Why Textiles Have Been the Fabric of Indian Society for Centuries
by Harriet Baker – FT 2 October, 2015
This weekend, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum will showcase its world-renowned fabric collection with an exhibition of Indian textiles, exploring the country’s dynamic culture of cloth production from the third to the 21st century. The Fabric of India will display more than 200 objects, tracing the importance of cloth in India’s social history, from everyday religious observance — in Islam, Jainism, Hinduism and Christianity — to its focal point in the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. The exhibition will show how Indian fabric — its production and symbolism — is central to the country’s identity.
Fabric has far-reaching significance in Indian society, but it also plays an important role in the home, providing comfort, warmth and privacy in interiors that typically lack freestanding furniture. “If you visit a Mughal court today, you will find buildings that are stark and empty,” says Rosemary Crill, senior curator, “But, historically, these were the grandest interiors of Indian society. Mughal paintings show us that textiles were used to soften hard edges, to decorate interior spaces with colour and create an atmosphere of grandeur.” Cloth was used for furnishing: cushions and bolsters were placed on the floor for sitting, while walls were adorned with awnings, hangings and canopies that created private rooms in palatial spaces.
Yet it wasn’t all about luxury: textiles were central to every segment of society. “Fabrics were about practicality,” says Crill. “We associate India with gorgeous fabrics, but this was spread across society. From the richest ruling families to rural peasants, cloth was used in a multipurpose way.”
Fabrics from Maharani in London
There is evidence of cotton production in India as early as 3000BC, as Indus Valley civilisations embraced plant fibres. The range enabled weavers, dyers, printers and embroiderers to develop techniques and cloth types that varied from region to region, from wild silk in Assam and Odisha to fine cotton muslin in Bengal.
Part of The Fabric of India focuses on India’s independence movement and the political connotations of fabric. In the early 20th century Gandhi initiated the Swadeshi movement, boycotting foreign goods. With cotton being produced in large quantities in England, India’s market had been disrupted, leaving weavers unemployed. Gandhi rejected all forms of mechanisation, save for the sewing machine. The khadi, simple, hand-woven cotton, became a symbol of honest labour and the survival of village economies. Contemporary artist Lavanya Mani’s “The Emperor’s New Machine” depicts a Singer sewing machine embroidered on to cotton. “In terms of our exploration of textiles as being an integral part of India’s identity, her work is at the centre,” says co-curator Divia Patel, who has handled the contemporary part of the exhibition. “Mani is referring to a great moment in India’s history, when fabric became a nationalist symbol.”
Fabrics from Maharani in London
More recently, textiles in India have come to represent the rising middle class. “We are seeing a shift in the way textiles are being used,” says Patel. “Traditionally, fabric was functional or sacred. Now it is a site of innovation as textiles are used as artworks in urban homes.”
The kalamkari hand-printing technique has benefited from this shift. During the process, dyes are created naturally. Indigo is made from the indigo plant; for yellow, turmeric; a deep red is made from grinding lac beetles. Artist Ajit Kumar Das, who comes from a family of dyers in western Bengal who champion traditional techniques, is an expert in natural dyes, and his paintings, such as “Prosthor Poksi”, reveal the complexities of colour that can be achieved.
As well as colour, traditional forms of weaving and stitching are being reinterpreted. Swati Kalsi uses sujani, the running stitch, to reposition the traditionally female practice of embroidery as an innovative one. This type of stitch is used to recycle saris and dhotis by sewing them together to give the fabric a new form. The sewing together of old cloth has a spiritual meaning, too.
“Cloth bound together by sujani serves a ritualistic function,” says Kalsi. “It invokes the presence of a deity, Chitriya Ma, the ‘lady of the tatters’. It is part of the holistic Indian concept that all parts belong to a whole, and all must return to it.” Working with craftswomen from Bihar, in eastern India, Kalsi encouraged the stitch to be used more freely; her quilt is both a representation of femininity and motherhood and a socio-political statement about female labour.
Brigitte Singh’s embroidery work
Foreign demand for India’s textiles had led to centuries of global trade. Thanks to this continued desire for high-quality handmade fabric, many techniques are being kept alive. Neeru Kumar is internationally acclaimed for her handcrafted textiles, which she sells as garments and furnishings. “Hand-spinning and hand-weaving are still possible,” she says. “In our studio in central India, we spin wild tussah yarn with linen and wool, weaving textiles that have a unique character and a strong textural appeal.” For Kumar, it is important to keep these skills intact. “Machine weaving, and the fact that the younger generation is moving away from traditional craft, is a threat to ancient techniques. While we sell fabric across the globe, its creation is rooted in indigenous skills and material.”
Brigitte Singh’s embroidery work
For textile designer Brigitte Singh, fabrics allow her to explore aspects of India’s history. Originally from France, Singh has created designs with a Provençale floral motif that suggest a strong French influence. This isn’t simply fanciful: block-printing traditions in the south of France trace their roots to India; a playful reversal of early trade routes. As Singh’s work suggests, India’s textiles have long had global appeal, with technical and aesthetic borrowings embedded deep in European culture. It is from India that we get the words calico, chintz and seersucker, as well as the Paisley pattern, adopted by British culture and named after the Scottish town.
Handcrafted Indian textiles continue to have a broad appeal. It is possible to buy cushions made from 100-year-old dhurries, heavy cotton rugs, at Joss Graham in south-west London. This fabric has its own history, too: the British introduced the manufacturing process into prisons to occupy the inmates, and by the latter half of the British Raj all jails in India specialised in producing dhurries for government buildings.
Close to Joss Graham is Maharani, a shop started by Sarah Mahaffy, who travels to India regularly to source fabrics. Working directly with designers in India (including Neeru Kumar), her aim is to showcase a range of textiles — from block prints to tie dyes and embroideries — and to encourage interior designers to include Indian fabrics in home furnishings. “Indian textiles are so colourful,” she says. “They’re an attractive alternative to the taupes and greys that many high-street brands and interior designers favour. A quilt or throw giving a lovely splash of colour in a room is very uplifting.”
Embroidered cotton, Gujarat c1700
Once again, colour is at the fore of contemporary interior design. It is at the core of Indian design brand Tiipoi, which was launched by Spandana Gopal at last year’s London Design Festival. “I wanted to create an Indian boutique,” she says. “Nobody really talks about Indian design.” Her textiles are from south India — an area that specialises in silk — and are produced by a traditional weaving community on 16ft-long pick looms. Cushions and floor coverings by Tiipoi feature high contrast colours and are pointedly contemporary.
“Design in India has a very distinct context compared to the west,” says Gopal. “What’s exciting is that design evolves from having a lack of something rather than an excess. India doesn’t have a concept of waste; everything is turned into something else, such as offcuts of fabric being stitched together using the sujani to create something new. The world doesn’t need designers to design objects for the sake of it. Instead we need to think about what design means today.”
The Fabric of India runs at the V&A in London until January 10 2016
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Venue: Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Dates : 3 October 2015 -10 January 2016