“The weaving of cotton textiles in South India was renowned for centuries prior to the British building a harbour in Madras in the 18th Century, but it was this port and the British East India Company that led to textiles from Madras being traded throughout the modern world,” says Shah.
Chennai-based textile researcher, Sreemathy Mohan, says that the Coromandel coast was always renowned for its fabrics, especially hand-woven checked fabrics. “In Tamil culture, a grid has always been a powerful symbol [for example in] kolams [designs drawn on the floor]. Even deities in our temples have been clothed in checked fabrics. Wedding sarees in many communities have been checked, and they were hand-woven usually only in the colours of red, blue, white and yellow.
“Woven by handloom on muslin cloth, these simple checks were known by different names – Madras checks, real Madras handkerchief, George cloth (after Fort St George in Madras), Guinea cloth or bleeding Madras. In the days of simple pit looms, this was just alternating colours used in warp and weft,” says Mohan. Its smell “of oil and vegetable dyes” was also distinctive.
A checkered past
In her book Asian Embroidery, art historian Jasleen Dhamija dates the first export of checked fabric under the name “Madras” to 1660, when British merchants used the term Real Madras Handkerchief, or RMHK, to describe 8m-long bales of fabric that could be cut into three square kerchiefs to evade a tax. RMHK cloth has been traded with West Africa since the 16th Century. Portuguese slave traders bartered the cloth in London in exchange for enslaved people to send to the Americas.