This summer I had the lovely opportunity to meet NADFAS accredited lecturer Jasleen Kandhari, an art historian specialising in Asian art and design. Her breadth of interest in Asian collections is both broad and diverse. In covering subjects from Tibetan Buddhist sculpture and Korean ritual art to Sikh miniature painting and South Asian textiles, Jasleen has enjoyed interesting curatorial positions both here in London and abroad, as well as lecturing in universities and museums around the world. A prolific writer, Jasleen has published frequently on her subjects and is contributing editor (Indian Textiles) for Textiles Asia Journal. Currently, Jasleen is lecturing and teaching the Indian Textiles Course at the University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education as well as delivering study days on Asian art and textiles at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, which is what brought me to one of her Exploring Asian Textiles study days at Morley College earlier this year.
The study programme was fast paced, packed with different mediums and filled with Jasleen’s enthusiasm for her subject. In just one day, we travelled across the geographical expanse of Asia, stopping off in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan and Tibet. Jasleen took us on a grand tour of textile design, production and consumption while still allowing us to focus in on a specific example at each place. These ranged from the obvious to the obscure. We embraced the Japanese kimono and the Malaysian songket while being encouraged to take a closer look at the phulkaris of the Punjab and the tiger rugs of Tibet.
Within each location, Jasleen provided the class with lots of visual examples to include handouts, film clips and illustrative slides. In addition, there was an extensive display of textile examples at the front of the room and we were warmly invited to handle these half way through the day, accompanied by Jasleen’s informative commentary about their origins and significance. A personable and confident tutor, matched by a welcoming disposition. Jasleen asked all the students to introduce themselves and was able to respond to every individual interest in Asian textiles with further information. The breadth of motivation was wide for those present. Some were makers, others were thinkers but all shared a common fascination with textiles and were keen to broaden their haptic experience.
Jasleen’s own interest in Asian textiles emerges from her expertise in South Asian art and design, which began with a BA in Asian Art History with Music at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London and then an MA at Sotheby’s. This was followed by various curatorial and educational positions at the British Library and the British Museum before Jasleen took on the position of Curator of Asia at the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. It was there that Jasleen became more interested in Asian textiles, drawn to their large collection of uncatalogued phulkari, a style of embroidery specific to the Punjab. Jasleen also loves contemporary textiles and suggests that her passion was always there, having grown up in Kenya in a family with close ties to India where her aunt is a fashion designer in Mumbai. This was also nicely mirrored in her use of current examples from popular fashion magazines as well as the catwalk to highlight the continued significance of Asian textile design in today’s clothing styles.
When not writing for various cultural publications, Jasleen can be found visiting textile factories, filming production techniques or trying on regional costumes, in an effort to immerse herself in the subject for the benefit of her students. I asked her to share some highlights of teaching a subject she loves. These included inspiring students to want to learn more about the subject; and the fact that it doesn’t feel like ‘work’ but an integral facet of her own passion for the subject. I wondered if Jasleen had any good advice to share with regards to teaching her subject. ‘Always put yourself in the lecture’, she replied. Whether it be wearing a particular costume or including photographs that show you participating in your research, Jasleen suggested this was a vital way to connect with students.
I also wanted to know which museums had enhanced Jasleen’s interest in textiles. Special mentions included the Musee de Jacquard in Roubaix, Northern France, the National Textiles Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the Sanskriti Museum of Indian Textiles in Delhi, India. According to Jasleen, their emphasis on actively displaying techniques and processes allows visitors to see how textiles are produced in a dynamic way. This is very reflective of Jasleen’s pedagogical approach to her subject. The study day was nicely peppered with opportunities to look at a range of material sources, watch films showing how particular types of textiles are made and a myriad of handouts identifying techniques and motifs.
I was particularly struck by her research into Tibetan tiger rugs, of which there are apparently only 200 in existence that feature a tiger pelt motif. Interestingly, the tiger pelt design varies from the very abstract to the very literal. Made from sheep wool, these rugs are said to have come out of Tibet as a result of the uprisings in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Originally made as gifts for lamas, the tiger skin design is reflective of Tibetan Buddhist iconography. Yogins are often depicted meditating on tiger pelts and the tiger is historically believed to have protective qualities amongst Tibetan kings and warriors. These are fascinating textile objects and it was great to be introduced to them by Jasleen in the study day.
When listening to her, I was swept away by the heady descriptions of projects, texts, workshops and tours that Jasleen has in the pipeline, all of which can now be discovered on her own website entitled the Travelling Art Historian. In terms of what the future might hold, Jasleen is enthusiastic about museum education, in particular expanding what is on offer in Asian textiles and arts online courses. Jasleen is also keen to develop her research into Sikh art and textiles, both past and contemporary. According to her, ‘it is very important to record Sikh cultural heritage, which includes the influence of crafts such as textile design and painting’.
Spending the day looking at Asian textiles reminded me how useful it is to put myself in the shoes of the student and the advantages of having material artifacts when teaching what you enjoy. I would also very much like to meet others whose teaching interests include textiles and fashion history/theory here in the UK so please feel free to get in touch by email firstname.lastname@example.org