Late last month, India’s Ministry of External Affairs went into a scramble. It wrote to the consulates of African countries requesting the measurements of the 54 African heads of state so that it could get Narendra Modi’s signature jacket and churidar pyjama stitched for them in time for a photo op during the upcoming India-Africa Forum Summit.

In the ministry’s view, the sartorial gesture would have great resonance – something that weaves together, symbolically and literally, the relations between the African countries and India. But for the African leaders who showed off their shiny gifts at an official dinner in New Delhi on Wednesday, neither the style nor its fabric was likely to have been novel. Indeed, many of them may well have been familiar even with the symbolical value of the garment.

Textile trade from 13th century

Since at least the 13th century, textiles have tied together people of Africa and India. Through these years, Indian producers have been sending cloth, designs and fashions across the Indian Ocean to African consumers, in the process transforming the economies of both places.

In East Africa, while Ethiopia had an old tradition of cotton production and weaving, this declined around 550 AD, and by 13th century it came to prize Indian cotton. The rulers of Ethiopian kingdoms highly valued cotton and silk cloth from India and imported huge amounts of it. This popularity made cloth the foundation of the slave trade between India and Africa, and by the year 1550 more than 10,000 Ethiopians were annually leaving their homeland in exchange for Indian cloth.

The movement had consequences for empires in both Ethiopia and India. In Ethiopia, it intensified the rivalry between Muslim and Christian states over trade and led to their expansion beyond their original borders. In India, Ethiopian armies grew throughout the Deccan, their might symbolised most eloquently by Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian who become a prime minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate.

A few hundred years later, in the 19th century, African consumer demands for high-quality cloth again had a transformational effect in India. But this time, the trade was with a different part of East Africa – Zanzibar – and the transformation was felt by Bombay’s mills.

East African consumers in the 19th century were a fussy lot and they could afford the choosiness. They were particular about the quality of cotton cloth they wanted. By 1850, the most prized cotton in Zanzibar was unbleached cotton (calico) from Salem, Massachusetts, in the United States. Once imported, it was decorated and embellished in Zanzibar and along the caravan route into the interiors of East Africa to accommodate local fashion. This cloth became known as merikani. Half of Salem’s trade went directly to Zanzibar and other cloth had relatively little value.

The Bombay cotton mills had started in 1854. Unable to compete against American cotton, Indian traders in Zanzibar and Bombay, along with the British, sent out scouts to understand the rapidly changing fashions of the African interiors. They even tried to disguise their cloth as having come from America by writing “Made in Salem, Massachusetts” along the border. But African consumers were not easily fooled and they continued to buy merikani.

Two things changed this market and solidified the tie between Indian mills and East African consumers. The first was the American civil war. The abolition of slavery in 1865 reduced the availability of cheap labour, destroying Salem’s textile industry. Luckily for the Bombay textile industry, it was in a perfection position to fill the vacuum left behind. As Jeremy Prestholdt notes in his enticing history of East African consumerism, Domesticating the World: African Consumers and the Genealogies of Globalization, Zanzibar by 1890 imported nearly half of the total unbleached cloth exported from Bombay, amounting to more than 15 million yards a year.

This East African demand for textile changed Bombay’s economic landscape to manufacturing and export and made it India’s most important port for foreign trade at the turn of the 20th century.

Around the same time, a new fashion appeared in Mombasa and spread across East Africa with such influence that it remains a feature of feminine coastal culture and inland dressing till today. This was the creation of what is now known as leso or kanga. This patterned cloth was originally produced through block prints in Mombasa or Zanzibar on merikani cloth but soon was printed and sold out of Bombay. Today, kangas sold in East Africa are still often printed in India. This printed cloth has for nearly 150 years sustained an Indian textile industry that is meant specifically for East Africa.

Symbolic power of clothes

Given this long history of trade, the African leaders coming for the India-Africa Forum Summit might have felt some familiarity with the cloth they wore for Wednesday's photo op. However, at the same time, there was also probably another level of recognition.

Some years ago, in a Nairobi shop that specialises in local clothing and kangas, the storeowner Shabir explained his new designs in men’s clothing as he pointed to African print shirts with short round collars. “We call them politician shirts,” he said. “Ever since [Nelson] Mandela started wearing them, they are very popular and our Kenyan politicians are wearing them as well. I sent some free to Raila Odinga and to Uhuru Kenyatta as well as dresses to Wangari Maathai. They are all now dressing like that.” The frontrunners in the presidential elections and Kenya’s most famous Nobel Prize winner, as the shopkeeper boasted, were all subscribers of symbolic dressing.

In the 1960s, after many African countries achieved freedom, their leaders used attire to make a statement about representing the newly independent states, not unlike Gandhi before them.

They had to reject (culturally) and appropriate (symbolically) western dress, while at the same time clarifying that they represented the whole of their diverse countries, not just the part they hailed from. For instance, Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta accompanied his western suit with other things to symbolise equal power to those he displaced. He wore a beaded cap of a Luo elder to draw in his rivals and carried a fly whisk, a symbol of authority for the Maasai.

The independence generation of African leaders were often pan-Africanists and hoped to reflect that in their attire. President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia perfected the modified safari suit, which came to be known in many parts of East Africa as the Kaunda Suit. His choice signalled a rejection of the formal European suit and spoke of humility to the masses. The Kaunda suit was worn across East Africa for formal occasions and was domesticated so thoroughly into local cultures that few noticed its colonial safari origins.

Meanwhile, West African leaders, when not in military fatigues, perfected the rejection of European clothing by wearing local variations of an outfit known as agbada/grand boubou/dashiki, which consists of wide sleeved tunics/flowing robes and drawstring trousers. In the 1960s, American Black Nationalists and Pan-Africanist took up this attire (with modifications, including shortening of the tunic) and dashiki became a household word in the United States.

President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya outdid almost every other African leader in sartorial statements. In particular, once he rejected Arab nationalism for African nationalism, he chose to wear clothing that symbolised both this rejection and alliance. His attire indicated his ethnic Bedouin roots and at the same time signalled unity with African nations, usually in the form of West African agbada or with the help of the outline of Africa repeatedly printed onto the fabric.

On release from prison in 1994, Nelson Mandela transformed the politician’s attire in East and Southern Africa with a shirt, showing formal wear could take different forms. Madiba shirts, as they came to be known, became popular after he was pictured wearing one gifted to him at the dress rehearsal for the opening of Parliament in 1994. The Madiba shirts inspired local tailors in East Africa to make similar shirts for politicians to tie them more closely to the people they represented.

Old and new ties

African leaders, already familiar with Indian textile and with the power of symbolic dress, might wonder in Delhi: why this display of unity in a photo op and why now? The third India-Africa Forum Summit is unique in that all 54 African countries have been invited to attend, whereas less than 15 had attended each of the last two summits. This can be seen as an indication of Africa’s increased importance to India and the growing significance of Indian Ocean trade and connections generally.

However, it is also an interesting moment given the rising power of China in the Indian Ocean region and its growing ties with Africa, which have prompted many around the world, including the US and the European Union, to pay more attention to Africa. The photo op in Delhi might signal a long history of connections between Africa and India, but it might also be a symbolic attempt to hold on to that history against the growing influence of China.