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Agra Central Jail: A synopsis of the exploitation that bred art

4 Oct 2022

Where the tradition began

History of Carpet Weaving goes back to the time of warlord Mongol Genghis Khan. Somehow, art found a way from the trail of dead bodies from the Far East to Central Europe. This led to increased demand and growth for weaving-based artifacts, especially in places under the leadership of Genghis Khan. Carpet weavers then established the art of Weaving in every conquered location. All this heritage was introduced to India through Babur, a ruler of Kabul who defeated Ibrahim Lodhi after the infamous Battle of Panipat in 1526.

Carpet Weaving & British Occupation

The great possibility of business caught the eye of East India Company once they were able to cement the trade between India and Britain in the mid-17th Century. It started flourishing by the mid-18th Century. The major commodities were not just spices and cotton but carpets too.

Soon after exploiting the people and these possibilities, the East Indian Company gradually elevated its status to that of a ruler resulting in the British Raj which gave the British unabated power over India.

At that time, Indian prisons had become a place for education and craft production. Several Carpet weavers from Mughal bloodline were in Jail for various reasons and the Jail authority provided them with infrastructure and raw material to weave beautiful carpets simply because of the high opportunity for export and negligible labour cost.


The British Raj's prisoner program

During the beginning of the 19th Century, beautiful handmade rugs started to be exported from British-occupied India. Inmates in Indian Jails were being used as forced labor at the time. When the British recognized their ability to produce incredible handicrafts through woven rugs. It was a clear profitable business prospect and an added opportunity to exploit free labor.


Elegance sourced directly from the Jails

Prison authorities had a vested interest in productive inmate activities because of the immensely profitable opportunity. It is here where the story of Jail Carpet cemented its premise. Now, Carpet weaving had become monopolized by British Companies. While manufacturing in India was a profitable business for the British, it also benefitted the British in the UK as they were able to buy rich-quality beautifully designed hand-woven carpets at a significantly lower cost than in Persia.


Exhibition Possibilities and Jail Rugs

In 1862, a carpet made in the Lahore Jail was displayed at the London International Exhibition where it won a medal and became an inspiration to all other Jails in India. Promoting them to take a similar path of weaving and moving inmates to creative work.

Soon Agra Central Jail became the famous weaving center for manufacturing great-quality carpets and beautiful designs. In 1877, Benjamin Disraeli, Conservative Prime Minister, had Queen Victoria proclaimed as Empress of India. Celebrations were held in Delhi, in what is known as the Delhi Durbar, on 1 January 1877, led by the Viceroy, Lord Lytton. Agra Central Jail gifted a beautiful and large size Carpet to Queen Victoria. 

For the First time ever, the Indian Jail Carpet was being exhibited in America (In 1893, at The Chicago World's Fair). A wide range of audiences from London and America gave the demands a huge boost and Inmates were now busy making carpets in three shifts.

Carpet woven in those periods is today available as Antique Collection and is in high demand. Ivory ground Agra Jail Rug as this one will cost 9,511,048 INR for size 4.39 meters x 3.56 meters. This is currently with C. John as a collection Antique Piece.


Then and Now

Today, in Agra Central Jail, the Carpet Weaving division is now replaced with a new division that is making flatweave (Dari Weaving). Beautiful weaving and very efficient inmates who know how to operate the looms. The Pattern and the colors are great but they are struggling to find a market and generate demand. Nevertheless, we cherish the fact that the tradition of weaving is still ongoing to some extent inside Agra Central Jail. The Jail authority is very supportive of their endeavors. A market connect perhaps may be the missing link that brings life to our age-old glory of weaving inside Jail. This time, without the harassment of the British Raj.

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