The Fabric of India

Case studies, Craft, Handloom, Art, Innovation, Contemporization, Museums, Collections

The Fabric of India: Contemporary craft practices and the role of the museum

Patel, Divia

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Issue #002, Winter, 2019                                                                            ISSN: 2581- 9410

1 Introduction

In this essay The Fabric of India exhibition held at the V&A between 3 October 2015 to 10 January 2016, is presented as a case study for examining the role of the museum with respect to contemporary craft practices. The exhibition explored the story of handmade textiles from India by showcasing some 200 objects, the earliest of which dated to 300 CE and the most recent to 2015. The exhibition sought to situate textiles at the heart of India’s culture and economy and to explore their impact around the globe, historically and presently. It celebrated the human skill and ingenuity which has driven creative and technical innovation in textiles over millennia. The exhibition was co-curated by Rosemary Crill (Senior Curator, V&A, now retired) and this author. (fig 1)

Highlighting contemporary practice was intrinsic to the ambition of the exhibition and this was made explicit in the introduction whereby a large 17th century Mughal floor spread hand-painted and dyed with a classic poppy design formed a dramatic backdrop to two contemporary fashion outfits. One of these was the ‘Hound stooth’ sari designed by Abraham & Thakore and handwoven in the ikat technique by craftsmen in the workshop of Shri Govardhana from Puttapaka in Telangana in 2013, and the other was the ‘Butterfly’ dress designed by Manish Arora and hand-embellished with hundreds of individually crafted butterflies made by skilled craftsmen in Arora’s factory in Noida. The three objects spanning a period of several centuries were linked by their use of highly skilled craft practices and their juxtaposition within the gallery space placed contemporary creativity on an equal paring with the historic.

2 Narrative structure and the integration of contemporary practice 

The exhibition narrative took the visitor on a thematic-chronological journey which started with an overview of the materials and techniques required for textile making, to the use of textiles in a religious context, to those used in the royal courts. The next section of the exhibition explored the international trade in Indian handmade textiles which saw them travel to South-East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, America, Europe and Japan. Industrialisation, the rise of nationalism and the role of handmade textiles in modern and contemporary India brought the exhibition to the present day. Throughout these sections the underlying message was the desirability of Indian textiles and the much sought-after skills of the craftspeople who made them.

     Integrating contemporary craft practice into the exhibition began in the first room where samples of the immense variety of natural resources used for textile production were displayed along with examples of the techniques of weaving, dyeing, printing and embellishment. This room was intended to familiarise the audience with textile processes they would be seeing as the progressed through the exhibition. The majority of objects in this section were 19th century and collected at the time of their making, being exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 or subsequent international exhibitions. It was imperative to bring contemporary practice into this section to demonstrate the continuance of those skills into the present day. One of the few more recently made objects on display was a group of fabric samples which illustrated the step by step process of ajrakh block printing created in the workshop of Dr Ismail Mohammad Khatri from Ajrakhpur in Gujarat in 2006. However, it was primarily through film that living practitioners were introduced into the gallery space. Several short films of textile processes were specially commissioned by the museum and interspersed across the room. Shot on location in workshops across India the films ended with an image of all the craftspeople involved along with their names – acknowledging their ownership and authority over these traditional techniques and for the audience linking historic objects to contemporary skills and production. The films proved hugely successful both in the exhibition and online where they continue to be viewed. 

     The succeeding three sections of the exhibition focused on historic textiles after which the narrative led to an examination of the effects of industrialisation on India’s textile industry and the compelling story of Mahatma Gandhi’s politicisation of khadi, hand spun thread handwoven into fabric, into a symbol of national identity during the struggle for India’s Independence from British rule. This economic and political story became the centre point of the exhibition pushing the narrative forward into India’s rise as a modern nation state. The continued production and consumption of khadi today and its perception as a ‘national fabric’ made the inclusion of contemporary khadi vital to the narrative. On display were two outfits that demonstrated the availability of the fabric to different levels of society: A male outfit consisting of a kurta and dhoti typical of those purchased from a Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan, government-run, heavily subsidised retail outlets, and a sari designed and made by Taanbaan, a Delhi based company specialising in khadi weaving and catering for a more elite consumer. 

     Moving into post-Independence India, the exhibition narrative led the visitor through the development of various mechanisms that aimed to find a place for handmade textiles in an industrialising landscape. The setting up of institutions such as the All India Handloom Board in 1952 and the National Institute of Design in 1961 amongst others focused on reviving handloom and handcrafted processes and saw the emergence of the role of the designer as a conduit between artisans and urban markets. The final section of the exhibition most actively explored contemporary craft practices and how they continue to be made relevant, primarily through fashion. 

