If you fancy being enchanted and seduced through your own eyes, visit ‘The Fabric of India’, currently running at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 10th January 2016. On display are some of the most sumptuous, beautiful and fabulous fabrics this reviewer has ever seen, collected from all over the world.
This huge exhibition contains textiles of many sizes and uses that are the result of a wide variety of techniques. Taken together, they tell an epic story of the many Indian societies that flourished on the subcontinent over two millennia. They tell of vast wealth, romance, war and trade. Many of the fabrics are centuries old and have been discovered in far flung corners of the globe.
The first part of the exhibition examines the techniques and methods used to create many of the textiles. Traditions and processes that in some cases are thousands of years old. We learn how the dyes were made and applied, with the raw materials shown next to the coloured ‘finished’ fabrics. Another section looks at the many printing, refining and manufacturing processes. Ingenious techniques and industry that made these Indian products so in demand throughout the known world.
Because of this, vast trading networks developed. These are considered in context on the explanatory panels next to the examples. Helpfully, maps show the origin of each fabric, as well as the trade routes through which it passed. These Indian textiles were often tailor made for particular markets. Their makers and merchants took motifs and styles from the many different cultural traditions of their customers and interpreted them in unique ways.
From Japan and South East Asia, through Arabia and the Middle East (incredibly going back to 4500 BC) into Europe and beyond. In fact, trade with Europe expands from 1500 AD, via the sea powers of Portugal, The Netherlands and Britain. Eventually, the market for Indian textiles becomes global during the 18th Century, including booming trade with the Americas and Africa.
At this stage, it is worth mentioning just how beautiful the examples on display are. I was particularly struck by a gorgeous exquisitely detailed Pashmina Kashmir shawl from 1855. Also, a sumptuous, wonderfully coloured pink and orange wall hanging, a man’s Lungi from Gurdaspur and the Lahariya Turbans from Rajasthan.
The historical examples on display include material discovered by the explorer Mark Aural Stein in 1906 on one of his Central Asian excursions into Xinjiang province. The vividly coloured fragment of a blanket was from the abandoned oasis town of Niya, which had links to Northern India via the Silk Road. It dates from the 3rd century when Imperial China received Indian textiles as diplomatic gifts.
If you were to ask me, it woukd be difficult to point to specific ‘outstanding’ examples, because the scope of the exhibition is so vast and there are so many to choose from.
We see exquisite wall hangings, such as that which was discovered inexplicably abandoned on a New York street in the 1990s, from Gujarat. At 17 metres long, it shows a parade of people and elephants, with a wide range of fabrics applied by hand. However, the one that literally took my breath away was originally made for export. ‘Bed Cover for Portugal’ was made Satgaon in West Bengal after 1600. This most exquisite and intricate embroidery, which drew on the local Kantha tradition, depicts European ships and people, with a noble coat of arms in the centre.
We see marvellous outfits for both sexes throughout the exhibition. Garments made for rich royalty, as well as more modest customers. These include an antique Mughal hunting jacket, everyday practical workwear and a contemporary wedding outfit by Sabyasachi Mukherjee. There are many more of course, something to delight everyone.
Also on display are sacred fabrics depicting Islamic, Bhuddist, Hindu, Jain and Christian motifs. With reference to the latter, we can see how the 18th Century South Indian makers expanded their markets. On display is a Crucifixion scene made for an Armenian Christian Church.
The bed hangings that originally belonged to the Austrian Prince Eugene (1663-1736) demonstrate how desirable Indian dyed cotton fabrics had become to the elite of European society by the turn of the 18th Century. To eyes of the time, these tasteful bright and vivid textiles must have looked fresh and unusual.
There is even the fully erected tent that once belonged to Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) who was the infamous ruler of Mysore, killed at the battle of Seringapatam. This beautiful exhibit consists of more than 58 metres of magnificent printed chintz. Despite some restoration, it’s incredible how well preserved the fabric actually is and that the colours of the intricate floral pattern remain vivid. In the aftermath of battle, this tent became a spoil of war, acquired by the British conquerors.
For much of the 18th Century, European powers had been trying to outmanoeuvre each other in influencing the different rulers of what eventually became ‘British India’, historically known as the Raj. After its founding and the dismantling of the Mughal Empire, the Indian fabric trade continued to grow.
The impact of the British on the Indian Subcontinent was significant, but didn’t completely overwhelm the many Indian national identities. The Raj only directly controlled certain areas of the country. In others, Indian Princes and Maharajahs had virtual independent status on every issue, except foreign policy and external defence, as long as they paid homage to the British Monarch. In some states, satorial mixtures of east and west developed.
One peculiar example of this fusion of Indian and European styles struck me. The Velvet Crowns, worn in Lucknow until the late 19th Century, resembled those worn by European Royalty. When I saw this, I wondered how they were viewed after the so called Indian ‘Mutiny’ of 1857, when the freebooting East India Company was replaced with direct Imperial rule from Britain. Surely, given the ferocious repressions that followed the quelling of that uprising, it must have made the wearing of these items highly controversial.
Despite the continuing demand for Indian textiles, the age old ‘hand made’production by artisans would become increasingly under threat from rapid 19th Century industrialisation. Cheap imitations of Indian textiles made in British mills began to be shipped back to India, gradually impoverishing the native population and eliminating the requirement for Indian skilled labour.
The exhibition chronicles the way these developments provoked a resistance movement, which saw textiles take on a pivotal role in the campaign for Indian nationhood during the early 20th Century. In the 1930s, Mahatma Gandhi exulted his followers to boycott foreign imports and spin their own cloth by hand- something he did himself. This so called Khadi material came to symbolise Indian Freedom and there are many examples on display here, including contemporary pieces. A consequence of all this is that the spinning wheel is the central motif of the Indian Flag.
The final part of the exhibition describes the postwar development of the Indian fabric and garment trade into a global industry. Examples on display demonstrate the widest range and application of textiles. Also, how many Indian designers are attempting to reconcile and incorporate age old techniques and processes of manufacture within modern commercial parameters and requirements. Today, as Indian artisans are in continual demand by international brands like Hermes to create handmade designs, the show fittingly concludes with work by Indian designers Manish Arora, Abraham & Thakore, Rahol Mishra, Rajesh Pratap Singh and Aneeth Arora.
In addition to the excellent layout of the exhibition, the displays, orientation and lighting are superbly arranged. I also loved the subtlety of the ambient music that played throughout the show. Totally fit for purpose. The overall design of the exhibition was also fantastic. Red strings aligned together demarcate and connect many of the spaces.
This incredible exhibition is a credit to its curators Rosemary Crill (Senior Curator in the Asian Department) and Divia Patel (Curator in the Asian Department) and its designer Gitta Geschwendtner. The accompanying book ‘The Fabric of India’ is by Rosemary Crill.
I would wholeheartedly recommend this exhibition to anyone interested in textiles, fashion, history of art or with an imagination. It will take your breath away.
(C) Gideon Hall 2015
(This article was first published in Femalearts Magazine in 2015)