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Volume 47, Number 5September/October 1996

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The Dye That Binds

Written by Caroline Stone
Photographed by Ilene Perlman

Printed cotton bandanna handkerchiefs, with their characteristic white pattern on a red ground, were a sartorial feature dear to my grandfather's generation in England. They used to blossom from the breast pockets of tweed jackets or lurk in the back pockets of flannel trousers, to be hauled forth with sufficient circumstance to impress the young—I was small then and the bandannas were large—and used with a flourish to polish spectacles or wipe moustaches.

Much later I become aware that, in the United States, bandanna handkerchiefs had an even broader and more enduring appeal, thanks in no small part to Hollywood, which helped make the bandanna a symbol of the American West. No cowboy was without a bandanna around his neck; no bad-die failed to use his white-on-blue or white-on-red bandanna to mask his identity when doing evil. Even today, shops in the American West sell bandannas, often packaged with instructions for the perplexed suggesting 30 different ways they can be used.

But when I lived in the Middle East, it never occurred to me that the bandanna might be a distant cousin of the red-and-white, black-and-white or green-and-white checked shmagh, or head cloth, worn almost universally by the men of the Arabian Peninsula, and widely in much of the Middle East. (The better-known term ghutra is reserved for the all-white headcloth.)

It was while visiting India that I realized that these two everyday, practical cloths may both have originated with the often elaborate tie-dyed textiles of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the two states of northwestern India. There, for well over a thousand years, wool and silk, as well as the more conventional cotton, have been dyed in patterns made up of white dots on a colored ground. Scarlet predominates to this day for saris, veils and turbans. Dark blue and green, also common colors in Western bandannas, are the next favorites.

The origins of bandhani,as the tie-dye process is called in Sanskrit, are obscure. The earliest written mention in Indian sources is in the Harshacarita, "The Deeds of Harsha," a seventh-century Sanskrit text that recounts the life of a king. There, the cloth is referred to as pulaka bandha, literally "dye-tie." Some scholars believe the technique may have originated in Central Asia and passed from there to India and Japan, the two countries in which the practice achieved both popularity and high levels of craftsmanship. The earliest surviving examples of bandhani cloth, however, as opposed to descriptions of it, date back no further than the 18th century; they are from tombs in Central Asia.

Bandhani is used by nearly everyone throughout western India, but its manufacture is primarily a Muslim specialty. Nowhere is this more so than in the Kutch region of northwestern Gujarat. Here, women work in the privacy of their homes.

First, they lightly stamp the cloth with the design to be worked. Each traditional pattern has a name: One roundel, for example, is called indhoni, "the resting place of the milk pot," another is "five flowers," and a large central circle is called "full moon." A teardrop shape often used at the corners of a piece is known as "mango." Several other patterns are named after jewelry: "Forehead ornament," "drop earring" and so on. Borders may be "hooks," "waves," "flowering vine" or "peacock's feather." The small dots used to fill in spaces may be called "five grains."

The designs on fabrics the Muslim artisans make for their own use are entirely geometric, in spite of the names. Those fabrics made either for non-Muslims communities or for export, however, are often covered with representational figures, such as parrots, peacocks, elephants, lions and dancers. These figures most often appear as repeated motifs in lines or circles, or worked into a checked pattern.

Making a piece of bandhani is complex and time-consuming, so its various stages have in some cases become family or individual specialties. It is not unusual for a fine piece to be woven in one home, tied in another, dyed in a third and finished and embroidered in a fourth.

This is frequently the case, for example, with the magnificent abha wedding tunics, with their matching odhni head veils, made in Kutch. Here a fine silk is completely covered in tie-dye as fine as the famous Japanese higenoko ("little fawn") work. The colors are generally black and scarlet with touches of yellow. The neck, sleeves and hem are finished with lavish rows of gold braiding, or sometimes with bands of gold brocade, as are the borders of the veil. The effect is extraordinarily rich and striking, and fine pieces, old or new, are understandably valuable.

To produce a complicated piece of bandhani, the pattern is laid out, and the woman—who will have grown the nails of her thumb and little finger unusually long to speed her work—bunches minute sections of the material, according to the printed cartoon, and ties each bunch with waxed cotton thread. Differently shaped knots each produce a different effect, and the knots also have their own names, such as "shell," or jalebi, after the square sweet.

After tying, the cloth is dyed. Then, as necessary for each additional color, it is retied and redyed. Although red-and-black remains the most traditional combination, red-and-white, dark-green-and-red, indigo-and-red, red-and-yellow and black-and-cream are also great favorites.

The red is supposed to be as brilliant as possible, and some towns are thought to get a better shade than others, perhaps because of differing water supplies. The dyes were, until recently, all natural: madder and cochineal for red, indigo for blue, jasmine and saffron for yellow. Now, chemical dyes are commonly used, sometimes with excellent effect.

As well as bandhani, Kutch produces block-printed fabrics in red and black patterns that appear to imitate the more expensive bandhani work. Made principally for the rural market, these block-printed fabrics have been widely exported for centuries. They have been found both in Egypt and in the port towns along the Red Sea dating back as early as the 15th century.

Were these printed materials ordered because they were less expensive than the tie-dyed ones? Or did disingenuous traders try to pass off the cheaper versions in the hope that merchants so far from India might not notice the difference? We will almost certainly never find out, but it is interesting to speculate that this false-bandhanicloth may be the origin of the shmagh—also called quffiyyah in the Levant—so popular to this day among men throughout the Middle East.

Another theory, which seems to have the support of etymology, is that the shmagh derived from the veil worn by upper-class Ottoman women, which was called a yashmak. But yashmaks did not usually have a dyed or woven pattern, and though the word may have moved from Turkish to Arabic, it does not follow that the design of the Arab headcloth followed that path too. The false-bandhaniorigin of the design seems more likely to me.

Should it be true, then the design of the bandanna that symbolizes the American West and that of the shmagh that is characteristic of the Middle East may both have come, ultimately, from the homes of the predominantly Muslim artisans of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Caroline Stone writes about textiles, deals in them and organizes exhibitions from her home in Seville. Her latest book,Mantones de Manila, will appear in 1997.

Free-lance photographer Ilene Perlman, based in Boston, has photographed forAramco World in India, Somalia and the Comoro Islands.

This article appeared on pages 38-43 of the September/October 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1996 images.