Abigail McGowan

Convict Carpets: Jails and the Revival of Historic Carpet Design in Colonial India

Much recent work has explored the politics of visual culture in British India, linking posters, art schools and more into colonial and anti-colonial ideologies and movements. Visual culture was also, however, just as intimately tied into economics—a connection that has not attracted as much attention in recent years. Drawing on her larger work investigating how cultural
understandings about crafts shaped development agendas in colonial India, in this talk McGowan will explore the intersection of art and economics through the specific example of jail carpets. Jail carpet factories were founded with direct economic goals: to earn money for jails and to build skills so that convicts could earn a living upon release. Those same factories were also, however, intimately involved in late nineteenth century cultural debates about design, craftsmanship, and Indian tradition. Jails thus played a pivotal and yet conflicted role in the colonial revival of Indian carpet weaving. Poised at the center of new exchange networks of design ideas and skills, jails were laboratories for redefining Indian labor and productivity under the eyes of the colonial state. As such, they provide an ideal site for examining the economic context for the emerging design industry, and for the fate of ‘traditional’ handicrafts in modernizing India.

Abigail McGowan is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Vermont where she
teaches the history of South Asia, with a particular focus on visual and material culture. Her first book, Crafting the Nation in Colonial India (Palgrave, 2009) examines the politics of craft
development in colonial western India; she has also published on late nineteenth century revivals of traditional Indian design, artisanal education, and feminized consumption in colonial India. Her new research explores the changing material practices of domestic space in early twentieth century India, including the role of consumption in family life.