Warp and weft of India

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September 12, 2015 ‘The Fabric of India’, to be held in London, will be the first major exhibition to explore the country’s handmade textiles, spanning from the third century to the present day

Hoarders everywhere, you stand vindicated: A wall hanging found discarded on a New York pavement has made it to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). The piece, made by the Kathi community of Kathiawar, was found on the pavement by an art appraiser in the 1990s. The finder, Jerome Burns, then gifted it to the V&A in 1994, where it was restored by specialists and will go on display for the first time next month.

Rosemary Crill and Divia Patel have curated ‘The Fabric of India’ exhibition (supported by lifestyle brand Good Earth), which brings together the rich textile history of the country. The collection of 200 objects includes handmade textiles that date back to the third century as well as pieces from today. The exhibits span the ‘sacred,’ such as a talismanic shirt made from starched cotton, inscribed in ink, with red and gold paint, from the 15th century, to the ‘splendid,’ such as a woman’s cotton upper garment with coloured metal foil, gilded silver strips and sequins, dating back to 1800–50.

“The exhibition is the first to fully explore the incredibly rich world of handmade textiles from India,” says Crill — a senior curator at the V&A’s Asian department, and an author of the book The Fabric of India which will accompany the exhibition — in an email interview. “It will give an overview from the earliest known Indian textile fragments to contemporary fashion, and will illustrate the technical mastery and creativity of Indian textiles.”

Some of the breathtaking pieces include a cityscape on a pashmina shawl from the 19th century, a muslin border embroidered with iridescent beetle wings, a cotton dyed and painted floor spread from the Coromandel coast (dated to 1630), and a tent made for Tipu Sultan. “The tent is cotton, block-printed, mordant-dyed and resist dyed in floral motifs,” says Crill. “It dates from 1725-1750 and is more than 58 square metres in size. We don’t know exactly how it was used — on campaign or purely for pleasure — but it was among the ‘Tipu relics’ removed from his palace at Seringapatam after his defeat by the British in 1799.”

Then there is the discarded wall hanging which was discovered in Brooklyn’s East Side. It measures almost 17 metres in length and is designed to decorate a whole room. Created in the early 20th century, it depicts a parade of people and elephants, with a wide range of fabrics appliquéd by hand.

“We are lucky to have a huge collection of Indian textiles, and in addition we have received generous loans from individuals and institutions internationally. There are so many wonderful pieces we could have included, the difficulty was in deciding what to leave out,” says Crill.

The exhibition also has a cotemporary collection, which is inspired by ancient forms. The curators have chosen interesting designers such as Kallol Dutta and Abraham and Thakore, instead of the obvious candidates who specialise in wedding trousseaus. “We wanted the final section to explore how textile traditions are being included within the dynamic industry. We looked at designers who use hand techniques in imaginative or innovative ways,” says Patel, the author of India Contemporary Design: Fashion, Graphics, Interiors.

“We want to explore how the sari is being updated and becoming more fashionable to a younger generation. The sari by Kallol Datta is an unconventional adaptation of a very familiar item of dress. The suicide print on the sari and blouse along with a shoe-tread print underskirt are made using the silk screen printing process, which is another handmade technique,” says Patel. On display is also a houndstooth sari designed by Abraham & Thakore, which pairs the sari with long-sleeved shirts and belts.

This exhibition is a fitting tribute to both the heritage and the future of India’s fabrics.

(‘The Fabric of India’ runs from 3 October 2015 to 10 January 2016 at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK)

Mitali Parekh is a Mumbai-based journalist and columnist

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