Exhibition Review: The Fabric of India


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.


Musical Review: Miss Saigon


The second musical I saw was of a very different vein. For one thing, it was set (primarily) several thousand miles away, in Saigon, Vietnam. For another, it was set around 20 years earlier. And for another, far from being lighthearted and comic with subtle cultural messages, it was dark and harrowing, and the cultural conflict took a much more deeply frightening form (if anything can be more frightening than your Indian mother brandishing a rolling pin at you and yelling about how you’re a disgrace to your family). The plot, of course, was the famous story of the country girl from Vietnam who began a passionate romance with an American soldier during the war, lost him when he was evacuated, still believed that he would come back for her, and was finally broken three years later – after meeting his new wife.

This short summary cannot even begin to do justice to the utter grief and anguish conveyed by the musical. Some musicals make the audience pity the character, and maybe sniffle a little. This was the first musical I’ve seen that didn’t just induce a little bit of sorrow and sympathy and sniffling; it induced a complete outpour of empathy, of emotion, of despair on behalf of the protagonist, who had lost everything she had. It takes extremely effective characterisation and worldbuilding to make the audience feel so connected to a character, especially when the character in question is not in a circumstance to which most people in the audience can relate, in this new, post-Cold War millenium. Apart from the brilliantly realistic and poignant acting, there were two main factors which I thought contributed to making the musical so easy to relate to. The first of these was the appeal to basic human emotion through the use of “motifs” of what people seem to instinctively pity. In particular, this was done using children. Kim’s (the main character’s) son served as a projection screen for much of her emotion: he represented her lust for her lover Chris, her absolute certainty that she was married to him despite the lack of legal documentation, her total conviction that she and he had to be together and that they had to find each other again and that she had to leave the real life dystopia that was Communist Vietnam. Since we are all aware of that deep, intimate bond between mother and child, this made her emotion even more real and painful than it already was.

The second factor is something to which I would like to devote a fair amount of discussion: the set of the musical. It was spectacular. I am not the slightest bit familiar with the technicalities of staging and set design, but the versatility of the set, the way in which it could transform from strip club to barracks to traditional village to hotel suite and back again, showed a really smart design. There were two scenes in particular which I felt used staging to capture emotion perfectly. Firstly, there was a scene near the beginning of the play showing some sort of Communist military parade, which I think was to display the brutality of the war and the conviction with which the Communists executed this brutality “for the greater good.” The sides of the stage were lined with Vietnamese Communist flags – red with a gold star in the centre – and soldiers clad in identical military uniforms embossed with a red star marched across the stage, forming a shapeshifting block of khaki, as a large golden bust of Ho Chi Minh’s head watched over the scene. The lighting was harsh, the music thumped and periodic bursts of smoke provided regular “jolt-up-in-seat” moments. It was an “all-out” show of military splendour and the glories of collectivism, and even with knowledge of the atrocities of Ho Chi Minh’s regime one couldn’t help but admire and anticipate the revolution.

In contrast to the brash, upbeat strength of this scene, the other scene which particularly stood out was the one during which the American soldiers were evacuated. This scene was particularly hard to set, since there were many emotions and senses which all had to be conveyed at once – the rush of the evacuation, the desperation of the soldiers, the roaring chaos of the surrounding war, and the slow breaking of Chris and Kim’s hearts as they found out that they wouldn’t be able to reach each other. This was accomplished by a riot of loud bangs, shouts, flashes and, ringing out above all this, the two lovers calling to each other in vain. The scene was complete with a genuine helicopter dangling above it, whose sounds filled the room.

In terms of the music, I didn’t find that the songs from this musical were anything special; I thought that the dialogue and scenery were a lot more powerful in terms of conveying the emotion of the story than the songs were. The one song which I did really enjoy was, incidentally, one which I sang two-and-a-bit years ago at the Performing Arts Workshop at my school: the Wedding Song. I’ve yet to find out what the Vietnamese words in it actually mean, but it was wonderfully delicate, with beautiful harmonies: a musical monument to love at its purest. Perhaps this is my obsession with foreign music speaking, but I wish there had been more music in Vietnamese: from what little I have heard of the language outside of this musical, it really is quite beautiful and romantic.

Although Miss Saigon is, for the most part, a love story rather than an insight into sociocultural contrasts, I was pleased to note that there were a good few cultural phenomena on which to comment. The main cultural conflict here was classic Cold War stuff: a counterposition of American, capitalist values and the Communist – and, paradoxically, more traditional – values of Vietnam. There was one song by the strip club owner, who was a born capitalist (and who got too much screentime, in my opinion), which was a huge, showy dance number with feathers, stilettos and money-throwing and epitomised capitalist culture, contrasting sharply with the military parade: an epitome of Communist culture. In Vietnam, falling in love with someone from the West was being “a traitor to your country”; in the US, men deliberately went to Asian countries to meet women. And a considerable part of the central plot stemmed from a cultural misunderstanding: Kim thought she was married to Chris after a traditional Vietnamese ceremony, while Chris, being American, viewed marriage as primarily a legal matter and proceeded to legally marry someone else back in the States two years later. Another interesting thing to note is the idealisation of the United States – throughout the musical, despite having just lost a war, the United States remained the stuff of particularly good dreams for every Vietnamese character in the play. All the Communist, anti-Western propaganda seemed to be futile. Interestingly, in today’s world such propaganda is much less prevalent than during the Cold War, but America is the world’s most hated country according to ABCnews.

