Jute has been an integral part of ancient India's culture


By Niranjan Shah
My dear Nikita and Sanjna:

William Harten Gilbert wrote in Peoples of India: “In the history of human culture, the contribution of the Indian people in all fields has been of the greatest importance. From India we are said to have derived domestic poultry, shellac, lemons, cotton, jute, rice, sugar, indigo, the buffalo, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, sugarcane, the game of chess, Pachisi, Polo, the zero concept, the decimal system, the basis of certain philological concepts, a wealth of fables with moral import, an astonishing variety of artistic products, and innumerable ideas in philosophy and religion such as asceticism and monasticism.”

Jute is a long, soft, shiny vegetable fibre that can be spun into coarse, strong threads. Jute fiber is often called hessian; jute fabrics are also called hessian cloth, and jute sacks are called gunny bags in some European countries. The fabric made from jute is popularly known as burlap in North America. Jute needs a plain alluvial soil and standing water. The suitable climate for growing jute (warm and wet climate) is offered by the monsoon climate during the monsoon season.

Several historical documents (including, Ain-e-Akbari by Abul Fazal in 1590) state that the poor villagers of India used to wear clothes made of jute. Simple handlooms and hand spinning wheels were used by the weavers, who used to spin cotton yarns as well. History also states that Indians, especially Bengalis, used ropes and twines made of white jute from ancient times for household and other uses.

For centuries, jute has been an integral part of culture of Bengal, in the entire southwest of Bangladesh and some portions of West Bengal, India. During the British Raj in the 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the raw jute fibre of Bengal was carried off to the United Kingdom, where it was then processed in mills concentrated in Dundee. Initially, due to its texture, it could only be processed by hand until it was discovered in that city that treating it with whale oil, it could be treated by machine. The industry boomed (“jute weaver” was a recognized trade occupation in the 1901 UK census), but this trade had largely ceased by about 1970 due to the appearance of synthetic fibers.

Margaret Donnelly, a jute mill landowner in Dundee in the 1800s, set up the first jute mills in Bengal. In the 1950s and 1960s, when nylon and polythene were rarely used, one of the primary sources of foreign exchange earnings for the erstwhile United Pakistan was the export of jute products, based on jute grown in then East Bengal (now Bangladesh). Jute has been called the “Golden Fiber of Bangladesh.” However, as the use of polythene and other synthetic materials as a substitute for jute increasingly captured the market, the jute industry in general experienced a decline.

During some years in the 1980s, farmers in Bangladesh burnt their jute crops when an adequate price could not be obtained. Many jute exporters diversified away from jute to other commodities. Jute-related organizations and government bodies were also forced to close, change or downsize. The long decline in demand forced the largest jute mill in the world to close. Bangla-desh’s second largest mill, formerly owned by a leading businessman, was nationalized by the government. Farmers in Bangladesh have not completely ceased growing jute, however, mainly due to demand in the internal market. Between 2004-2009, the jute market recovered and the price of raw jute increased more than 200 percent. Jute has entered many diverse sectors of industry, where natural fibers are gradually becoming better substitutes. Among these industries are paper, celluloid products (films), non-woven textiles, composites (pseudo-wood), and geotextiles.

In December 2006, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2009 to be the International Year of Natural Fibers, so as to raise the profile of jute and other natural fibers. India produces 2,140,000 tons of jute, Bangladesh 800,000 tons, China 99,000 tons, Thailand 31,000 tons, Mynmar 30,000 tons, Brazil 26,711 tons, Uzbekistan 20,000 tons, Nepal 16,775 tons, and Vietnam 11,000 tons. Total world production is 3,225, 551 tons.

— Grandpa’s blessing

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