The co-curators, Rosemary Crill and Divia Patel, have worked tirelessly for years in order to collaborate with some of the most acclaimed museum spaces around the world to gain access to the approximately 200 handmade objects which are on display throughout the gallery’s six sub sections: Nature and Making, Sacred, Splendid, A Global Trade, Textiles in the Changing World and At the Cutting Edge.
On entering the exhibition, the expansive mounted floor-spread welcomes you to a sanctuary of colour and design. In Mughai palace, ‘summer carpets’ were used during the hot months; this floral designed floor-covering was created in an outdoor garden with the intent of becoming a lounging area for those of regal stance. At the edge of the floor spread sits a traditional sari and shirt along with Indian designer Manish Arora’s finely crafted butterfly dress. Immediately the opening scene of the exhibition has you in awe of India’s visual culture and sets a strong precedent for what follows.
Nature and Making
The opening section of the exhibition offers an introduction to the raw materials and processes of making cloth by hand. India’s natural resources are highlighted through displays of silk, cotton and wool. Each geographical region differs in climate, therefore a large range of plant fibres and natural dyes are readily available for cultivation. Over centuries, most regions have developed specialities based on local resources; from the golden silks of Assam to the fine cottons of Bengal. Amidst this section there are videos capturing the making process first hand; workers display their techniques across the ages with fabric dyes, block printing and embroidered weaving. There are many highlights to behold early in the exhibition, including a boy’s jacket densely embroidered with brightly coloured silk and mirrors, and a vast wall hanging appliquéd with designs of elephants and geometrical patterns.
India has long been a nation of blended religions. Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Christians in particular make heavy use of textiles while worshipping. The exhibition examines how fabrics were used in courtly and spiritual life; depending on the religious contexts, fabrics created for temples and shrines vary widely in imagery and techniques. Amidst many other exuberant findings is a Hindu narrative cloth in silk lampas weave.
Throughout the exhibition there are many riches of varying scales which were handmade for the rich and powerful courts of the 17th to 19th centuries. Erected in the Splendid gallery is the canopy and wall of a lavish tent used by the infamous ruler Tipu Sultan; allowing visitors to see the intricate decoration close at hand. Examples of stunning dresses further demonstrate the magnificent detail and splendour of Indian clothing.
A Global Trade
The historic and ongoing importance of textiles for India’s economy forms a key focus of the exhibition, with prevalence placed on Indian cloth around the world. Makers exported cloth to the Middle East, Mediterranean, Africa and Asia for centuries before European traders arrived in 1498. On display are three of the earliest known surviving fragments of Indian fabric dating back as far as the 3rd century. India’s skills lay not only in the mastery of textile techniques – spinning, weaving and dyeing – but also in meeting the needs of different global markets. The ability of Indian artisans to know their audience and adapt techniques made the success of Indian textiles international. A large map titled ‘Indian Textile Trade Routes’ shows the vast outreach of their everyday trade to other countries before Europe was in the equation.
Textiles In The Changing World
This section of the exhibition looks at the changing world, as European industrialisation threatened to eradicate Indian handicraft skills in the 19th century. British factories were cheaply manufacturing large quantities of yarn and cloth to satisfy their own needs as well as increasing their profits. Examples of cotton fabrics woven and printed in England for sale in India are displayed to illustrate this take over.The domestic economy fell under threat when foreign fabric entered India; sparking a political movement to liberate India from British control. At this time, India wished to further develop their nationhood and identity. In the 1930s, influential leader Mahatma Gandhi encouraged the resistance movement by asking Indian people to spin and weave their own yarn and fabric by hand. A cloth known as khadi came of such instruction and wearing: spinning and weaving khadi was a political act practised in the independence movement. Independence came in 1947 and modernisation became a priority.
At The Cutting Edge
In the final section of the exhibition, a new generation of cosmopolitan designers, artists and consumers are featured from India’s thriving major cities. The exploration of handmade textiles is still very much alive with provocative art installations and fashion lines by Indian designers Manish Arora, Abraham and Thakore, Rajesh Pratap Singh and Aneeth Arora. India’s artists are pushing the boundaries by bringing fresh craftsmanship that reflects the latest textile development. The sari, the traditional dress of India, has been embraced in recent years by contemporary designers as an opportunity to combine innovative design with unique Indian identity. A selection of the most creative saris being produced today are shown as the grand final to The Fabric of India.
India fell strongly on our radar through the capitalisation of film and television; its vast landscape was highly utilised for location shooting. Ever since, we have become privy to its diverse culture, colours and country. The Fabric of India enhances the wonder of the country and allures visitors to a world of Indian treasures.