Exhibition Review: The Fabric of India

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The final review in this project is of the Fabric of India exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, which takes us back to my lovably chaotic homeland: the Indian subcontinent. Unlike Bend it Like Beckham, this exhibition didn’t focus on emigration from India and its cultural effects, but delved deep into the subcontinent itself through the medium of textiles. This, in my opinion, was a very effective way in which to paint a picture of a country which produces x% of the world’s textiles and has a rich history of creating fabrics for rulers the world over, from Maltese sultans to Japanese emperors. On the whole, the exhibition portrayed Indian history through textiles and culture richly and colourfully and I found it very illuminating.

The exhibition displayed a spectacular collection of fabrics, dyes and tapestries, some of which had been originally collected and displayed in the India Museum, which educated 19th century Londoners about the “jewel of the British Empire” from 1801 until its closure in 1878. The time span covered by the exhibition was equally impressive: it was noted that the earliest surviving cotton threads from India dated from 4000BC and the oldest dyed textiles from 2500BC, and although many pieces from the Mughal and British Raj eras were on display, there was a lot of coverage of indigenous practices relating to textiles too. The exhibition was divided into six main sections, each of which had its own rooms one on the various forms of textile-related art in India, one on fabrics’ religious uses, one on fabrics as an expression of class, one on the global textile trade and India’s position in it (particularly during the modern era of mondialisation), one on the uses of Indian textiles during the British Raj and post-independence periods and one on uses in fashion. Indirectly, the ordering of the sections also corresponded to the chronological order of different periods of Indian history, with each section apart from the religion one focusing on a specific period. This layout worked well and highlighted the evolution of subcontinental society.

The first section of the exhibtion was actually my least favourite. It wasn’t badly-executed or uninformative, but the information itself centred on the dyes and fabrics from different regions of India in and of themselves, and for that to be captivating for a textiles novice, a good deal of context and explanation of relevance needs to be provided. I don’t feel that this was done quite well enough, but this is perhaps because I don’t have much of an interest in textiles and am far more interested (particularly for the purposes of this project) in their sociocultural contexts. That being said, there were a few interesting tidbits I learnt from this part of the exhibition. The regional differences in Indian textiles perfectly captured the pluricentrism of the country’s culture. Assam was known for its silks and the distinctive blue dye from the Indigo plant (whose name comes from “India”) worn by its inhabitants, the Lhota people. Bengal produced cotton and muslin, and in keeping with the segregated nature of its religious communities, Hindus wore plain muslin and Muslims wore patterned. The Baluchar sari was also particular to the Bengali Hindu community, since it depicted human figures. Since Muslims couldn’t wear silk against their skin, they had special saris made from cotton-silk mixtures known as mashru (meaning “permitted by Sharia law”) saris. Embroidery was mostly a preserve of inhabitants of Northern and Central India, with each region having its own distinctive style: modern-day Uttar Pradesh was distinguishable by its lavish Chikan embroidery, a favourite of the aristocracy of Lucknow, while West Bengali embroidery was more resourceful, using recycled saris and dhotis. Southern India was the source of most Indian dyes, and the state of Tamil Nadu produced quite distinctive, dark red saris with gold borders. The “gypsies” of India, the Banjara people, also had textiles as a central part of their lifestyle, using woven bags to store supplies as they travelled and searched for work. This contextual information was highly interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more of it.

My wish was granted in the next few sections of the exhibition, the first of which covered religion. I would have liked this section to go more in depth and look at the bigger picture a little more, since it didn’t seem to relate any of the religious customs it described back to India’s wider culture and situation, but it was full of fascinating little stories and highlighted several religious – and therefore cultural – differences. As you may expect, Hindu and Buddhist embroidery was mainly pictorial, while Muslim embroidery came in the form of Koranic inscriptions for garments which had a talismanic function, perhaps to bring good fortune to Mughal warriors in battle. The closest Muslims came to embroidery with narrative purposes was on their prayer mats, which served and still serve as reminders of Allah and the events of 610CE during prayer. Hindus and Buddhists, however, went all-out on the storytelling/pictorial symbolism front. Buddhist hangings were embroidered with lotuses and other symbols of purity, enlightenment and the knowledge of the bodhisatvas. Hindu hangings, meanwhile, told literal stories of episodes from the Mahayana or, in contrast to the peaceful Buddhist stories, victories in battle. But despite these contrasts between religions, as ever, there are points of confluence: since the 14th century, both Muslim and Hindu pilgrims have brought large coloured flags to the shrine of Muslim warrior Ghazi Miyan in exchange for his blessing and healing powers.

The exploration of religious divergence and convergence through textiles continued into the next section of the exhibition, which focused on the usage of textiles by the various élites of India. Extravagant textiles at royal courts were signs of wealth and skill, and skilled weavers and embroiderers were held in high regard. Around the Deccan plateau area of Central India was a clear dividing line between the Muslim world of the Mughal sultanates and the Hindu world of the relatively undiscovered southern provinces. North of this line was a rapidly modernising and outward-facing Muslim nation, with a workshop for every sultanate producing elaborate silks and cottons inspired by Islamic, Persian and European art. Hindu rulers in South India were more self-contained, drawing on local painting decisions to create narrative textiles (often religious). They were more human- and narrative-based than Muslim textiles, which were often just patterned, and sometimes depicted the lives of their owners.

Perhaps my favourite part of the exhibition was the next few sections, which dealt with the changing position of textiles in modern India and India during the periods of the British Raj and Industrial Revolution. After the British invasion, India was unified and industrialised, and the arrival of faster and more efficient mechanical methods of textile manufacture drove many petty artisans out of business and into industrial, urban labour, much like it did in Europe. Combined with the influx of foreign-produced textiles, by the 1890s, India’s textile culture was threatened, mirroring the threat posed by British and Anglosphere culture and by globalisation to all of India’s traditions. But India, perhaps by virtue of its population size, turbulent history and diversity, did not allow its traditions to be stamped out as those of the Native Americans and Australian aborigines effectively were. During the 20th century, there was a resurgence of traditional culture and Indian, as opposed to Commonwealth, patriotism, which of course culminated in Indian independence in August 1947. And as this exhibition documented so well, Indian cotton and textiles were at the forefront of this resurgence: people would buy and use Indian textiles as a symbol of national identity and protest against the British Raj and globalisation. The exhibition finished with a display of modern Indian fashion: a fusion of traditional motifs and materials from all over the subcontinent with cutting-edge Western design and inspiration from haute-couture in Europe and the States. Just as textiles demonstrated regional and religious differences and the opulence of royal courts in the past, today, they continue to demonstrate the essential character of modern India: a vibrant country of old and new, tradition and modernisation, and the pulsating heart of South Asia. This exhibition conveyed this brilliantly.

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