by Roderick Conway Morris

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Richard Davis/V&A, London
Detail of a floorspread from the Coromandel Coast probably for the Golconda
Court, c.1630

India's Rich Tapestry

By Roderick Conway Morris
London 14 October 2015


Textiles played a critical role in the birth and development of Indian civilization. It was almost certainly in that subcontinent that cotton was first spun into thread and woven into cloth, some 8,000 years ago, and it was the textile industry that formed the basis of the expansion of India's economy and population.

Even today, two centuries after the Industrial Revolution, more than 10 percent of the cloth produced in India is woven on hand looms, employing over 4 million people.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has the largest collection of Indian textiles in the world — more than 10,000 pieces, from the simplest weaves that dressed poor farmers to lavish embroidered silks worn by Mughal emperors and maharajas. Yet the museum has never before staged an exhibition devoted to this rich subject — until now.

'The Fabric of India,' which will be on until Jan. 10, forms part of the V&A India Festival of events marking the 25th anniversary of the opening of the museum's Nehru Gallery of South Asian art.

The exhibition, curated by Rosemary Crill and Divia Patel, spans nearly 2,000 years, from the earliest known example of an Indian weave, dating back to between the 1st and 3rd centuries, to the latest productions of the country's leading designers. Many of the pieces on display have never been shown since they were acquired in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The exhibition opens with a huge 17th-century floor-spread from the Coromandel Coast, highlighting from the outset the role and ubiquity of textiles in the subcontinent.

'In the absence of furniture, textiles are used in interiors in a very different way,' Ms. Crill said. 'They can be on the floor, on the walls, suspended from the ceiling; you sit on them, you lean against them, and the body is draped with them.'

In fact, in traditional Hindu and Buddhist dress, textiles are draped rather than cut and stitched. 'You still find this today with the sari, the lungi, the dhoti, the shawl, the turban,' Ms. Crill said. 'All these consist just of a big rectangle, which you can do whatever you like with, as it comes off the loom.'

The first section of the exhibition, 'Nature and Making,' explores the origins of the materials cultivated to make cloths; the processes used to transform them (spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing and embroidering), and the kaleidoscope of regional styles.

A peculiarity of hand-spun Indian cotton yarns is that they were almost invariably spun counterclockwise, useful for identifying the origin of pieces exported to faraway places.

Other fibers are also explored, such as silk, flax, hemp and jute. The last two were resistant to moisture and rot, making them excellent for maritime purposes. Silk products, for the upper end of the market, and jute gunny sacks and floor matting, for everyday use, were mainstays of Bengal's economy. Pashmina shawls became a virtual monopoly of Kashmir. Embroidery is a speciality of the western part of the country, from Gujarat and Rajasthan to Baluchistan and the North West Frontier.

'Sacred & Splendid,' the next section, investigates textiles made for religious purposes and for imperial and princely courts. On display in the first part are a series of sacred textiles created for Hindu and Buddhist temples and for Christian churches. Among these are a shawl depicting the avatars of Vishnu, a talismanic shirt inscribed with the text of the Quran, and a huge figurative shrine flag from Uttar Pradesh.

The centerpiece of the second part, 'Splendid,' is Tipu's Tent, with its magnificent floral printed chintz walls and canopy. The tent was captured as war booty at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799. This is the first time this textile pavilion has been fully displayed for more than 30 years.

Also on display is a stunning silk Mughal hunting jacket from around 1620-25, with decorations of animals and plants revealing a sophisticated mixture of Chinese and European influences.

Inexplicably, the opportunity to acquire this piece, now regarded as one of the most important Mughal garments to survive anywhere in the world, was twice turned down by the V&A, before the jacket was bought by the museum in 1947.

There is evidence that Indian textiles were being exported as early as the 5th to 4th centuries B.C. But with the maritime expansion of Europe, this outflow turned into a flood, reaching a peak between 1795 and 1799 when the East India Company was exporting around 1.5 million pieces of cloth per year. As the stunning array in the section entitled 'Designed to Appeal' demonstrates, the subcontinent produced a huge range of products for markets that stretched from Africa and the Americas to Thailand, Indonesia and Japan.

Bengal silk handkerchiefs with checks, spots and other patterns became known as 'bandanas,' from the Hindi 'bandhana' meaning to tie — a reference to the tie-dyeing process used to pattern them. Increasingly high tariffs were imposed on all Indian cloths coming to Britain in the 18th century to protect the domestic textile industry. As these printed handkerchiefs became a must-have accessory at all levels of society, from aristocratic ladies and gentlemen to farm laborers and sailors, their sale was banned between 1701 and 1826 — although tens of thousands of them were smuggled into the country.

Checked cotton cloths from Madras were also exported by the East India Company in huge numbers and found particular fortune when they were re-exported to West Africa and the Caribbean, where they became essential fashion accessories as headties for women and now form part of traditional dress in some Caribbean islands. These fabrics are a rare example of a classic Indian fabric that remains popular both at home and overseas.

By the 1820s industrially made English cottons were arriving in the subcontinent, eventually giving rise to hybrid products designed to appeal to the Indian market — a phenomenon explored in a section called 'Textiles in a Changing World.' The cheap price of these products was to have a disastrous effect on the local hand-loom industry, putting millions of workers out of business.

Mohandas K. Gandhi put the revival of his country's hand-loom industry at the center of the fight for independence, encouraging the mass spinning, weaving and wearing of traditional khadi cottons. One of the products of this was the simple, modestly embroidered sari worn by Indira Gandhi at her wedding in 1942, on loan from her Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

The exhibition ends with India's contemporary fashion scene, and a display on that most elegant and emblematic of Indian women's attire, the sari. Although facing challenges from the influx of western dress styles, it is not being abandoned by today's designers, as some beautiful and innovative examples here show. 'Fabrics continue to be a symbol of the Indian identity,' said Ms. Patel, who curated the section. 'Some of the new designers are making the sari more fashionable and fun for young women — and something to get genuinely excited about wearing.'

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024