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Krishna in the Garden of Assam: the cultural context of an Indian textile - British Museum

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled Krishna in the Garden of Assam: the cultural context of an Indian textile is on display at the British Museum (Room 91) from January 21 to August 15, 2016.

Assam is today little-known outside the Northeast of India. However, in the late medieval period it was the centre of a vibrant culture of devotion to the Hindu deity Krishna, a movement that was founded by the saint Shankaradeva (died 1568) and which continues to this day.

A striking element of this devotional cult is the re-enactment of scenes from the Life of Krishna, all over Assam but especially on the island of Majuli in the Brahmaputra River during the Ras Lila festival. These Krishna narratives were recorded not only in music, drama and dance, but also in woven textile imagery.

This is the first exhibition in Britain to explore the impressive cultural history of Assam through objects.

The largest surviving example of such a woven silk cloth, or Vrindavani Vastra, will be the centrepiece of this exhibition at the British Museum. One of the most important Indian textiles in the Museum’s collection, it is dated to about 1680 and is today over 9 metres long.

Assam has been renowned for many centuries as a centre for weaving both silk and cotton. The lampas technique of weaving was used to produce the Vrindavani Vastra and this example would have been woven on a wooden draw-loom using two sets of warp and two sets of weft threads. The lampas technique is now lost in India but produced vibrant and highly sophisticated figured textiles between the 16th and 18th centuries.

This textile is associated with the cult of the Hindu god Krishna. It is today made up of 12 strips of woven silk, each one being figured with depictions of the incarnations of Vishnu and with captioned scenes from the life of Krishna, These scenes are recorded in the 10th century text, the Bhagavata Purana, and elaborated in the dramas written by the saint Shankaradeva.

The 12 individual strips were perhaps used to wrap copies of the Bhagavata Purana and decorate the altar used for venerating this text. The episodes depicted include the defeat of the snake-demon Kaliya, the battle with the crane-demon Bakasura, swallowing the forest-fire, and hiding the ‘gopis’ clothes in the trees.

The dramas of Shankaradeva are still performed today, especially at the festival of Ras lila on the island of Majuli.

The later history of these twelve strips of cloth is fascinating. They were taken to Tibet, stitched together to make a massive hanging and then, years later, were discovered in the monastery at Gobshi near Gyantse in southern Tibet during the Younghusband Expedition.

This military foray was sent by Lord Curzon to open a trade route between India and Tibet. The correspondent of The Times on that expedition was Perceval Landon, a close friend of Rudyard Kipling. It was Landon who acquired the textile and then in 1905 gave it to the Museum.

Contemporary commissions from Majuli (dance masks) and from the artists group, Desire Machine Collective, will be on display. The work by DMC, funded by the Gujral Foundation, is a video artwork, a response of the Collective to the Vrindavani Vastra.

The dance masks are of the type used in performances at the annual Ras lila festival. Their acquisition has been funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation. A 3 minute film, shot at the 2014 Ras lila festival introduces the exhibition.

Loans from the British Library are of illustrated manuscript leaves from the Brahmavaivarta Purana. These have very lively painted scenes from the life of Krishna, of great quality.

A remarkable survival, now housed in Chepstow Museum, has also been generously loaned. This is an 18th century English gentleman’s silk ‘banyan’ or dressing gown. The exterior is of subtle monochrome Chinese silk damask while the lining inside is of brilliantly-coloured Assamese Vrindavani Vastra textile with, woven into it, scenes from the life of Krishna as well as bloodthirsty depictions of the lion-man incarnation of Vishnu, Narasimha.

Elements of the exhibition will be shown at the Chepstow Museum following the London display.

The accompanying book written by Curator Richard Blurton is available from the Museum shops or online at Wwww.britishmuseumshoponline.org/”:http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/.

A full public programme accompanies the exhibition, booking line +44 (0)20 7323 8181.

Krishna in the garden of Assam – in Room 91 on February 2 and April 8 at 1.15pm. Free, just drop in.

Gallery talks by Exhibition Curator Richard Blurton, British Museum.

Curator’s introduction – in the BP Lecture Theatre on February 26 at 1.30pm. Free but booking essential.

With Exhibition Curator Richard Blurton, British Museum.

Mudra, manuscript and music from Assam – in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre on March 7 at 1.30pm. Free but booking essential.

Ethnomusicologist and artist-in-residence at the University of Oxford, Dr Menaka P P Bora, discusses her work recreating the rare classical performance traditions of Assam within a contemporary context.

Sattriya Dance Theatre: dance and identity in globalising India – in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre on March 18 at 6.30pm. Tickets: £5, Members/concessions £3.

Award-winning Indian classical dance soloist, choreographer and ethnomusicologist, Dr Menaka P P Bora, presents a dance, theatre and music performance of the 16th-century classical art form from Assam known as Sattriya.

Yoga: austerity, passion and peace – in the BP Lecture Theatre on April 8 from 6.30pm to 8pm. Tickets: £5, Members/concessions £3.

This interdisciplinary panel of experts will examine yoga from ancient Indic times to the present. Chaired by independent scholar and founding director of Calm Energy Yoga Hilary Lewis Ruttley, panellists include Dr Jason Birch of The Hatha Yoga Project at SOAS, novelist, journalist and award-winning BBC broadcaster Jameela Siddiqi, and Sunil Khilnani, Avantha Professor and Director, King’s India Institute.

Myth and the imagination in yoga – in Room 33 on April 9 at 1.15pm. Free, just drop in.

A gallery talk by Hilary Ruttley, founder and owner of Calm Energy Yoga.

Sounds of India – in Room 33 on April 15 from 7pm to 8pm. Free, just drop in (limited seating).

Enjoy an evening of Indian classical music in the South Asia Gallery.

Assam and its neighbours: the evidence of the Vrindavani Vastra – in Room 91 on June 1 and July 14 at 1.15pm. Free, just drop in.

Gallery talks by Exhibition Curator Richard Blurton, British Museum.

Transmission and performance in Krishna’s garden – in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre on July 8 at 10am. More details online in April.

An academic seminar responding to the exhibition.

Threads through Assam – in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre on July 10 at 3pm. Tickets: £3, Members/concessions £2.

A new documentary by director Leona Chaliha.

Image: Body mask of the five-headed serpent demon, Kaliya. Made in the workshop of Hem Chandra Goswami, Chamaguri monastery, Majuli island, Assam. 2015. Funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation. 2015,3041.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG

Tel: 020 7323 8181

Website: www.britishmuseum.org/

Also at the British Museum: Egypt: faith after the pharaohs (until February 7, 2016).