Traversing the Indian Ocean: A Tale of Two Textiles

Vidhita Raina

Traveling between 1611 and 1615 on an English East India ship, Peter Floris, a Dutch merchant, remarked on the distinct sartorial taste for Indian textiles in Southeast Asia– the Malay markets differed from the Thai markets (Guy 1998, 67). A keen observer, Floris noted that the Indian cloth imported into the Malay Peninsula lacked the narrow white edge that was so desirable with Thai consumers, a fine detail which had a major impact on its appeal. Further east, around the same time, in 1613, an English merchant at the southern island of Kyushu noted the demand in Japan for a cotton cloth that was “fantastically paynted,” which clearly pointed to Indian textiles. Both European merchants highlight the popularity of painted and printed cotton textiles from the Indian subcontinent in the early modern period, while also indicating that the successful merchant would have to understand the nature of demand for such textiles in a highly granular, temporally dynamic, and market-specific way.

Figure 1. Jacket, South Sumatra, c. 1725-1750, cotton (textile), resist, mordant (surface preparation material), dye. 2011-00087. Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore.

This short study examines two tailored garments made from cotton textiles that were produced on the Coromandel Coast of India during the eighteenth century–a Malay baju panjang (jacket) and a Japanese kosode (“small-sleeves underrobe”). These textiles exemplify the painted and printed cottons that were transported from the southeastern coast of India toward two distinct markets in the Malay Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago, at a time when Indian cloth was in great demand around the world. As a salient comparison, the baju panjang from the Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM) (fig. 1) and the Japanese kosode from the Kyushu National Museum (fig. 2) expand our understanding of the possibilities of Indian chintz by consumers in Southeast and East Asia. In the hands of a local tailor in these distinct locales, these two garments demonstrate the different shapes that Indian chintz could take on, responding to specific sartorial impulses and distinct cultural expectations.

The Malay baju panjang is a long jacket that was once worn by both men and women, although it is more frequently associated with women today. The term baju connotes a tailored garment for the upper body, such as a tunic, coat, or robe, however, it evolved over time and was worn over a batik sarong (skirt), as one part of a larger outfit (Lee 2014, 23-24). These jackets are associated with the introduction of Islam in the region and by extension with the modesty that characterized Arab and Indian dress (Guy 1998, 69). According to Lee, this association of the baju with Muslim communities and the combination of baju with a wrapped skirt could be considered a sartorial phenomenon that draws on distinct logics of dress– whereby robust trade and cultural exchange between the Indian subcontinent, the Portuguese colonial endeavor, and the Islamic world come together (Lee 2014, 41).

The baju was an evolving clothing type that was not always made of brightly colored imported cloth as is seen in the ACM example. In the seventeenth century, the bajus were transparent, made of fine silk, crepe, or cotton, and worn with skirts made of Indian cloth wrapped around the waist (Lee 2014, 40). In the following century, the transparent baju began to lose popularity and floral Indian chintz became attractive to wearers. In the 1770s, Sydney Parkinson, a Scottish draughtsman, describes not only the distinctions between clothing worn by the enslaved and their mistresses, but also illustrates the use of chintz for bajus:

The free-women, who are called Noonga Cabaia, wear a long chintz banjan, called a Cabai, which reaches down to their heels; they have square-toed slippers, turned up at the points very high, with which they make shift to hobble along. (Parkinson 1773, 179)

Ultimately, it was the nonyas, or local Peranakan women, who adopted the baju panjang into their sartorial repertoire, popularizing the shape and structure of the garment as we know it now (Koh, n.d.). 

The ACM baju panjang is made from hand painted, mordant and resist-dyed cotton from the Coromandel Coast. The distinctive red dye of the textile was achieved using chaya root or Indian madder, and the textile is covered in a continuous field of flowers, anchored by large blooms that are interspersed with smaller, delicate leaves and buds rendered in shades of blue and white. The bold and intricately painted floral design reflected a sophisticated taste. As observed by foreign travelers, those of high social status owned and wore bajus made of chintz (Guy 1998, 69). Worn as a loose-fitted jacket, the baju concealed the form of the body underneath and was likely fastened by brooches near the high neckline. The ACM baju is one among several surviving jackets made from Coromandel cloth for Southeast Asian markets (McCullough and Barnes 2023, 190). Comparable baju jackets from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, were constructed from Coromandel cloth in Sumatra during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Figure 2. Aigi (Under Robe) with Kasuri (Splashed) Checks and Sarasa. Tailored into Aigi: Edo period, 18th–19th century / textile production: 17th–18th century. Cotton basket weave / kasuri checks, mordant-dyed, wax resist printing method (hand painting), unlined robe. Kyushu National Museum, Fukuoka. Source: ColBase: Integrated Collections Database of the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, Japan.

