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Home > News > Opinion News > Article > Yale built on foundation of Indian textiles

Yale built on foundation of Indian textiles

Updated on: 03 March,2024 07:11 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Shweta Shiware |

An Indian-origin student’s research proposal proves how cloth handwoven by Indian weavers sealed the transformation of small Connecticut school into the invincibly solvent Yale University, and even earned its name

Yale built on foundation of Indian textiles

By crossing genres of weaving, sewing, dyeing and painting, Bhasha Chakrabarti’s Slavery, Race and Yale research proposal in December 2021 grounded her process of art-making in black feminism and queer theory; (right) Bhasha Chakrabarti

Shweta ShiwareYale University, on February 16, issued a formal apology for its long and complex involvement in slavery, racism and abolition. This was accompanied by the release of Yale and Slavery: A History by Pulitzer-prize winning author David W Blight with the Yale and Slavery Research Project. The book begins with the early history of Connecticut, where in the 18th century roughly 50 per cent of the economy was connected to trade with the West Indies, which depended on slavery.  

Yale students and faculty members began working on the Yale and Slavery Research project in October 2020, five months after the death of George Floyd, an African-American man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. 

Bhasha Chakrabarti, an MFA graduate in painting and printmaking at Yale School of Art, was among the students that presented their research findings at the Yale College seminar on Slavery, Race, and Yale in 2021. “I was expected to write an essay [in the book] but I decided against it, although my research was funded by the university. I would rather have it live on in other ways, like talking about it to people,” says Chakrabarti, 32, on the phone from Hampi where she is part of an art residency programme. 

Barely two weeks into her MFA programme, Chakrabarti accidentally got access to the invoice of the original donation made by Elihu Yale to the IVY league university founded in 1701. 

A reconstruction of a list of additional items (sourced from The Alchemy of Empire: Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism by Rajani Sudan) includes a jar of nutmeg, 13 pairs of gingham sheets and 31 pieces of Madras chintz sent by Elihu Yale to the collegiate school. Pics Courtesy/Bhasha ChakrabartiA reconstruction of a list of additional items (sourced from The Alchemy of Empire: Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism by Rajani Sudan) includes a jar of nutmeg, 13 pairs of gingham sheets and 31 pieces of Madras chintz sent by Elihu Yale to the collegiate school. Pics Courtesy/Bhasha Chakrabarti

In 1718, Yale was East India Company’s former governor of Fort St George or White Town in Madras, where the white company officers, including Yale, lived. 
This donation comprised over 300 volumes of books that can still be accessed at the Yale University library, a painting of King George I of Great Britain and Ireland—painted in England in 1714 by Godfrey Kneller—can be found in the university’s art gallery, and “two-hundred-pound sterling worth of English goods”.  

The surviving records clearly indicate that there was no cash or gold or silver bullion among this donation, Chakrabarti clarifies, but rather “English goods” consisting exclusively of various types of textiles. “Compared to the meticulous detail with which the books and painting within the same endowment were documented and preserved as forms of knowledge, scarce records were kept of the [textile] goods. This speaks to the relationship that the college had with cloth from India, both financially extractive and epistemologically devaluing.”

A close investigation revealed 25 pieces of garlix (one of the most commonly imported cloth to the Americas in the 18th century across all colonies, and used widely for clothing by native and enslaved Black people), 17 pieces of stufe (term for worsted cloth or cloth made from brushed yarns, usually woven wool), 12 pieces of Spanish poplin, two pieces of black and white crape (silk crepe almost surely of English origin), three pieces of Camlett (this likely refers to a fine animal hair cloth like pashmina or cashmere from India), five pieces of muslin and 18 pieces of calico. 

Calico could mean a range of things, Chakrabarti explains, but at that time, a large section of calico implied Madras chintz. “Records show that by 1721, all cloth sent by Elihu Yale had been sold in Boston, and that the money from the sales exceeded the value of any other single donation given to the college for the next century. It can perhaps be said that it was cloth handwoven by Indian weavers that secured the transformation of a small school in Connecticut with a tenuous future into the invincibly solvent Yale University as we know it today. In addition to the fact that it obviously led to naming the university after Elihu Yale,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time trying to justify the significance of cloth; and then life crashed when I discovered that the college was built on cloth!” 

It is important to note that the date of Yale’s donation—circa 1718—coincides with the time that the Calico Acts (passed by the British Parliament in 1700 and 1721, these acts banned the sale and use of imported calico cloth in Britain) was in effect. At this time, the value of Indian textiles on the global stage was primarily fuelled by their demand in the Atlantic markets of the American colonies and West Africa. 

Within the American colonies, Indian cloth was especially coveted in the colonies of the West Indies and could be traded for almost any goods produced there at premium value. Furthermore, the 1720 to 1780, makes the period when the largest number of enslaved Africans were brought to British North America. “Even without the details of who the exact buyers were, in exploring where and when they sold the goods, we can deduce that the college probably participated even more directly in the slave trade, by acting as suppliers of Indian cloth to merchants of ships that dealt in enslaved people and goods produced through enslaved labour.” 

Chakrabarti calls Madras plaid seductive. “The affluent wanted to keep this ‘elite’ fabric to themselves by banning enslaved Black people—even mulattos in the West Indies—from wearing it. This suggests distinctions embedded in hierarchies of fabrics: Madras plaid was not a prized fabric in the domestic Indian market yet it attained a status because of its association with power,” says Bhasha Chakrabarti.

Born to Indian parents in Honolulu, Chakrabarti was introduced to the intimacy of quilt-making as a child. “Quilt making is an important artistic expression in Hawaii, and since my father is Bengali, I was familiar with the kantha craft.”

Her art practice is centred on notions of mending, repair and repurposing while critiquing the legacies of colonialism and their continued sway. “I learned to weave and sew very early on and practice it daily. But my primary work entails historical research, and you can say that I fell into Madras plaid when I found the invoice; turning the fabric into oral history.”

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