Common Threads: Fabrics Made-in-India for Africa

Authors: M Venkatachalam, R Modi, and J Salazar
Publ: African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL)

According to the publisher`s blurb, ‘Common Threads explores the ties that bind India and Africa through the material medium of cloth, from antiquity to the present’ and it goes on: ‘(c)loth made in India has been sold across African markets for millennia, by Indian, African, and European traders’, resulting in ‘rich stories of bi-directorial migrations of peoples, across the Indian Ocean, the exchange of visual aesthetics, and the co-production of cultures in the two geographies’.

Actually the book`s remit spans far beyond that, into the wider history of the trade and its ramifications right up to the second decade of this century.  It is a highly accomplished academic work by the three co-authors well versed in their respective specialisms.  What we have is a truly fascinating account of Indo-African dynamics over the manufacture and sale of fabrics over more than a thousand years. The book is beautifully produced, with a mass of colourful graphics, photos (143, with a full list), maps, illustrations and other documentation. Above all, what impresses is its clear language and narrative style, complete with extensive end notes and a lucid glossary of terms.  The bibliography of books and articles alone is spread over some 10 pages.

Part I examines the `Connected Histories of the Indian Ocean Trade` under such varied chapter headings as,  inter alia, `Indian cloth in the trading systems of antiquity`; the `allure of Indian-ness`; and `Indian cloth as gift and currency`.  Other chapters highlight the centrality of Gujarat and Kutch in the Indian Ocean system, the rise of Bombay, the place of American cloth and Japanese exports, slave women and the evolution of the kanga, and status and fashion in early modern East Africa. 

Kanga is described as a cloth with a thick border on all four sides, measuring 66 x 44 inches, worn in pairs around the waist and chest, with Swahili or English proverbs often imprinted upon the kangas, while kitenge refers to any non-kanga type of continuous fabric, 6 or 12 yards, printed in a variety of styles ranging from ‘wax prints’ to batiks with a thin border.

We are told that ‘Indian cloth enjoyed a global reputation on account of its high quality, variety and colours’ (all these are examined in depth in the book) whose popularity and usage varied in a number of ways in the different cultural zones of East and West Africa.

The two trajectories of the trade across East and West Africa evolved through different routes. Geographically East Africa is of course closer to India, and we are referred (at pp 35-36) to historical texts documenting the trade going back to Greco-Roman times in this sphere, adding a great deal of detail to the familiar story of Indian Ocean trading connections over hundreds of years.

As for the more distant West Africa, Indian cloth entered local markets there through intermediaries – Arabs, Ottomans, other Africans and Europeans – via land routes across the Middle East, Southern Europe and the Sahara. Again, there is much in-depth analysis and examination of the historical factors that contributed to the differences in the development of trade between India and the two regions. Part 2 is devoted to the Indian-West Africa sector, and also looks at how European trading companies contributed to the internationalisation of Indian cloth by producing and marketing `hybrids` incorporating Indian motifs.

Under ‘Part 3 Negotiating Currents of Globalisation’ we are given a comprehensive overview of both the state of colonial industry in East and West Africa and the process of its post-independence transformation in terms of self-reliance and reconfiguration, with a particularly detailed study of ‘The textile industry in late postcolonial Africa’.

Part 4 focuses on ‘The Mechanics of Production in Jetpur’, described in the book’s blurb as a small town in the Rajkot district of Gujarat which is the centre of production of the textiles in question.  This is also covered elsewhere in the book. At page 106, we have ‘Africa as viewed from Jetpur’ (p 106), with the epigraph ‘Gakiihotoraniko koi uriakariina’: ‘He who adorns himself knows to what sort of dance he is going’ Kikuyu proverb, Kenya, and ‘Typologies of African Cloth in Jetpur’ (p 108), while ‘The history of the textile printing industry in Jetpur’ features in p 127.

Under ‘Conclusion’, the authors retrace India’s role in producing cloth for Africa going back to 2000 years ‘embedded in the journeys of traders who traversed the oceanic dhow routes, and in the cloth carried by Arabs and Turks to faraway markets beyond the Sahara and to West Africa’ and how ‘(t)he vestiges of these age-old oceanic and African connections are found almost everywhere’.     

All through the book, the huge volume of factual data and supporting references is simply staggering. It presents a beautifully curated visual feast of brilliant images of the infinite variety of the fabrics involved in the trade. It is essentially a work of reference for students, scholars and others interested in the subject who will find it immensely valuable.  Just a quick browse through the online version, which is freely downloadable, will whet the reader`s appetite to scour and devour the whole of the text.  It will be a fulfilling experience.

Ramnik Shah


  • Born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. He is the author of ‘Empire’s Child’. See also

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