3 The artisan and the designer

Craft practice in India is full of stories of the loss of skills followed by designer-led revival. As this was a dominant narrative, the exhibition explored products from a variety of workshops showcasing different working relationships between artisan and designer. Established in the 1980s, Brigitte Singh’s workshop based just outside of Jaipur has a reputation for high quality block-printing, specialising in the revival of Mughal motifs. On display was her ‘poppy’ coat which reproduces the classic Mughal floral design first seen at the introduction to the exhibition on the 17th century Mughal floor spread. The pattern has been adapted to suit a loose-fitting choga-style coat. Singh has over the course of thirty years worked with master craftsmen to develop the blocks and dyeing processes required to make prints that are sharp and well-defined. The smaller scale of her workshop and limited production is conducive to a higher level of craftsmanship and the appeal of the products lie in the precision printing of the pattern and the detailing of the finished garment.

     The ‘Disappearing Tiger’ t-shirt designed by Orjit Sen, produced by Bindaas Collective for People Tree, and printed at Chaubundi Block Printing Studio in Kala Dera, Rajasthan in 2014 represents a different model of working. The t-shirt also utilises block-printing but the production is a more collaborative process between artisans and designers. The end product does not rely on the precise placement of the blocks to realise the vision of the designer, rather the patterns are more fluid and layered with the artisans given a free hand to incorporate inconsistencies within the block placements into the pattern. This has led to the development of a very distinct and recognisable aesthetic. People Tree, set up in 1991, is a collective of creative people who have a common social purpose in making products that are unique and not mass produced. Their shop in Delhi’s Connaught Circus has become part of the urban scene selling cult items that appeal to students, artists and those looking for an alternative to mass produced garments. (fig 2)

     A craft narrative that offers a different perspective is the artisan-designer model in which artisans have had access to some professional training. The exhibition included textiles by Aziz Khatri, Dayalal Kudecha and Khalid Amin Khatri who are graduates of the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya (KRV) in Bhuj, Gujarat. Founded by Judy Frater the school provides design education to artisans and encourages them to explore their traditions in a contemporary context. (See Ruth Clifford’s essay in this collection for discussion of design education initiatives for artisans, including KRV). They call themselves artisan-designers and in the exhibition their work was displayed together to reinforce the concept of artisan-led creativity and authorship: Dayalal Kudecha used to weave heavy shawls for the Rabari community in Gujarat but after training at the KRV he developed new design concepts which reinterpret traditional elements of Rabari textiles and translates them into light-weight stoles or saris more suitable for the urban market. The Rabari-inspired stole acquired for the exhibition is one of his most successful designs. Displayed alongside it was Khalid Amin Khatri’s ‘Haji-Ali’ stole. He comes from a family of ajrakh printers and has developed a more free, expressive style in his work which has gained him a reputation as an innovative artist. His exhibition piece had an aerial view of the Haji Ali mosque surrounded by water off the coast of Mumbai, which he remembers from a childhood visit. Aziz Khatri is also from a family of dyers whose skills are regularly used by fashion designers without acknowledgment. However, since graduating he has begun to design as well as make his own pieces for which he is able to claim authorship. His dupatta ‘Kiri Makaudi’ (Ants) was inspired by watching groups of ants moving in amoeba-like forms across the floor. Aziz and his brother Suleman were also responsible for making the ‘Moon’ sari displayed in the finale of the exhibition. One of the most visually striking contemporary pieces in the show, this was made as a co-creative process with designers Nor Black Nor White. 

4 Fashion and contemporary craft practice

Fashion emerged as a major creative force in the 1990s with the establishment of the National Institute of Fashion Technology. Fashion designers have always championed traditional craft skills both for their inherent value and as signifiers of a national identity. An aim of the exhibition was to illustrate how designers routinely work with handloom fabrics or hand embellishments often adapting them to garments with universal silhouettes as is seen in the work of Aneeth Arora, Rahul Mishra and Abraham & Thakore. The outfits on display were typical of their work, Aneeth Arora’s brand Péro was represented by a dress made from handloom jamdani fabric with an undershirt finely detailed with handcrafted button holes, fastenings and seems. The loose fitting cut and attention to detail have become her trademark. Rahul Mishra’s wool-embroidered shift-dress with pattern inspired by M.C. Escher was a part of his 2014 collection that won the International Wool Secretariat prize that year. The jury expressed admiration for the intricate level of handcrafting and the associated implications for sustaining skills and livelihoods of the craftspeople he employs. Abraham & Thakore create an edgier look for the young urban female using bold geometric designs on handloom fabrics with a minimal colour plate of neutrals and primary colours. Although of different generations, all were trained at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad where an emphasis is placed on documenting and preserving India’s craft heritage and this pedagogical influence is acknowledge by all. (fig 3)

