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India/Africa: Common Threads of Kanga and Vitenge

AfricaFocus Bulletin
September 14, 2020 (2020-09-14)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The new book Common Threads (along with an accompanying video, both open access), explores the ties that bind India and Africa through the material medium of cloth, from antiquity to the present. Cloth made in India has been sold across African markets for millennia, by Indian, African, and European traders. ... Most significantly, it highlights the role of African consumers in defining the evolution of these genres of fabric, and the centrality of people-to-people connections in sustaining the continued cosmopolitanism of these transoceanic connectivities.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin features an interview with one of the editors of this vividly illustrated book, brief excerpts from the book, and a link to the 22-minute video which vividly portrays the fabric and the people who make it, trade it, and wear it. For anyone interested in the long history and present reality of South- South cooperation across the Indian Ocean, this is an incredible resource.

AfricaFocus normally focuses on current realities and crises. But it is well worth making an occasional exception, even in terms of understanding the present, because the world´s response to African crises is still beset by cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings deeply rooted in history. I highly recommend this well-researched and well-presented project.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on culture, visit For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on trade, visit

The book Common Threads is available as a PDF download at A print version is available for order at

The video is available at

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Common threads – the ties that bind India and Africa through fabric

Cliffordene Norton, Meera Venkatachalam

Voertaal Academisch


Common threads: Fabrics made-in-India for Africa

Edited by M Venkatachalam, R Modi and J Salazar

Published by African Studies Centre Leiden

Common Threads explores the ties that bind India and Africa through the material medium of cloth, from antiquity to the present. Cloth made in India has been sold across African markets for millennia, by Indian, African, and European traders. The history of this trade offers perspectives into the 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. Common Threads uses photographs to tell the story of the creation of these textiles in India, which today is concentrated in the small town of Jetpur in the Rajkot district of Cujarat. It sheds light on the artists and the agencies in India that are involved in the design, production, and logistics of this enterprise. Most significantly, it highlights the role of African consumers in defining the evolution of these genres of fabric, and the centrality of people-to-people connections in sustaining the continued cosmopolitanism of these transoceanic connectivities.

Photo credits for vitenge on left and kanga on right: and

Cliffordene Norton interviews Meera Venkatachalam, co-editor of Common threads: Fabrics made-in-India for Africa.

Q: Congratulations on the publication of your book, Common threads: Fabrics made-in-India for Africa. What was the inspiration behind this book?

A: This project began when we learned that African prints were being made in factories around Mumbai for consumers all over Africa, from Nairobi to Lomé. We were well aware that African prints were manufactured in the Netherlands and, more recently, in China, but we did not know that the iconic wax print – among other types of cloth – was being designed and manufactured in India. So, we attempted to tell this story, contextualising India’s current role in producing cloth for Africa against the backdrop of its historical status as a major global cloth producer.

Q: Why focus on this history of the textile trade?

A: It is well known that India was a major producer of cloth for millennia. But it is generally believed in India that the colonial era disrupted Indian cloth production – that raw materials were exported from India to Europe, and that British-manufactured goods were received into the Indian market. However, a glimpse into the textile trade between India and Africa in the colonial era reveals that the textile industry – especially in western India and Mumbai (then Bombay) – grew substantially in the colonial era by adapting to the demand for cloth in Africa. This phenomenon fuelled colonial Bombay’s industrialisation, a little-known historical fact.

Q: When did the textile trade between India and Africa start?

A: This trade is over 2 000 years old!

Q: The spice route between India and Africa is well known. Has your research revealed any similarities or differences between these two trade routes/products?

A: We have attempted to historicise our work and to view current textile production in India for Africa against broader temporal trajectories. There are both continuities and discontinuities.

The current trade to East Africa may be viewed as a continuity of older precolonial and colonial routes and processes, which facilitated the circulation of peoples, goods and capital between India and East Africa. For instance, Indian families with strong links to the Indian diaspora in East Africa are engaged in the cloth trade today, relying on the know-how of Indians settled there, for conducting market research and negotiating access to markets. But today, we also find Indian traders operating in markets in West Africa – this is a new phenomenon, as, unlike in East Africa, Indian traders have never been present in West Africa in large numbers until now.

Q: Common threads uses photographs to tell the story of the creation of these textiles in India. Why did you use this research method?

A: The patterns and designs represented in this cloth – from the East African kanga to what is known as kitenge – tell stories that are deeply embedded in the sociocultural matrixes of the people who wear them in Africa. We wanted to show as many of them as possible in our book.

