Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 15, 2022
Sylvia Houghteling The Art of Cloth in Mughal India Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022. 280 pp.; 162 color ills. Hardcover $65.00 (978069121578)

In early modern South Asia the sale of cloth was the second highest financial generator in the economic market. As a commodity it was prized across the world. Moreover, it was an important status symbol, connecting the far flung outposts of the Mughal Empire (1526–1858). It is therefore surprising that a history of South Asian textiles from this pivotal period has never been written before now. Fortunately, what Sylvia Houghteling presents in The Art of Cloth in Mughal India is more than a straightforward narrative. Rather, it maps a history of a specific art form while offering a multilayered methodological corrective to the field of art history. The book questions several entrenched binaries within the field, including the division between the fine and decorative arts, and between the terms “local” and “global.” For instance, even though the art of cloth was highly prized in early modern South Asian culture, Eurocentric historiographic biases have traditionally viewed textiles as a decorative art. Once released from these categories, cloth—it’s cultural value, layered uses, and circulation—can be analyzed more seamlessly. Textiles as objects traversed several worlds from the imperial to the regional, and across different media—such as painting, architecture, and poetry. Houghteling’s book is a deep immersion into Mughal-era history and culture through the media-specific lens of cloth.

One of The Art of Cloth’s most significant contributions is that of shifting the historiographic center away from Europe and situate it in South Asia, or Hindustan, as it was locally called in the early modern period (broadly, the Indian subcontinent) (10, 25, 157). The book is sensitive toward local networks, giving agency to regional producers and patrons, while also keeping an eye on the larger global context. What emerges is an art form that resists being a passive object of study. For Houghteling textile is a living, breathing subject that shaped people’s lives socially, politically, aesthetically, and spiritually (9). Most poignantly, she reminds us that textiles, as materials in direct contact with the body, need to be considered as forms of sensory experience: they stimulate poetic imagination and carry in their touch political importance and religious prestige. By balancing local and global histories, using textual and visual records from Mughal India, and taking the sensual, poetic, and symbolic role of textiles seriously, Houghteling allows cloth to speak for itself.

Chapter 1 sets the tone for a multilayered, multicentered approach that weaves through the book. The chapter is anchored in Akbar-period Hindustan (r. 1556–1605) and covers a vast territory. Houghteling lifts the veil on the intricate web of connections between the Mughal Empire and regional centers such as Kashmir, Bengal, Rajasthan, and the Deccan, using local sources including the fourteenth-century Sanskrit-Maithili prescriptive work, the Varna Ratnākara (Ocean of Description), and the imperial Mughal Ā’īn-i Akbarī (Institutes of Akbar) from the court of Akbar. The chapter makes it clear that the value of textiles to Akbar’s court was not based purely on monetary standards, but was built around aesthetic, poetic, religious, and political principles. For instance, in her detailed discussion of undyed cotton, it becomes evident that for Akbar and his nobility, the value of this otherwise cheap cloth—compared to silk or gold embroidery—lay in its symbolism. Unlike pure silk—which Islam theoretically proscribes men from wearing—cotton was a religiously acceptable material, evoking notions of Islamic piety because of its connections to Sufism: “Sufi texts, influential at the Mughal court, considered cotton the second-best material for pious clothing, after . . . wool” (50–51).

The first chapter also explores textiles beyond the imperial court, including those of Gujarat, Kashmir, and Bengal, discussing different materials, such as raw silk, goat-hair textiles—still used today to make the famous pashmina shawls—and, of course, cotton. In the process we learn about the material, geographical, environmental, and cultural circumstances unique to each region of production. The chapter ends by illustrating instances in which the politics of textiles, in the form of gifts and materials for embodying power, were critical in shaping Akbar’s reign in Hindustan (64–68).

Chapter 2 surveys a singular “robe of honor” (khil‘at) gifted by Prince Salim, soon-to-be Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–27), in the late-sixteenth century to Raja Rai Singh, ruler of Bikaner (r. 1571–1612). Housed to this day in Bikaner, in western India, this robe of honor is possibly the only surviving garment from early imperial Mughal India. Houghteling patches together the robe’s historical context, its political importance, and the personal relationship between the giver and receiver, using a diverse array of sources and methods to uncover the uses of this rare object. Subjective choices and personal experiences were key in Islamicate gift-giving practices in general and in elite Mughal society in particular (74–75). In many ways a gifted textile was similar to the Persianate letter-writing convention, which was “the language of love and affection, replete with metaphors of friendship and romantic longing” (80). Both mediums were, metaphorically speaking, “stand-ins for the absent friend or beloved” (80).

