Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
A piece of injiri
When the property of an Abonnema chief was being divided out in 1916, the thing which his successor was anxious to obtain above all was a piece of real India discoloured by age. So as soon as this was taken from the box, he stood up and said, 'I should like to have that piece for my share of the house property, because it is the one with which I covered the faces of my ancestors at the Nduein Alali . . . .'" Joanne Eicher quoted this anecdote described by a colonial officer, Talbott, who was assigned to the southern Nigerian territory in the early 1900s, at a conference on the "RMHK" organised by the Madras Craft Foundation in Chennai.
RMHK? Real India? Talbott had written further: "Injiri - the local pronunciation of the word India - a cloth the trade name of which is 'real India' and which was first introduced to these regions by the Portuguese, was for many years the finest material obtainable and therefore became the dress of Kalabari chiefs and is still worn on ceremonial occasions. It is also often used to screen juju and sacred images. Such pieces of cloths are family heirlooms, and the older they are, the more valuable they become."
" Madras," says Francoise Cousin, ". . . the French word signifies and designates the checked cotton fabric, whatever be the origin and at the same time, with reference to the West Indian costume, it refers to the knotted head dress of the women made from a square piece of this type of cloth . . . ."
In 1844, A.Wahlen had observed that "as it is not easy to find a hairstyle suitable to frizzy hair, most of the women wore a Madras, which was knotted in a coquettish fashion . . . ."
The widespread use of the Madras cloth as headdress caused the assimilation of both the cloth and the headdress in the same word. The word Madras was also used for the robes worn by the men and women in Nigeria. Cousin says that a third usage of the word is as a unit of measure (six madras are required for making a robe).
Eicher says "Injiri (madras) holds a special place in Kalabari (a tribe in Nigeria) life as a symbol of a person's journey into the embrace of the world beyond this life . . . the opening scene in the drama of life includes a piece of injiri that is ceremoniously delivered to the mother by the father of a newborn child 'for carrying it'. This personal emblem of entry into society for that child also becomes the cloth marking his departure the moment he arrives at the house as a corpse . . . ." Madras is identified by some as the flag of the Kalabari.
The cotton cloth with plaid or checkered design has various names on various continents. It is called RMH or RMHK (Real Madras handkerchief) in India, Indian Madras in the U.S. and England, George by the Igbo in southern Nigeria and injiri among the Kalabari in their own language or Real India in English. Thousands of metres of these imported textiles are a significant part of the Kalabari material environment.
Presenting RMHK to a newborn child is an important ritual among the Kalabaris. The injiri cloth has high value. "A child," says a Kalabari, "is the greatest thing a man can ever have, and materially speaking, the injiri is the greatest treasure a man can ever possess at the early times." So, traditionally, a man's happiness at the birth of a baby is measured by the presentation of a most cherished material gift, a piece of injiri to the child. This will be used to carry the baby, until much later when it will be removed and kept in the box, and brought out again at puberty for the child to be wrapped in . . . ."
RMHK has been produced in South India and exported for over 400 years. The Portuguese were the earliest involved in the trade with West Africa and were followed by Dutch, French and English merchants. Real Madras Handkerchief is 36 inches wide and woven in lengths of 24 yards. Each yard is marked by a stripe, to make the square handkerchief.
In Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh, there are an estimated 16-20,000 weavers, 11,000 of whom weave on jacquard looms to produce RMHK and saris. The centres of weaving have been Washermanpet, Saidapet, Annakaputur, Arni, Gummidipoondi and Sulurpet in and around Chennai and also Chinglepet, North Arcot in Tamil Nadu and Nellore, Chittoor and Guntur districts in Andhra Pradesh. The weavers in the Chirala area of Prakasam district of Andhra were trained in the jacquard weaving when the exporter Beardsell could not obtain enough jacquards for their needs.
According to Bobby Sumberg in the Madras Craft Foundation files, RMHK actually originates as an order placed with an exporter's agent in West Africa. This order is given to a master weaver who arranges for the dyeing, winding and sizing of the yarn, to the weaver who puts it on the loom and weaves it and gives it to the master weaver who ships it to the exporter in Madras and from there to a ship bound for Benin. From Cotonou it is smuggled into Nigeria.
Weavers work under a master weaver as they do not own the loom. A loom is usually worked by two or three members of the family. Weaving includes joining the new warp to the old and rolling it onto the warp beam, filling quills or pirns that hold the yarn in the shuttle and the actual weaving. Sometimes a helper pulls the jacquard ropes to make it easier for the weaver.
The earliest RMHK were plaids and checks without borders. Blue, red and white checks. Different colours were preferred by people in different areas and were produced with the market in mind. The Warri wore yellow, green red and blue plains, and heavy embroideries and Divex preferred plains in red and blue.
Today, RMHK is being put to many different uses. Depending on only one country for export has been dangerous. New designs have been thought of for furnishing fabrics and saris with RMHK.
According to designer and exporter Nirmal, "There are still weavers who know the most intricate skills, they still use dyes that are colour fast, they will use combed cotton, there are still enough jacquard looms to warrant the preservation of a whole weaving village."
At Dakshinachitra near Chennai the process of attracting attention to RMHK with its historical perspective and the opening up of new avenues for its use is kept up. Next time you wear a Madras Check or a Bandana think of the weaver who depends only on RMHK for a living. Live it up in the energy of the yellow, the strength of blue, the passion of reds . . . .
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