Q: Take us through the process of compiling and editing the book.

A: It has taken us three and a half years to put this together. We had to sift through large quantities of field notes, photographs and video clips generated out of our fieldwork. We also read previously published literature on the subject. Eventually, we began to see it fall into place, and our focus came to rest on Indian designers and merchants in the cloth trade, on the genres of African designs and on the process of production in India.

Q: What did you edit out of this book?

A: As we began writing, we realised that we were telling the story not just of the cloth trade between India and Africa, but of other movements which were intertwined with the cloth trade – such as the slave trade from Africa to India, and free and unfree migrations of people from the Indian subcontinent to Africa. We tried to incorporate as many of these related phenomena as possible, while staying focused on cloth. Therefore, some of these themes are introduced very briefly, and many details which we would have liked to include are left out.

We also have a number of pictures of beautifully designed African wax prints and kangas which did not make it into the book!

Q: How would you bridge the gap from your research to research users?

A: We have tried to use as many visual aids as possible to achieve this, from the use of photographs to making a film.

Q: How do you see this book impacting the field?

A: We hope to highlight the current Indian agency in producing cloth for Africa, which is not well known. We also hope to highlight other themes in the study of India-Africa relations and African studies, which are discussed only in passing in this book, but are in need of more research. For instance, thousands of itinerant African traders and entrepreneurs come to India several times a year to buy consumer goods for sale in their countries of origin. Also, India is home to a small but growing African diaspora now – and very little is known about this.

Q: How do you feel about converting your research into the documentary Common threads – Fabrics from India for Africa?

Our film, also called Common threads: Fabrics made-in-India for Africa, was premiered at the Zanzibar International Film Festival in 2018 (ZIFF 2018) and was shortlisted in the documentaries section. It can be viewed at:

We made the film in order to reach a broader non-academic audience, and we hope this has been the case! We thank our publishers, ASCL, for working with us to produce the book, and we are pleased that it is open access.


Brief excerpts from Common Threads

The history of trade between India and Africa has been inextricably linked through the material medium of textiles. ‘Common Threads: Fabrics made in-India for Africa’, contextualises India’s role in the production of textiles and the lesser-known trade in beautifully printed cloth for African markets. This trade that has existed since antiquity and continues to the present time has created longstanding people-to-people connections across the Indian Ocean. It showcases the way in which the production, trading, and exchange of textiles manufactured in India has been governed by discerning consumer preferences on the African continent for centuries.

This project was conceptualised at the Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai, in early 2016. We learnt that there were factories in western India – in Tarapur, on the outskirts of Mumbai, and in the town of Jetpur, in Gujarat – that produce bright and vibrant kanga and vitenge, ‘African prints’ for consumers across Africa. This project entailed fieldwork mainly in Tarapur (Maharashtra, India) and Jetpur (Gujarat, India), Nairobi and Mombasa (Kenya), and Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar (Tanzania). The project took about three years to complete. It culminated in this photo-essay book and a documentary film.

There exists a commendable body of scholarly work on the subject, published by established historians of textiles and the Indian Ocean world, and by art historians. We read their work with great interest, built upon the existing knowledge, and added an ‘India focus’, to fill in the gap. We realised that rich oral narratives of the ‘old diaspora’, mainly Gujaratis who had immigrated to East Africa in the early nineteenth century and thereafter were not documented although they had been a part of the designing, trading, and consumption of these African prints – kanga and kitenge – since the inception of these genres of cloth.

At ‘Mali Ya Abdulla’ (est.1887, Biashara Street, Mombasa), we were privy to some of the most astounding printed fabrics, from the colonial period or thereabouts. We have captured these on camera and have showcased them in this volume. We also came across several other noteworthy visual representations on cloth, which have deep social, political, and cultural meanings to people in Africa. Thus, each image printed on the fabric in this volume is a repository of multiple aspects of life on the Swahili coast and beyond. The textiles are also testimony to the transoceanic co-production of cultures and cosmopolitanism of the Indian Ocean world. One example is the little studied exchange of aesthetics of personal adornment, family memories, and storytelling as described by writer Sultan Somjee in his novel Home Between Crossings.


