The Fabric of India - Exhibition

by - Thursday, November 12, 2015

Installation view of The Fabric of India at the V&A
 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Fabric of India is a subtle spectacle threaded with moments of euphoria. Charllotte and I spent close to four hours in the galleries containing the show. We probably could have stayed even longer, but we were excited to keep our appointment with Rosemary Crill, who together with Divia Patel, curated the exhibition.

The Victoria and Albert Museum contains the greatest collection of Indian Textiles in the world. As Director Martin Roth explains in the accompanying book, many of these textiles have been brought out of storage for the first time since they were acquired in the nineteenth century.

The show announces its intentions in the first gallery. Overhead the marquee for the show is written in dots. From the centre of each dot a red thread emerges, traverses the space, and is gathered at a far wall, where, hank-like, they descend to the floor. Allusions to warp and weft are clear, as well as the promise that these threads will lead us through the exhibition space, connecting us to what follows.

Under the marquee, a massive cotton floor cloth measuring over nine meters long and four meters wide is mounted vertically. It is impressive not only in size but also as a brilliant example of the long history of dye printing. Made around 1650 this Mughal piece is flanked by two contemporary works; one by Manish Arora (Butterfly dress) and another by Abraham & Thakore (Houndstooth sari).

Installation view of The Fabric of India at the V&A
 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Around the corner hang fabrics dyed in rich natural colours. Displayed beneath each piece is the raw dye-stuffs that gives the colour. Cakes of indigo and lac point towards the profitable trade in natural dyes that took place in the nineteenth century. In subsequent cases Ismail Khatri’s samplers show the stages of Ajrakh production. The Maiwa collection also has one of these samplers. In our stores we field so many questions about the Ajrakh process that we had smaller versions made up to sell.

Jason Singh designed a separate soundscape for each exhibition hall. In the first room the sounds of blockprinting (the gentle thump, thump, ka-thump of wooden blocks being pounded on cotton) mix with the signature clacking of flying shuttles. These environmental sounds punctuate an ambient music that could have been scored by Harold Budd or Brian Eno.

There are many pieces in the Fabric of India exhibit that are simply mind-boggling. There is no other way to describe them. My personal favourite is the cartographic shawl (never intended to be worn) made in 1870 as a commission by Maharaja Ranbir Singh. Another is the far-older talismanic shirt: made of starched white cotton, it displays the entire text of the Qur’an written in ink and embellished with red and gold paint.

Map shawl, woollen embroidery, Kashmir
Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Click for enlargement)

I had a powerful emotional reaction when I spent some time sitting on a bench inside Tipu Sultan’s tent. The tent, made sometime between 1725-50 from panels of blockprinted cotton, possibly in Burhanpur, was brought to England in 1803 (Tipu lost to the British in 1799). It stands as an excellent example of the longevity of natural dyes. The tent would have seen decades of field use (the exterior is indeed, quite faded) and yet the interior sides of the panels are clear and bright – even in the subdued museum lighting. It is the mood, however, which this historic piece generates that seems to compel visitors to return for another moment under its canopies.

Under Tipu's Tent - Installation view of The Fabric of India at the V&A
 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Tipu's Tent, National Trust Images

The staging of the show is superb. The theme of the red thread (found at the entrance) is repeated to great effect. One corridor leading into the gallery space has its walls made from these red threads (about the width of shoe-strings) and even with no one in the corridor, groups of the cords began to vibrate – in sympathy to something I could not detect.

Many of pieces are examples of the substantial trade relationships that Indian artisans and merchants created. India had an uncanny ability to generate unique textiles in response to distinct markets. This trade went as far as Africa and Japan. The trade also had great longevity—the oldest pieces of Indian cotton were preserved outside India.

Another impressive piece is a Karuppur Shawl, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Originally from the Hindu Maratha court at Thanjavur, the entire textile (including silver-wrapped threads) has been over-dyed with a brick red colour. It stands out in a room already filled with extraordinary pieces.

The exhibition concludes with a number contemporary pieces. These works point towards artisan-designer relationships and the creative tension between tradition and innovation.

Installation view of The Fabric of India at the V&A
 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The buzz around this exhibition is well deserved. Vogue called it "the most stunning exhibition you will see in London this Fall." If you live anywhere within reach of London (or if you can route your trip there) the exhibition is a must-see.

Tim McLaughlin

The Fabric of India exhibition is also collected in a substantial hardcover book. An in depth review has been posted here. We will post some excerpts from that review in our next post.

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