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A beginner’s guide to the history of Indian carpets

Memories are interwoven with history in Jon Westborg’s personal take on carpet traditions in India

A merchant stocks his rugs in Srinagar. Photo: Getty Images
A merchant stocks his rugs in Srinagar. Photo: Getty Images

Carpet-making traditions of India have been a matter of study for decades. Several well-researched books have focused on varied, and often niche, aspects of this craft. For instance, in The Atlas Of Rugs & Carpets (1996), David Black discusses dyes, symbolic patterns and ways of caring for these textiles from regions across the world with a rich carpet-making legacy, including India. Then there is the seminal Flowers Underfoot: Indian Carpets Of The Mughal Era (1998) by Daniel Walker, which focuses on the pile-woven carpets of the Mughal era, which are considered by the author to be some of the most beautiful and technically proficient of all Oriental carpets.

Last year, Niyogi Books published an in-depth book by designer-researcher-author Promil Pande, titled Floor Coverings From Kashmir: Kaleen Carpets, Namdah, Gabba, Ari Rugs and Wagoo Mats, which looks at the evolution of the craft in the region—especially how out-of-work kani shawl weavers shifted to carpet weaving 1870s onwards.

A new book has now joined this list of important scholarship on Indian carpets. Published by Aleph Book Company, Of Indian Carpets And Carpetwallahs brings a slightly different voice to the subject. Authored by Norwegian diplomat Jon Westborg, the book offers a personal take on the varied traditions prevalent across India. Weaving memories and experiences with broader historical events, the author makes the complex subject of this craft more intimate and accessible.

Born to missionary parents in Darjeeling in 1946, Westborg spent his childhood in different parts of Assam. Carpets were among the few possessions of value the family had at the time, and that’s how Westborg’s fascination with the craft began.

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A trellis pattern, probably from Elluru, early 20th century. Courtesy: Aleph Book Company
A trellis pattern, probably from Elluru, early 20th century. Courtesy: Aleph Book Company

He recalls a Tibetan carpet in his parent’s bedroom. This second-hand purchase, “from a carpetwallah in Darjeeling or Kalimpong during the hot season of 1944 or 1945”, probably reminded his father of his days in eastern Tibet, where he had travelled between 1938-40 with the view to establish a mission. After Westborg’s mother’s death in 1999, the worn-out carpet was discovered in a cupboard. It was then restored to its former glory by the diplomat and his wife with the assistance of a Delhi-based carpet seller.

This anecdote sets the tone for the rest of the book. It becomes apparent that for Westborg, carpets are neither of pure ornamental value nor just investments. Rather, there is a deep personal connection with the craft, with Westborg having picked up knowledge about design, material, and history along this journey with carpets and carpetwallahs.

What started as a childhood interest became a subject of intense study when Westborg returned to India in the 1990s on a diplomatic posting after studying and working internationally for several decades.

One of the more interesting chapters is on the carpet sellers he has encountered over the years, and the scintillating conversations they have had. These long associations have also helped Westborg separate the genuine sellers from the chaff of the tricksters, who think nothing of adding a number of years to the age of the carpets.

His interest in old and antique ones led him to Sayeed Ali of Sayeed Carpets, and Westborg etches quite a portrait of the soft-spoken Kashmiri trader, whose family shifted to Delhi in 1972. “His father was, according to Sayeed, a man with great knowledge of weaving, washing and repairing carpet, but also a respected trader… . And it was from his father he learned the trade, and introduced to the particulars of carpets from many of the world’s carpet centres.”

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Of Indian Carpets And Carpetwallahs is a beginner’s guide to the craft. Those who have just started getting drawn into the history of carpet making in India—particularly its medieval and modern chapters— would benefit from the book, with its engaging and simple narrative.

Westborg touches upon key milestones in the craft’s trajectory in the subcontinent, including Emperor Akbar’s initiative in 1580s to bring Persian carpet weavers to a workshop at his palace in Agra, and the rise of royal patronage. He reflects on traditions in the southern part of the subcontinent in places such as Masulipatnam and Elluru, which spread to the Deccan. Slowly, Indian carpet making began to acquire a language of its own, with certain elements different from the Persian style.

'Of Indian Carpets and Carpetwallahs' published by Aleph Book Company
'Of Indian Carpets and Carpetwallahs' published by Aleph Book Company

As the Mughal empire declined and colonial powers started gaining ground in India, carpets became a commodity 17th century onwards. Merchants were faced with scarcity of supply. “The scarcity seems to have increased during the eighteenth century. This was not because the skills or talents disappeared. More likely because of the ‘industry’s’ inherent dependency on patronage from the rulers and aristocracy for quality production… . And the rise and fall tended to happen in some synchronisation with the rise and fall of dynasties, power centres, and their aristocracy,” writes Westborg. He shows how the quality deteriorated even more over time, as the English importers would supply the weavers with cheaper materials, and demand speedily executed and cheap carpets for the Western market. Crude designs replaced traditional delicate and intricate motifs.

Using the example of carpets from his collection, one of which was produced most probably from the nawab of Rampur’s jail, Westborg elaborates on one of the most significant events in modern-day carpets’ history. After the chapter on carpetwallahs, this is another intriguing section from the book—when jail workshops were established as centres of carpet production in the second half of the 19th century. This was due to availability of labour in prison and the relentless demand for Indian carpets in the US and Europe. This led to a revival of older traditional intricate design, which might have disappeared altogether.

The author goes on to elaborate on many such examples such as a Kurdish-inspired Bikaner jail carpet and a special Boteh and Herati inspired one produced most likely in the Bangalore Central Jail in the late 19th or the early 20th century. As one proceeds through the book, Westborg’s knack for storytelling becomes even more pronounced, and he finely weaves research, anecdotes and histories together—a bit like the vibrant carpets that he talks about.

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