A kanga is a cloth with a thick border on all four sides, measuring 66 x 44 inches, worn in pairs around the waist and chest. Swahili or English proverbs are often imprinted upon the kangas. In Jetpur, kitenge refers to any nonkanga type of continuous fabric: 6 or 12 yards, printed in a variety of styles ranging from ‘wax prints’ to batiks with a thin border. Vitenge are worn in a number of ways in different cultural zones. Rural West African women wear two six- yard pieces, one secured around the waist and another below the shoulders, tied with a cord. The pieces do not necessarily correspond to each other. Urban African women sew them into one or two-piece dresses of different patterns, sometimes worn with matching headgear. This two-piece dress, styled in the fashion of a Victorian woman’s attire, is known as the kaba in Ghana, and a buba and iro in the Yoruba-speaking belt of Nigeria. Varieties of vitenge are also in demand in East African markets. The development of East and West Africa as discrete cloth zones is a residual feature of a longer history of India’s positioning within global dynamics of trade.


Over the centuries, the Indian cloth trade has developed through two very different trajectories across East and West Africa. Geographically, East Africa is closer and therefore more accessible from India. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (hereinafter ‘The Periplus’), a Greco-Roman manual on trade and navigation from the first century AD, describes an active trade between ports such as Barygaza (Baruch) on the western coast of India and the East African port cities such as Adulis of the Aksum Empire (contemporary Eritrea), Malao in Berbera (contemporary Somalia), and Rhapta in Azania (around present-day Dar es Salaam) (Schoff, 1912, pp. 22-3, 25-6; 28, 39). Facilitated by the monsoon winds, the dhows (wooden 29boats with sails), moved peoples, goods, and ideas between the coast of East Africa, and the shorelines of western India and Arabia (Sherriff, 1987, p. 2).

This trade continued through the medieval period and received an immense stimulus through the European presence in the Indian Ocean during the colonial era. People, cultures, and ideologies of both the terrains – India and Africa – were in frequent contact with each other for centuries. Africans, generically known as Habshis (a corruption of Habesha, the name used for Abyssinia or Ethiopia) were frequently encountered in medieval and early- modern India. They came as traders, soldiers, and slaves. Africans played a crucial role in the history of Delhi, the Sultanates of Gujarat, the pre-Maratha Deccan and the Bahmani kingdom (Alpers 2017, pp. 62-3).

Trade between India and West Africa followed a different trajectory. Historically, Indian traders had little knowledge, contact, or control over West African markets. This region was located further away – double the distance as compared to East Africa, which was only about 4000 kms away from Mumbai. In the pre- colonial era, India simply did not have the same immediacy in West African imagination as it did in East Africa, remaining a distant construct, created through the re-envisioning of several cultural interlocutors. Indian cloth entered West African markets as re- exports as Indian cloth enjoyed a global reputation on account of its high quality, variety, and colours. It was sold by intermediaries – Arabs, Ottomans, other Africans, and Europeans – through land routes from the Middle East, southern Europe, and the Sahara. During the colonial era, Indian cotton continued to enter West African markets through oceanic routes opened up by the European colonial powers (Johnson, 1974; Lemire & Riello, 2006; Riello, 2010).


People-to-people narratives in Indo-African relations

Popular accounts of the relations between the people of India and countries in Africa are often marked by incidents of mutual hostility. Africans of Indian origin have faced antagonism in their adopted homes, culminating in the 1972 expulsion of Asians under Idi Amin, whose reasons for expulsion were among other things, driven by his ‘Africanisation’ agenda (Amor, 2003). Similarly, Africans in India have been at the receiving end of sporadic but consistent racist violence (Modi & D’Silva, 2016). In recent years, even the symbolism of Gandhi, once seen as a bridge between India and Africa because his struggle against imperialism was shaped by his experiences in both regions, has become steeped in controversy amid accusations of him being racist towards Black Africans.

However, these sensational incidents of antagonism, which have come to occupy primacy in the narrative of Indo-African relations, obfuscate a long, quotidian and an extraordinary history of people-to-people connections that, on closer investigation, paints a picture of co-existence and harmony. Many Indians in Africa are thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of their adopted homelands (Oonk, 2013). They prefer to be identified as Africans first and foremost, and recognise themselves as ‘People of Indian Origin’ only secondarily (McCann, 2011). Similarly, many Africans are integrated into the socio-cultural matrixes of their Indian host communities, through community organisations and religious networks, and play significant and valued roles in promoting inter- cultural understanding. This complex dynamic of Indo-African people-to-people relations in both geographies remains understudied. This book is an evidence-based endeavor to shed light on these long-standing associations and demonstrate that they persevere to this day.

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