The textile mill label is an essential visual reminder of trade in British India. The labels, also referred to as “tickets” and “shipper’s tickets”, were pasted on bales of cotton cloth produced at industrial centres in Britain, such as Manchester and Glasgow, and then shipped to Bombay, Calcutta and Amritsar. In all likelihood, the cloth was manufactured from cotton fibre imported from India.

As part of its annual exhibition of antique and vintage paper collectibles titled Ephemera, the Artisans’ centre for art, craft and design in Mumbai will have on display hundreds of rare textile mill labels and chromolithographs produced between the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“These colourful chromolithographs are precursors to graphic design and mass communication,” said Radhi Parekh, director of Artisans’. “The labels were visualised in Britain, printed in Germany, and shipped to distant markets in colonial India.”

Till around 1890, the textile mill labels were designed in Britain and this disconnect with India is visible in their colonial depiction of the country. They carried images of deities, mythology, miniature paintings and popular (almost cliched) symbols of India. Together they represented a visual culture which carried subliminal messages of identity back to colonial India.

However, it was this specific religious iconography that made these labels, which would have otherwise been thrown away, into collectibles and, according to Parekh, these were even used in pujas by merchants. Labels with illustrations of Durga defeating the demon Mahishasur or Krishna spying on Radha were commonly found in Indian households.

“The development in the design and printing techniques over a period of time is clearly visible if you look at the labels and lithographs as a body of work,” said Parekh. “You can almost date them on the basis of how women are dressed, how the borders are designed, or what is depicted on the labels.”

The various movements in design and shift in motifs can be seen from mid-1890s when Raja Ravi Varma set up his own printing press and produced his own lithographic work as textile mill labels. This coincided with the time when Mumbai's textile mills were seeing a great success and hence many labels started carrying illustrations of the mills in the city.

The Ephemera exhibition will also include a variety of lithographs by various successors of Raja Ravi Varma, including a collection of Vasudeo Pandya’s imagery of Krishna; popular advertisements of the first mass-produced consumer products; and calendar art.

Ephemera 2016: Vintage Textile Labels and Chromolithographs will be on display from August 11 to August 17 at Artisans', Kalaghoda.