Films, Mills, and Poets: Mid-Century Bombay

Mills

Is it Bombay or Mumbai? By geographic coordinates, it’s the same city, but in politics and outlook they’re different places. Saying Bombay remembers the British Raj, which reclaimed land from the sea, building boulevards, parks, and monuments in the grand Indo-Gothic style. Textile mills made Bombay wealthy. The lithographed fabric and dye labels shown here mingle Indian and European imagery and technologies in interesting ways. The overall look of the labels harks back to the 19th century, but in the 20th century, the trade in woven cotton fabrics became a critical issue in the struggle for Indian independence from colonial rule.

Indian-owned textile mills covered a large portion of central Bombay and generated a distinctive working class culture there. Mill workers were housed in densely packed communities of tenement buildings called chawls. Politically engaged, mill workers unionized under the Communist banner and were active in the 1950s struggle for the united state of Maharashtra. In 1980s they launched a series of strikes that ultimately destroyed the industry they depended on. Girangaon, or Mill Village, is now gentrified, but the heroic red past of Bombay’s working class is still alive in memory and in print.