So overall, I did really enjoy Miss Saigon; it was poignant, raw and cleverly put together, and contrasted well with the other pieces of art which I’m reviewing for this project.

(I hope y’all enjoyed the lack of political bias.)

Musical Review: Bend It Like Beckham

(Another Arts Award thing.)

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In the melting pot that is London, there is no shortage of shows, exhibitions and other such events which focus on exploring cultural history, cultural conflict and the challenges – and benefits – of living in the totally diverse, globalised and multicultural society we have today. In this section of my portfolio, I’m going to be reviewing two musicals and an exhibition, each of which takes a look at a very different aspect of culture and presents its discoveries in a very different way.

The first of these is the musical Bend it Like Beckham. Originally produced as a comedy film in 1997 by British company Redbus Film Distribution (now Lionsgate), it isn’t exactly the most highbrow choice of musical and is more of a fun fest of lights, puns and action to watch with family. But as well as having its fair share of “coolness”, which my football-obsessed younger brother adored, the musical and the movie on which it was based has several important and relatable cultural messages, and is the kind of musical which would give any progressive in the audience the urge to stand up, pump their fist and yell “YES!” multiple times. The story is quite straightforward – an Indian girl growing up in the UK loves football, her traditionalist, first-generation immigrant parents forbid her from playing and she continues to play after being scouted by a team while hiding this from her family, against the backdrop of her sister’s turbulent love life and a love triangle involving her coach and her best friend – but there are enough twists and subplots to keep the plot itself fast-paced and entertaining.

I fell in love with the movie (and, needless to say, its male protagonist) when I first watched it. It had the perfect mix of humour, food for thought, a killer soundtrack and plenty of Indian cultural references. So as something of a musical aficionado, I was beyond excited when I found out that there was to be a musical version of the film, and my expectations were extremely high. Especially because the last two theatrical adaptations of pieces of art which I loved – 1984 and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – had been stellar.

But unfortunately, I have now learnt not to expect so much. This musical was alright, but the film was a thousand times better. The problem wasn’t that the plot was not suited to the format of musicals. India has a rich (and very pleasing to the ear, though I may be slightly biased here) tradition of ethnic music, and a clever fusion of traditional and modern Indian music with Western music would have complemented the cultural clash narrated by the film really well. Instead, the music was mainly standard musical fare, all “heartfelt” ballads and showy dance numbers. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it works perfectly well with other musicals, but it made this particular musical feel more like a generic love story and less like a story of cultural conundrums. The generic feel of the music also made the musical as a whole less relatable; I never felt completely “in the shoes” of the protagonist, I felt as though I was just watching another musical. Which, again, works in some circumstances – I’m a big fan of episches Theater. However, as an Indian girl who grew up in the UK and has no intention of adhering to cultural customs and gender roles, I expect to be able to relate to stories about other Indian girls who grew up in the UK and have no intention of adhering to cultural customs and gender roles. And the fact that I didn’t while watching this means that something went very wrong. As for characterisation, staging and so on, it was all good, but there was nothing special and nothing that I feel inclined to comment on in that regard.

The mediocrity of the musical aside, the story itself is filled with cultural commentary. By this I don’t mean some kind of technical anthropological analysis, but something which can often be more illuminating than such analyses: relatable description of a situation which is very real amongst immigrants who have had children in a radically culturally different country and are having to deal with the discomfort of deviation from tradition in their own homes. As a third-generation immigrant (well, de jure I’m second-generation, but my mother came to the UK at a very young age so she was more like a second-generationer) I never really understood the cultural dilemma faced by many first-generation immigrants over whether to stay true to their traditional values or adapt to the more progressive values of their Westernised offspring; for me, the question was a no-brainer because I’d been so culturally Westernised.

But as I now see, for someone who has already had to deal with the absorption of the culture shock which comes with migration and with the arduous task of surpassing cultural boundaries and forgetting much of what they were taught as a child, raising a child from birth in a Western country and therefore having them irrevocably shaped in a Western way must prove stressful. Because when your child is Western, your household can no longer be a haven, a miniature Ahmedabad/Nairobi/Warsaw/wherever in the UK. It too will become foreign to you. Before you know, a foreign tongue will ring through it, foreign films will be watched in it, foreign costume will be worn in it, foreign food and friends and partners will be brought home to it. And this – whether it “should” be or not – is frightening. People have something of a dialectical relationship with change: we crave the new but find comfort in the old. This, arguably, applies more to cultural change than any other sort of change; it’s why you may believe in “la vie sans frontières” but still think that “there’s no place like home.” In today’s world, where thousands of people move to another country every year and you can barely turn on the news without hearing a story about immigration, this is more relevant than ever.