Visiting Research Fellow Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan reflects on her visit to Brighton in June 2022, and her research on Indian Print. 

Design historians often work like detectives. Both set out to explain what they have encountered — seeking patterns in the material before them, exploring hunches about connections to pre-existing material, looking for evidence to substantiate those hunches and proposing motives for why things happened the way they seem to have happened. Blind alleys, red herrings, disappointments and surprises abound. Finally, there is a sense of thrill and satisfaction when the patterns, connections and evidence fall in place and a clear picture emerges. I experienced something of all these aspects as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Design History at the University of Brighton from 13th to 17th June, 2022.

It was a short week. My UK visa was much delayed, as a result of which I could not travel till late May. When I finally arrived, the term was over and there were hardly any students or faculty members on campus. There was also the continuing unease of a possible wave of Covid infection. Despite all this, I was able to present my work to a group of faculty members and students and spend long hours at the wonderful St. Peter’s House library.


All-over print. Photograph: Maneklal Gajjar Archives.

All-over print.
Photograph: Maneklal Gajjar Archives.


The subject of my research was the archive of Maneklal Gajjar (1928-2012), a textile block maker and master craftsman from Pethapur, Gujarat (western India). Housed in Baroda, Gujarat, the archive consists of prints of Maneklal’s designs on paper, books of accounts, and correspondence with textile traders, block printers, designers, government officials and with museum curators and academics from around the world. My focus was on three categories of block prints: abstract and geometric designs, and Japanese motifs.  The principal mystery I hoped to solve was: what was the source for blocks of ‘non-Indian’ motifs in the Maneklal Gajjar collection? It seemed inconceivable that these were ‘original’ designs; many looked too much like prints in Vogue catalogues of the 1960s and 70s. Maneklal’s paper prints bore no dates and so it was impossible to organise them chronologically and find connections to their times. As faculty members and students in the design history programme were from varied backgrounds, I hoped to explore cross-cultural methodologies and perspectives which might help decipher these three categories of prints and their circulation. A major corrective suggestion I received during my presentation, for instance, was that the prints I thought of as ‘Japanese’ (Images 1 and 2) were closer to Chinoiserie motifs. This immediately prompted me to think about western India’s connections to China through the opium trade from the eighteenth century onwards.


Border print.Photograph: Maneklal Gajjar Archives.

Border print.
Photograph: Maneklal Gajjar Archives.


Like in any good detective mystery, no investigation is complete without an unexpected turn of events. After a couple of days of scanning through motifs in book after book on textile histories from round the world, I had become adept at turning pages at top speed to pack in as much as possible in the short time I had. Glancing back at my notes, I saw that a colleague at the Victoria and Albert Museum had mentioned that some of Maneklal’s abstract prints reminded her of frocks by Horrockses Fashions in the museum’s collections. While roaming the shelves trying to look for the Horrockses book (yes, those prints did have the ‘look’ I had come across in Maneklal’s collection), I chanced upon a volume of prints designed by the siblings Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell. My rapid page-turning suddenly froze when I found Alhambra, a print from 1969 designed for Liberty & Co. It was captioned, ‘a playful reference to a traditional Indian theme’.[1] Designed in four colourways for printing on silk, it was exactly the same motif as a print in Maneklal’s archives (Image 3). I had set aside the motif as an ‘Indian’ print and not one I planned to investigate in Brighton. This chance encounter, however, in the search for ‘foreign’ influences on Maneklal, provoked me to think about the reverse process—how did Maneklal’s print land up in the UK? In a way, my project felt like it was turned upside down in a flash. But there was no time by now to track down the Collier-Campbell archives or arrange an interview with the surviving sibling, Sarah Campbell. It was time to go home.

[1] Shackleton, Emma and Sarah Campbell. The Collier Campbell Archive: 50 Years of Passion in Pattern. Lewes, East Sussex: Ilex Press, 2012, pp. 100-101.

Mid-week, my principal contact person, colleague and friend Megha Rajguru was forced to go into isolation, with Covid appearing in her family. But other faculty colleagues arranged a dinner get-together and it was good to meet old friends and make new ones. I wandered through shops in the lanes around Kensington Gardens Street, finding Gunta Stolzl’s ‘Slit Tapestry Red/Green’ by the yard in a fabric shop. Clearly prints were viral before the virus in our midst. On Megha’s suggestion I had a last dinner at Terre a Terre and it was as wonderful as she had said it would be. Then a long walk by the sea and back to the hotel to find a singer performing Frank Sinatra songs in the lounge, songs I had heard on the radio in my childhood in Calcutta. Peripatetic prints and music on the move.

Upon my return home, I was able to track down research on Parsi traders who returned with chinai embroideries which were later adapted to saris worn by Parsi women. These embroideries had motifs of hanfu-clad men and women, seated figures being wheeled in pushcarts, against a backdrop of stylised hip-and-gable sloped roofed, pagoda-like buildings and wooden bridges across streams. These were termed ‘cheena-cheeni’ motifs.[2] Chinese embroiderers settled in the port town of Surat and Chinese ‘pherawalas’ or vendors went selling their wares home to home in Parsi localities. These were expensive embroidered silks and one can imagine how the block-printed versions made these embroideries accessible to people with more modest means. I was pleased to have thus solved the mystery of the ’Japanese’ motifs in Maneklal’s collection. But another surprise awaited.


Floral print.Photograph: Maneklal Gajjar Archives.

Floral print.
Photograph: Maneklal Gajjar Archives.

A few weeks later, I took my daughter to see the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad. Halfway through the guided tour, exhausted with the variety of weaves and patterns, I was dragging my feet wishing the tour to be over. The group entered the section on Kashmir shawls and lo behold, there was Alhambra, albeit a plumper version! I placed a request for more information and was told that this was a 19th century shawl. On an impulse, looked up John Irwin’s The Kashmir Shawl.[3] Irwin, one-time Keeper of the Indian Section at the Victoria and Albert Museum, had worked extensively at the Calico Museum. And in the frontispiece of the book was the ‘original’ Alhambra cited as a shawl fragment at the Calico Museum’s collection! A correspondence with the curator followed and I was able to locate the eighteenth-century fragment in the museum. Where then had the Collier-Campbell sisters seen this motif? Had they travelled to India? The curator said it was likely there were other fragments in museums round the world. Why did the sisters name their print ‘Alhambra’ though they mentioned being inspired by an Indian pattern? Were there other versions in the Alhambra or in other museums elsewhere from which they drew inspiration? And what are the boundaries between inspiration, appropriation and plagiarism? New questions are now before me, originating from a chance encounter in St. Peter’s House library.

[1] Shackleton, Emma and Sarah Campbell. The Collier Campbell Archive: 50 Years of Passion in Pattern. Lewes, East Sussex: Ilex Press, 2012, pp. 100-101.

[2] For more details and images see Cama, Shernaz. “Parsi Embroidery: An Intercultural Amalgam”. Google Arts and Culture. Available online at

[3] Irwin, John. The Kashmir Shawl. London: Victoria and Albert Museum. 1973.


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