The royal Bikaner robe becomes a node for the author at which several cultural and material histories converge. She explores the Islamicate and Persianate contexts and the uses of figural textiles and poetic inscriptions on cloth. She also examines the symbolism of figural robes—textiles that included woven or embroidered human figures—as seen in elite Persian and Mughal paintings, particularly highlighting how the presence of such textiles could make an absent lover present, or even “permit a portrait to move between the earthly and the heavenly” (88). Houghteling’s layered exploration of a Jahangir-period robe offers a cohesive map, not only of the values and principles of gift exchange, but of the Mughal eco system as a whole.

What do textiles tell us about courtly culture in non-imperial centers in Mughal-era Hindustan? In Chapter 3, Houghteling examines this question by highlighting the Rajasthani court of Jai Singh of Amber (r. 1621–67) during the period of Shah Jahan’s rule (r. 1628–58). In doing this, the author shifts the focus away from a Mughal-centric art history. She even questions the use of the term “Mughal” as a “designator of time or period of production” (107). Although Mughal textiles dominate the historiography, the author reminds us that the Amber collection of textiles was possibly larger than the Mughals’ and equal, if not superior, in terms of quality. Seeking to define the value of the cloth at Amber, Houghteling approaches the intertwined history of the material from several directions, weaving her way through the region’s history, its courtly inventory records, and vernacular poetry, while also examining the materiality and iconography of a set of figural textiles collected from the south-central region of the Deccan. She concludes the chapter with a lengthy survey of textiles used as temporary architecture within the palace walls. Drawing important parallels between overlapping art forms, she shows how the seventeenth-century court of Amber participated in the larger metaphorical world of the Persian cosmopolis. Simultaneously, the region also domesticated imported fabrics through their literary and practical uses. In one instance, Indic features, such as nose rings, bindī, and marks of devotion, were added to Persian portraits in pieces of mid-seventeenth-century velvet from Safavid Iran (1501–1736) that were used as wall hangings in the Amber palace (137).

Moving away from examining an array of textiles that touched the lives of specific individuals or courts, in Chapter 4 she dives into an intimate study of kalamkari cloth—cotton fabric painted using mordants and wax resists—from the eastern Deccani region of Machilipatnam. The chapter celebrates the regional specificity of a much-desired textile: the sandy soil of the northern Coromandel coast that produced a unique, concentrated red dye, the cherished water sources that “brightened” them (158), and the distinctive collaboration between the “dyer’s vat” and the “painter’s hand” (159). She also highlights previously overlooked, yet central, figures of the textile industry—bleachers and washers—and cultural intermingling that introduced new styles within the kalamkari tradition, such as western Indian techniques when Gujarati artisans migrated to Machilipatnam.

Chapter 5 takes us out of Hindustan and into Britain’s domestic spaces, revealing how South Asian textiles reshaped “the visual and material world of late seventeenth-century Britain” (188). While most textile scholarship focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contacts between South Asia and Britain, Houghteling reveals earlier, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century interactions. Furthermore, rather than highlighting the trade and economics of cloth, her focus is on female embroiderers. By taking the reader into the intimate space of the English home, the chapter introduces the British context, not as “global” but as another region where a foreign textile—in this case chintz—was transformed, domesticated, and localized.

The Art of Cloth is a crucial, multidisciplinary addition to the field that combines art and architectural history with explorations into comparative literature, botany, and the history of trade. By departing from a top-down retelling of Mughal-era history, Houghteling assembles a large ensemble cast that includes village washers, female embroiderers, powerful monarchs, noblemen, poets, and merchants. The book brings together key moments of cultural encounters that go far beyond monetary exchange or purely political motivations. These are encounters “of the senses, of the body, of the heart; they bespeak the impulses of desire, diplomacy, and friendship” (149).

Murad Khan Mumtaz
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Williams College