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Trade Wizards Of The East – II Story of the Famed Indian Muslin and The Emergence of India as Cloth Trade Giants

Read the previous section of this series here

The humid climes of the lower GRead the previous section of this series hereangetic plains during Lakshman Sen's regime were rife with the clickerty-clack of the looms, which resonated with the heartbeat of the weavers of Shantipur.

A handful of them had relocated from Dhaka to settle in the village and weave their typical variety of fine Muslin, fashioning them into sarees that became renowned enough to be exported to Afghanistan, Persia, Greece, Arabia and Turkey. Weaving contributed vastly to the economy of Bengal and districts such as Murshidabad, Bankura, Bardhaman and Hooghly were famous for their handloom industries.

Indian muslins were exquisite in make, highly priced and much sought after as an item of luxury. The western variety could not hold a candle to the standards of quality it set. From gowns to bedspreads to tablecloth and handkerchiefs, the west had only known the use of coarse linen for these. Later with mass production, lower taxes during Mughal India and cheap labour along with superior quality of cotton used, a favourable political environment of peace and royal patronage, price of Indian textiles lowered, though that was not the same as its quality, and India began exporting hugely from Bengal and became the most dominant force in cloth trade.

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Marie Antoinette dressed in Fine Muslin

Thousands of shiploads of cotton merchandise left sea ports every year going as far as West Europe and America. There were three trade routes: 

The first was through the Arabian sea to the Gulf of Aden and thence to Cairo and Alexandria.

The second was via Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf to Aleppo and Levantine ports and finally to Europe. 

The third was a land route through Kandahar to cities of Persia and Turkey.

Seths (or Setts) a mercentile community arrived in Bengal in the 15th century from Gujarat. Originally known as ‘Shreshthi’ they settled in Saptagram and began trading in cotton and cloth. Gradually they mingled with the local Bengali population and lost their separate identity. As Saptagram was gradually abandoned as a port with the silting of the Adi Ganga river, they shifted their trading centre to Betore and cleared the neighbouring marshlands of the jungles to set up their residences and founded the village of Gobindapur, named after their family diety Gobindaji. The region that we today know as Dalhousie Square is where Gobindopur once stood.

Along with the Basaks, another weaving and trading community, they together founded a market for their cotton bales, aptly naming it Sutanuti, the place where today Burrabazar stands. Later, seeing the need for fortification of the region by the British to safeguard the collective mercentile interests, both Seths and Basaks were asked to relocate to a region north of Sutanuti called Banstolla, the present day Hariram Goenka Street where their mansions still stand as testimony to their affluence and prosperity. Thus Seths and Basaks can fairly be credited as being the founding fathers of present day Calcutta.

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Cotton exports from Bengal were so much in demand that the British parliament had to take measures to safeguard their local looms and products. The British East India Company which started with a capital of 7000 Pounds and 125 shareholders burgeoned to 1,300,000 Pounds in terms of its worth within 75 years of setting its headquarters at Calcutta. Much of this prosperity stemmed from the textile trade of Bengal which benefited not just European traders but local Bengali and Marwari businessmen too. Janardan Sett and Shobharam Bassak became millionaires in the process. 

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The neighbouring Shyambazar was said to have been developed by the Basaks and named after their family diety Shyam Rai (an attendant of Goddess Kali). The palace of Shobhabazar might have been in their ownership too and was later bought and expanded by Nabakrishna Deb. By the 18th century as the Marwaris slowly started nudging out the Seths and the Basaks from their mercentile bastion, the Bengali traders’ community began investing in real estate.

The city is dotted by innumerable mansions of these merchants of calicoes that tell us the tale that to weave a dream one does not need the opulence of silk, the finesse of good cotton exquisitely spun will do.

Read the Next section of this series here

Author: Tanuka Banerjee

Published: May 21, 2018

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