If the earth were to be wrapped around in reams of cloth – I can bet you, it’ll all be woven, dyed and printed in India. I’m sure you can visualise it – an elaborate tie and dyed turban at the North Pole, yards and yards of finest muslin with indigo block-print, silk saris with double-ikat pleated all around the middle, appliquéd patterns in red and green to embellish the skies – wave after wave of patterns and cloth that will keep on flowing.
The Fabric of India exhibition that is open till the 10th of January 2016 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is all about being entranced, captivated and blown away by the sheer scale and continuously evolving beauty of woven cloth from the sub-continent. The V and A has the second largest collection of Indian artefacts, after India – my internal radical voice was tempted to take a potshot at the rampaging and pillaging tendencies of the British when they ruled India. But when it comes to presenting an exhibition of this scale, no one does it better.
A bunch of thin twigs tied together with a string was displayed in a glass case – these were ‘chay’ roots from Madurai that create the red dye for all the chintz prints that are so popular. Up in the north of India, the red dye is called ‘manjeet’, from the ‘madder’ root, Rubia Cordifolia. Red colour was also obtained from the Lac beetle. A Tusser silk sari from 1855 in palest pink hung from above the glass case. Dried rind of pomegranate was mixed with turmeric to produce yellow dye. I never knew that the wing-cases of the jewel beetles that were sewn onto chiffon or lace dresses, was made in Chennai.
There were displays of pashmina from Srinagar, a yak-hair shawl from the Himalayas, a Karuppur shawl made in Tanjore (1750-1850) with brocade work, a Baluchar sari from Bengal with elaborate story-telling in the embroidery. A stunning wall-hanging with appliqué elephants and horses, used to decorate wedding marquees (shamiana) was found abandoned in a New York sidewalk and was donated to the V and A in 1994.
A Naga garment, in dense green with delicate thread-work was made by a woman of the Kabri Naga people, who wove this using a simple back-string loom. She kept the warp threads under tension at one end of her body, securing them round a tree peg at the other end. She added embroidery using a porcupine quill needle. Just imagining her standing beside a tree, using her body to weave cloth made me pause.
The Mashru lungis woven in Trichy in South India were made of a mix of silk and cotton thread. Mashru means permitted under Sharia law – as Muslim men are not allowed to wear silk next to their body. A Talisman shirt from around 1480-1520 had the entire Koran inscribed on it with sweat stains. Soldiers apparently wore it under their armour or it was worn by the sick to protect them.
Walking to another section, through a pretend loom with deep pink thread from floor to ceiling felt quite thrilling. There was a variety of religious cloth on display – 8 Jain Vidyadevis were embroidered on cotton with silk thread and kusha grass. The Armenian Christians in Madras had a printed wall-hanging in muted shades of red and brown, of Jesus on the cross with women with covered heads, of Indian origin, around him. There was an enormous Vrindavan Vastra from around 1560-70, tracing Krishna’s life.
Tipu’s tent is the centrepiece attraction of this exhibition. When the British conquered Mysore in 1799, they brought this tent back with them – spanning the size of a large drawing-room, with block-printed flowers in deep red and green that looked as if it was made yesterday.
Of course, cloth was a deeply political issue during the fight for independence from the British. There was footage of Gandhi’s efforts in encouraging the people to weave their own khadi cloth, Nehru wearing homespun kurta and dhoti, on TV screens. The decision to have the spinning wheel as part of the Indian flag because of this struggle was also shown.
An excavation from 2000 years ago from the southern silk road produced a blanket that must have been exported to China in 100-300 AD. For all these two thousand years, Indian weavers have satisfied a global market. They printed elegant far-eastern people for Indonesia, swans and flowers for Japan, bright chintz for the Dutch. It was so cheap and popular that masters and servants began to dress alike. Block-printed fabric was exported to Egypt in 700-800 AD.
On a more sombre note, Madras cotton handkerchiefs were worn as headscarves by slaves in the sugar plantations. A West African slave bought for work on an American plantation could be purchased for 7 pieces of Indian chintz.
Right now, there are many Indian designers present in the world of fashion design. A lotus dress inspired by popular graphic artist, Escher caught my eye. There was expensive Ikat patterns in Tussar silk by Abraham and Thakore and the very anti-thesis of a free-flowing sari – the not so appealing stitched versions with full-sleeved shirts. There was no mention of Kanchipuram silk either. The exhibition didn’t allow taking pictures (hence my extensive note-taking) and the catalogue, a heavy tome, priced at £30 was not an easy item to purchase.