Jute: its hidden history revealed

THE hidden history of jute is being explored in an exhibition that’s opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s branch in Dundee.

The display tells the story of jute workers in Bangladesh and India.

Artist, curator, and writer Swapnaa Tamhane has taken inspiration from the archives held at the University of Dundee and Verdant Works, which is run by Dundee Heritage Trust.

“In the commission for V&A Dundee, I wanted to focus in on the lives of women in the Bengali jute industry,” Tamhane explained.

“Some of them were widows, some were fleeing their homes, some were supplementing the household incomes.

“Most of the women who worked in the fields to harvest raw jute were undocumented as part of the workforce.

“The archival images I came across are precious traces of their lives, about which we know very little.”

Her research explored the colonial context of jute and the lives of workers in and around Kolkata, which was known as Calcutta under British imperial rule during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Jute was known as the “golden fibre” because of the huge profits it produced, although these were rarely shared with workers in Dundee or in what was then British-ruled Bengal, which is now split between Bangladesh and India.

Meredith More, curator at V&A Dundee, added: “Tamhane’s new work starts a conversation and allows us to dig deeper into a local story with a huge transnational context.

“It opens up an important conversation about Dundee’s relationship with colonialism and how people across continents have been [affected] by it, in many different ways.

“We want to work together as heritage organisations across Dundee to reconsider the relationship between Dundee and Calcutta; two cities and two populations simultaneously shaped by jute and the colonial system it was part of.”

Read more stories on Scottish Field’s culture pages.

Plus, check out the history of St Andrews, the home of golf, in the July issue of Scottish Field magazine.