Like the baju panjang, the Japanese kosode (fig. 2) from the Kyushu National Museum is also constructed from imported textiles. However, the types of textile that form the Japanese garment differ from that of the ACM baju panjang. This Japanese kosode is further categorized as an aigi, a garment worn between layers of clothing, rather than as an overcoat. For instance, women during the Edo period (1615–1868) wore an aigi underneath a thicker kimono known as uchikake. Tailored during the eighteenth or nineteenth century, the main body of the kosode is made of a black and white checked pattern while the borders are made from vibrant imported Indian cotton (known as sarasa in Japanese). Close examination of the garment reveals that it was previously lined with another cloth that has since been removed. Remaining fibers and threads are the sole evidence of that lost lining. In comparison to the Malay baju, this is a relatively subdued and surely less exuberant garment. The bright saturated section of the sarasa textile has been deployed selectively, only used at the borders of the Japanese kosode. Even then, the sarasa border has been inventively dyed, preserving the row of paisley across the bottom, and lining up the narrow vertical and horizontal borders with graceful floral scrolls along the sides of the robe. As such, the most visually dynamic part of the design takes on a strongly linear quality and acts as a type of frame. The fine floral and arabesque designs and the use of resist-dyeing suggest that this cloth is also a product of the Coromandel Coast. Furthermore, the checked kasuri pattern in the center and sarasa designs were woven, dyed and hand painted on the same piece of cotton fabric– a further demonstration of the ingenious techniques of Coromandel Coast craftspeople. The kosode was not to be worn singularly but rather as one layer of a larger clothing ensemble. The elegant, checked pattern attests to the subdued fashion trend amongst Edo’s elite, while the hint of red and slight blue sarasa likely peeked out from under the layers at the cuffs and below the hem of the overcoat, revealing the sophisticated taste of the wearer (ColBase, n.d.).

When compared to the baju panjang and the Malay context, the Japanese kosode alludes to a different way of understanding, using, and preserving the Coromandel cloth, accentuated by its orientation and cut. The Malay baju centers and celebrates the bright floral textile as well as the deep red dyes. The baju is the outermost layer, visible to the public and spotlighted. On the other hand, within the Japanese context, the monochromatic kasuri checks and the sarasa colors are reserved to slight but visible touches among a wider ensemble. The kosode would have been largely hidden underneath several other layers of fabric, these layers held together by an obi (waistband), which may have had a different pattern. Yet, in both cases, the tailoring of the baju and the kosode paid utmost attention to the repetitive pattern on the cloth. In one case, it was uniformly distributed across the garment, vividly accentuating both the height and girth of the wearer. In the other case, the garment was defined by a grid-like field surrounded on all sides by borders of colored patterns, which were selectively placed for high visibility.

Both the baju panjang and the kosode bring transoceanic exchanges to the forefront but they also express a multitude of cultural layering. Here, the idea of layering constitutes not only the cross-cultural layering of Indian chintz as it was transported across cultural spheres, but also the economic entanglements of global trade relations, the very material layering of being constructed from imported cotton that has moved across the Indian Oceanic space, and of sartorial creativity, wherein the textiles are transformed into garments that are local, accessible, and consumable by wearers both in the Malay and Japanese cultural spheres. Furthermore, it was chintz’s material qualities, such as its colorfastness obtained through dyes and mordants and the malleable and light nature of cotton, that made it a successful and highly sought-after commodity across regions.

Borrowing from Nile Green, Pedro Machado and Sarah Fee demonstrate how the Indian Ocean acts as an “interaction-based arena” (Machado and Fee 2018, 1-3). The Indian Ocean has served and continues to act as a network of exchange for both ideas and commodities, but more importantly, the human relationships that worked and shaped this network must be highlighted; the merchant and trading communities who transported these textiles, the unrecognized/unknown craftspeople who manufactured them and those tailored them into sophisticated garments, and finally the consumers who wore these clothes. The baju panjang and the kosode further prove how cotton cloth symbolized and formed an intimate link to the global connectivity of the early modern world.

The tale of the two textiles in this essay is one of material mobilities and the translatability of textiles within local contexts. Traversing the vastness of the Indian Ocean, the two garments highlight the global repercussions of the early modern trade in Indian cotton textiles eastwards. The journey of the cotton cloth from the Indian subcontinent and into the Malay peninsula and Japanese archipelago is the story of how this cloth was transformed, transmuted, and localized over time and space.

Vidhita Raina is a PhD candidate in the Kress Foundation Department of Art History at the University of Kansas with a focus on early modern Japanese art. Her research interests center on the intersections of global and local Japanese art histories, cross-cultural transmissions, and materiality. Her dissertation, “Fabricating Sarasa: Patterns of Global Exchange in Early Modern Japanese Textiles and Visual Culture,” is focused on the lives of imported printed and painted cotton textiles from India within the material and visual cultures of Edo period (1615-1868) Japan, particularly on the dissemination of patterns and dye techniques through the study of printed manuals and manuscripts. She received her BA in History from University of Delhi, MA in History of Art/Archaeology from School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and MA in East Asian Art History from University of Kansas.

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Reference List

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