Directed by Purabi Matin
Written and researched by Saiful Islam
Documentary film review by Hannah Sayer
“I think it is time we appropriate our own history. We hope that through our story we will turn the lens around and it will be the weavers and the spinners who tell their story through us. And put a stamp of Bangladesh on world textile history.” - Shahidul Alam, Managing Director at Drik
Legend of the Loom is an insightful and educational documentary film about the cotton fabric muslin and its 2000 year history. In a complex and wide ranging study the film recounts the production of the transparent and light cotton fabric which was woven from a unique plant, the Gossypium Arboreum Var.Neglecta, which grew only along the rivers of Bengal. The film goes on to discuss its wide ranging history with different experts and educates on how colonialism impacted the craft and had a part in its demise.
The film opens with quotations from the past which reinforce muslins legendary qualities. Edward Baines (1800-1890), author of ‘History of the Cotton Manufacture in GB’, compares the trade to ‘the work of fairies’ and the French traveller Tavernier (1605-1689) states ‘Scarcely to be felt in the hand, it seem but a cobweb.’ Myths and legends often suggested that the manufacture of muslin was the work of fairies or even mermaids, due to its delicate and fine qualities meaning no human hand could have possibly created something so pristine. One legend even suggested that 6 yards of muslin could fit inside a matchbox!
From this opening introduction to muslins symbolic and legendary qualities the viewer is plunged into an in depth look at the history of muslin and how it remains an important, but often overlooked, part of East Bengal’s cultural heritage. The film follows the process of making muslin, the different areas it comes from and its complex history. Muslin essentially became its own brand with different types and names which were categorised into levels of quality.
Legend of the Loom takes the viewer on a journey from its past as maps show the area in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, where muslin originated. The documentary reinforces that everything that we read about muslin and its production has come through the lenses of the West and the filmmakers believe it is time to change that. This film acts as a way of reclaiming muslin and its heritage back by educating about where muslin originated from. The film goes on to follow how muslin began to be traded around the world, including how it became introduced in England in the 1600's to huge demand and how it influenced fashion across the world. Historic figures including Jane Austen and Marie Antoinette are reported in the documentary to have favoured muslin. The documentary explores how the subcontinent began to be connected to the rest of the world through the establishment of empires and the opening of trade routes. This goes on to show how the effects of trading with the East India Company, increased mechanisation of textiles in Britain and British colonial rule in India led to the demise of traditional and handcrafted muslin production in East Bengal and how this resulted in loss of livelihoods and much more.
The documentary is successful in being accessible for all audiences. It is well researched and covers the history of the fabric in a great deal of detail yet explains everything thoroughly to ensure accessibility. Having interviews with different experts interspersed throughout the film adds a greater level of context and the recreations of events, the animation and the imagery used makes this story engaging as well as educational. Legend of the Loom certainly has a broad scope and there is an overwhelming amount of information detailed in the film that provides a fascinating exploration of the craft, history and trade of muslin. It is designed to inform and educate and it is successful in conveying a complex overview of Bangladesh’s rich history of production.
Legend of the Loom is an important story that will be new to many. This is a history of the muslin trade that will have often been overshadowed by British colonial rule and abject trading rules. By bringing the true story and the history of muslin to life on screen the film successfully tells the story from Bengal’s perspective, subverting the traditionally Western lens.
Watch the official movie trailer for Legend of the Loom below.