabhai had built a 21 acre home called the ‘Retreat’ in Shahibaug, Ahmedabad. Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was an eminent historian and philosopher of Indian Art who did exemplary work in both literature and Swadeshi movement. Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, in conversations with Gautam Sarabhai (son of Ambalal Sarabhai and brother of renowned scientist Vikram Sarabhai), the young Chairman of Calico Mills, in 1946, suggested the founding of a Textile Museum in Ahmedabad. The concept behind setting up this museum was to create awareness and conserve and empower the textile heritage of the nation. Within the Calico mills complex, the Museum was inaugurated in 1949 by India’s first Prime Minister, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru. 

The museum was originally housed at the Calico Mills but in 1983, as the collection grew, the museum was shifted to the Sarabhai House in Shahibaug.

Sarabhai-ni- Haveli and the Chauk are the two premises within the Retreat in this museum today.

A grand Mansion called the Haveli, where the tour begins, greets you into its huge spacious halls having inlay marble flooring, broad staircases, open balconies and terrace with mosaic flooring that overlook the gardens.

A view from the Chauk or courtyard gives you a flashback to old residential Gujarati way of life. Impressive wooden cantilevered balconies, marvelous wood carvings of parrot, elephant, floral motifs, God, Goddess, frescoes, ornamental door brackets and knobs are displayed in this gallery. This wooden façade today was originally sourced from dilapidated traditional Gujarati mansions of old Ahmedabad to preserve the heritage work.

Calico Museum is the must visit place for all the fashion and textile lovers, to know and experience our rich Indian Textile heritage.

Kakoli Biswas, Associate Professor, School of Textile & Knitwear Design, Unitedworld Institute of Design (UID)

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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