Guest Post: Fabric of India

Jasleen Kandhari is a textiles & art historian specialising in the artistic and material heritage of  South Asia & the  Punjab. She will be lecturing on Indian textiles on the Royal Academy of Arts tour to India from 2016: Treasures of the Punjab & ‘Little Tibet’ 

As a textiles historian and lecturer and tutor of Indian & Asian textiles at the University of Oxford, department of continuing education, it is a pleasure to review the Indian textiles exhibition on display at the Victoria & Albert museum in London, UK until 10th January 2016.

India is one of the world’s most influential producers of fabric. The Fabric of India exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum explores India’s multifaceted world of handmade textiles from the third century up till contemporary times. More than two hundred exhibits tell the story of invention, artistry and beauty, ranging from raw cotton to undyed cloths to one of the highlights, the magnificent royal tent of Tipu Sultan, the eighteenth century ruler of Mysore.

This block printed and painted cotton chintz tent decorated with floral motifs was taken by Edward Clive or the Clive of India as he is popularly known as, to Powis Castle on the Welsh border, after he defeated Tipu Sultan at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799. At Powis Castle it served as a grand marquee for garden parties for several years before going on display at the castle. At six hundred and forty two square feet, it presents a magical meadow which one can stroll into in the gallery to admire the designs at close quarters.

The exhibition is divided into five sections beginning with the ‘Materials and Making’ section introducing the processes of textile production as well as the fibres of cotton, silk and wool and natural dyes like indigo blue obtained by processing the plant’s leaves, yellow dye from turmeric or pomegranate shells and crimson dyes from madder root. India’s natural sources of textile fibres and dyes have enabled innovation in the production of regional specialities of textiles by weaving, dyeing, embroidery and printing, such as the finest Shahtoosh fibres which is a fifth of the strand of a human hair in diameter, woven from the underbelly hair of the chiru antelope to produce the finest and most expensive Kashmir shawls. India’s climate is well suited to cultivating several types of cotton and archaeological evidence of cotton seeds and fibres have been excavated at pre-Harappan sites in Baluchistan from 6000 BC with whorls unearthed in the Indus Valley of the same period, indicating the production of woven textiles occurred during ancient periods of India’s history.

The function of Indian fabrics in courtly and spiritual life are examined in the ‘Local and Global: Patronage and Use’ section. A fine example is a densely decorated Mughal riding coat in white silk associated with the reign of the Emperor Jahangir. The coat has a repeating pattern including reclining lions, a lion hunting gazelles, floral motifs and scenes of ducks on a pond and a peacock in flight.

The ‘Trade’ section highlights the importance of textiles for the economy of India for Indian textiles have been exported internationally with the earliest known surviving fragment dated to the third century. Designs were adapted for different export markets such as the block printed ceremonial textile from Gujarat made in the fourteenth century for the Indonesian market used as an heirloom piece as an example of the Indian textile trade to the east. The selection of wall hangings, bed covers, banyan robes and dresses decorated with chintz patterns, including a set of Indian chintz bed hangings on a four poster bed which were originally part of the hunting castle, Schloss Hof in the Marchfield near Vienna, serves to illustrate how Indian designs and techniques were reinterpreted to appeal to the European market as examples of the Indian textile trade to the west.

The nineteenth century marked the advent of European industrialisation when textiles ‘in imitation of the Indian’ were produced, thereby threatening to destroy India’s handmade textile industry as fabrics produced in England were duly imported to India. This in turn instigated a resistance movement, the Swadeshi or homeland movement where textiles played an important role in Indian identity and nationalism to encourage Indians to support the production of traditional Indian fabrics whilst refraining from imported ones. Indian textiles served as a symbol of resistance to colonial rule in the twentieth century with Mahatma Gandhi proclaiming to the nation that Indians must produce their own fabric by hand to produce Khadi, featuring in the Independence movement. The display of khadi highlights this important symbolism.

My favourite piece in this exhibition is a minutely detailed embroidered Kashmiri map shawl which, at around two metres by two metres is very large in size, illustrating a map of the central part of the town of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. Made in the nineteenth century, there are only five other examples known, one in the British Royal Collection, Sardar Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar, in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra having been acquired by Captain Godfrey in Srinagar in the nineteenth century and a new discovery in the Josefowitz collection with a smaller but related sash in the TAPI collection in Gujarat. This map shawl entered the V&A museum’s collections in 1971 as a gift from a private individual, Mrs Estelle Fuller who may have purchased it from auction having been retained in the tokshana or the treasury of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who took over Kashmir in 1819, where it remained until the end of the nineteenth century, as was the case of the Godfrey Shawl.

Map shawls are based on a type of town plan fairly widespread in Indian maps from the seventeenth century onwards. These detailed maps which schematically depict streets and public buildings derive from the painted plans of religious centres of pilgrimage and are made for devotees as souvenirs of their journeys and objects of reverence, that is to say they were embroidered versions of elaborate town maps, woven at right angles to the direction of the map.

The designs of the streets and landmarks of Srinagar are embroidered in fine coloured wool on a ground of twill-woven pashmina which is the hair of the shawl goat, capra hircus. It is dominated to the northeast by Lake Dal, Srinagar’s most famous landmark with vignettes of people boating on the River Jhelum, a Hindu temple and the famous Mughal gardens, the Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh with a watercourse going through the series of pools and dividing the gardens up symmetrically. This Mughal tradition of a garden being divided into four parts by two intersecting waterways is known as Char-Bagh.

The minute scale of the scenes depicted on the shawl required the finest of stitches and the use of colour including the blues in the lake, greens of the trees and marvellous multi-coloured rocks, all add to the fine quality of the needlework and a vitality which goes beyond the normal range of shawl design, and is therefore an exceptional example of a Kashmiri shawl.

The final section, ‘Textiles in the Modern World’ explores India’s dynamic fashion design industry, showcasing innovative design influenced by the traditional Indian textile heritage for a new international market including for use in Bollywood movies, as illustrated by the lehnga  worn by Madhuri Dixit in the Bollywood blockbuster film, Devdas (2000). Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla are renowned for reworking traditional techniques and producing visually spectacular ensembles. For this lehnga, they were inspired by Gujarati mirror-work or shisha embroidered with gold metallic thread and sequins to create a lavish aesthetic.

The exhibition closes with a display from the new generation of India’s fashion designers on the ‘New Sari’ illustrating India’s most iconic dress with a contemporary feel, experimenting with new styles, materials and colour combinations yet influenced by traditional Indian textile techniques of block-printing, ikat weaving, kantha embroidery and gold thread weaving to produce new interpretations of the sari. The Suicide Sari by Kallol Datta, who provides an alternative aesthetic through his bold, controversial prints and titles, uses silk-screen printing to transfer the monochrome image of a hanged man onto the fabric. These new interpretations of saris lend a striking effect as does this exhibition.


For more on Fabric of India from WornThrough, read our regular contributor Emma’s earlier review of the exhibition here.

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