Saiful Islam’s brilliantly detailed and aptly illustrated book, Muslin -- Our Story, could be called the definitive account of cotton muslin in what is now West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh. This fine fabric which was prized all over the world for its delicate beauty and quality, the book sets out to show, was destroyed during the British colonial era and it is only recently that efforts have begun to revive it.
The East India Company's rapacious role is portrayed as an unequal contest between an "all-powerful commercial entity and a rural production system." The book explains how the company had plundered Bengal, using the revenues it extracted from the region to pay for its textiles, which they were then able to sell to other European markets for massive profits. Bengal's textile workers lost their autonomy in the process, as well as the last shred of wealth they had been able to gather before falling victim to sky-rocketing taxation measures and devastating famines.
The photographs collected in the book were taken by Shahidul Alam of Drik, one of Bangladesh's internationally acclaimed photographers.
Saiful Islam's book is actually much more than a polemic against the British colonial rule. Topics such as the origin of cotton itself, and the complex processes of cotton production on hand looms, the classification of different types of muslin and the legacy this once- great industry has left on modern Bangladesh are all addressed in exhaustive detail. Not only those directly involved in muslin manufacture but also those in subsidiary occupations e.g. darners, bowers, washermen, ironing men, straighteners, dyers, tailors, sewers, get considerable attention from the writer. This book is a fitting tribute to the otherwise forgotten people who played such a key role in producing something of such high quality, and acknowledges the fact that they had continued to struggle on even as the British intrusion progressively wrecked the whole of it.
As Saiful Islam writes: "Astonishingly these hardships and insufferable conditions under which the weavers worked was not reflected in what rolled off the looms. The artisans continued to delight users by producing exquisite cloth in conditions of enormous physical discomfort, financial adversity and economic uncertainty caused by the mechanisms of state persecution and official greed."
Miran Rahman is a Yorkshire-based newspaper journalist