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The Fabric of India - V&A

Exhibition preview

THE Fabric of India, on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum until January 10, 2016, is the first exhibition to fully explore the incomparably rich world of handmade textiles from India.

From the earliest known Indian textile fragments to contemporary fashion, the exhibition illustrates the technical mastery and creativity of Indian textiles and is the highlight of the V&A India Festival.

Celebrating the variety, virtuosity and continuous innovation of India’s textile traditions, The Fabric of India presents approximately 200 objects made by hand.

On display are examples of everyday fabrics and previously unseen treasures; from ancient ceremonial banners to contemporary saris, from sacred temple hangings to bandanna handkerchiefs, to the spectacular tent used by Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), the famed ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore.

The exhibition offers an introduction to the raw materials and processes of making cloth by hand. Displays of the basic fibres of silk, cotton and wool illustrate the importance of India’s natural resources to its textile-making traditions.

The opening section shows fabrics dyed with natural materials such as pomegranate and indigo and the complex techniques of block printing, weaving and embroidery across the ages, together creating a visual compendium of India’s astonishingly diverse array of fabrics.

Highlights range from muslin embroidered with glittering green beetle wings, to a vast wall hanging appliqued with designs of elephants and geometrical patterns, to a boy’s jacket densely embroidered with brightly coloured silk thread and mirrors.

Wealth, power and religious devotion are all expressed through textiles, and the exhibition examines how fabrics were used in courtly and spiritual life. Fabrics created for temples and shrines vary widely in imagery and techniques, depending on the religions context, level of patronage and region of production.

Examples on display include a Hindu narrative cloth in silk lampas weave, depicting avatars of the deity Vishnu dating to around 1570; a 16th-century Islamic talismanic shirt inscribed with verses from the Quran in ink and gold paint; a rare early Jain panel embroidered with silk thread and an 18th-century Crucifixion scene made in South-East India for an Armenian Christian church.

The exhibition also explores the range, opulence, scale and splendour of objects hand made for the rich and powerful courts of 17th to 19th centuries.

Fine hangings and large floor spreads used for decoration in the Mughal and Deccani courts depicting beautifully flowering plants are on display alongside a lavish tent used by the infamous ruler Tipu Sultan. The canopy and a wall of the tent is erected in the gallery, allowing visitors to walk inside it to see the magnificent decoration close at hand.

There are also stunning examples of dress on view, including a glittering woman’s dress and a densely embroidered coat – one of the rarest surviving pieces of Mughal dress.

The historical and ongoing importance of textiles to the economy of India forms a key focus of The Fabric of India, with the exhibition highlighting the prevalence of Indian cloth around the world over millennia. Indian textiles have long been exported globally, as is demonstrated by the display of three of the earliest known surviving fragments of Indian fabric dating back as far as the 3rd century.

A range of pieces designed for foreign export showcase the remarkable ability of Indian artisans to adapt designs and techniques for a wide variety of different markets.

Objects including an outstanding block-printed ceremonial textile from Gujarat, made in the 14th century for the Indonesian market and treasured as an heirloom piece for many centuries, and examples of simple handkerchiefs known as bandanas from Madras and Bengal, pervasive in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Middle East, West Africa and Britain, demonstrate the wide variety of uses of exported Indian fabric.

The global export of Indian textiles became particularly evident in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries through the popularity of chintzes. A grouping of beautiful wall hangings, bed-covers, robes and dresses featuring chintz patterns demonstrate how traditional Indian motifs and techniques were interpreted to appeal to European consumers.

The enormous popularity of such cloth is illustrated through a display of an elegant set of bed-hangings originally belonging to the Austrian Prince Eugene (1663–1736), proof that Indian dyed cotton fabrics were coveted at the highest levels of European society.

The exhibition looks at the changing world as European industrialisation threatened to eradicate Indian handmaking skills the 19th century. Imitations of India’s cloth could be made at lower cost, particularly in British mills, and these fabrics were then imported to India, flooding the market, radically altering India’s textile economy and threatening hand-made production.

Examples of cotton fabrics woven and printed in England for sale in India are displayed to illustrate this phenomenon.

The Fabric of India reveals the consequences of this exchange, illustrating the way in which European developments in industry provoked a resistance movement which saw textiles take on an important role in the development of Indian nationhood and identity. The Swadeshi (‘Own Country’) movement called for Indians to stop buying foreign goods and support indigenous production.

By the early 20th century, Indian textiles became a major symbol of resistance to British rule, and in the 1930s Mahatma Gandhi further compounded this by asking Indian people to spin and weave their own yarn and fabric by hand, to produce a cloth known as Khadi. Wearing, spinning and weaving Khadi became a political tool of the Independence movement.

The Fabric of India displays a selection of contemporary clothing using Khadi, showing that its symbolism remains relevant to this day.

Since the 1950s, revival initiatives have attempted to protect the cultural place of handmade textiles by reintegrating them into the economy. Elaborate wedding attire and film costumes have popularized traditional embellishment techniques and on display is a magnificent wedding outfit by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, one of India’s most important designers.

Today innovative approaches to historic hand-making techniques are evident from high-end fashion runways to gallery walls. The continued global impact of India’s hand-making skills is highlighted with pieces by international brands Hermes and Isabel Marant. Contemporary Indian textile art is on display to illustrate how traditional natural dyes, embroidery and hand painting techniques are being used to create decorative pieces.

The final section of the exhibition explores India’s dynamic fashion industry and its continuity of India’s textile traditions. Many Indian designers are using handmaking techniques in imaginative ways and innovative designs by Manish Arora, Abraham and Thakore, Rahul Mishra, Rajesh Pratap Singh and Aneeth Arora are on display.

The sari, the traditional dress of India, has been embraced in recent years by contemporary designers as an opportunity to combine innovative design with a uniquely Indian identity. A selection of the most exciting saris being produced today is shown as a vibrant finale to the exhibition.

Tickets: £14 (concessions available). V&A Members go free.

Times: Daily from 10am to 5.45pm and until 10pm every Friday.

Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7