     Broadening the perception of craft and what that might comprise of in a contemporary environment was showcased through the work of designers Rimzim Dadu and Manish Arora. Thinking beyond handloom fabrics their work demonstrates that craftsmanship today encompasses a broad range of capabilities including fine machine-stitching and labour-intensive handwork needed for elaborate and often unconventional embellishments. Manish Arora is one of India’s most renowned fashion designers, his exuberant, quirky and elaborate outfits are created using materials such as vinyl and enlarged sequins combined with dense bead work and appliqué. Elaborate craftsmanship is used to dramatic effect – for example, in one outfit, one of the many elements that are combined to make an impactful design is a set of handcrafted silk roses gently shaded and embellished with dew drops. Another example is the ‘Butterfly’ dress with its hand stitched butterflies which took over four months to make. Rimzim Dadu’s recreation of a patola pattern using individually rolled and stitched fine leather strands which are then stitched onto a fabric based to create the visual effect of a patola design is almost as labour intensive as creating the double ikat fabric from which it takes its inspiration. Arora and Dadu are highly respectful of traditional techniques and craftsmanship but their homage is articulated in their vision to expand craft practices beyond conventions rather than replicate them.  

     The final section of the exhibition showcased the sari, that most iconic item of Indian dress which in recent years has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. The influence of fashion designers in this process has been particularly successful in bringing a contemporary look to the sari with a fresh approach to styling and wear-ability. The group of saris displayed in the exhibition catered for a cosmopolitan, affluent generation of women while showcasing Indian textile skills and the enduring appeal of the hand-made. Abraham & Thakore and Raw Mango are two brands that have been at the forefront of developing handloom saris with contemporary appeal. 

5 Engaging with topical debate

Engaging with topical debates, displaying objects and narratives that reflect popular concerns, including discussions in the public programme is part of the museum’s role. The historic global trade in Indian textiles and its reliance on the adaptability of the Indian artisans’ skills was explored in an earlier section of the exhibition. The contemporary manifestation of this narrative focused on the continued demand for Indian craftsmanship in hand-beading and embroidery skills by International designers as well as western high street brands. 

     Western fashion brands sometimes choose not to promote their production in India as this is often associated with cheap mass-manufactured garments and the exploitation of labour. The designers whose work was displayed in the exhibition have cultivated mutually beneficial business relationships with the Indian artisans they employ. They appreciate the great diversity and quality of skills available in India and the ability to create innovative designs for an international clientele. Of the four objects on display, three were produced in the workshop of Maximiliano Modesti’s who set-up Les Ateliers 2M in Mumbai in 1998, specialising in hand-crafted decoration for luxury brands while providing fair wages and good working conditions. He supplies high quality craftsmanship to international fashion houses such as Azzedine Alaïa, Isabel Marant and Hermès. The ‘Cavalcadour Fleuri’ shawl in the exhibition, and now gifted to the museum, has the classic Hermès ‘cavalcadour’ print of a horse harness and bridles which dates to 1981. This recent version is decorated with finely embroidered flowers which took 500 hours to complete. Hermès, with their reputation for high quality products incorporated Indian artisanal skills into their product because of the shared values associated with handcrafted excellence.

     Fast fashion, another topical subject, was not explored in the exhibition but was addressed in the accompanying public programme with a discussion. Exploring this exploitative system of mass producing fashionable cheap clothing for the international market whilst keeping workers in poor conditions and low wages would have displaced the narrative from its focus on the handmade. However, on display in another gallery in the museum was a pair of jeans made in a factory in Bangladesh. They were acquired to highlight contemporary practice in the production of fast fashion in the context of the Rana Plaza disaster which saw thousands of workers killed when the factory in which they worked collapsed. Their plight shocked the world and threw a spotlight on the exploitative nature of the fashion industry. This acquisition was made as part of the Museum’s Rapid Response Collecting strategy which links the V&A collections to global events that have bearing on design and manufacturing. 

     An unexpected object of contention and one which became the focus of debate was a jacket designed by Rajesh Pratap Singh. It was displayed to illustrate the innovative use of digital technology and cross-cultural inspiration. However, the digital reproduction and altering of a traditional ajrakh pattern caused controversy as it was regarded as indicative of the greater trend to devalue labour-intensive and skilled craft practices by producing cheap digitally printed fabrics that imitate traditional hand-crafted surface decoration. Attempts to retain the authenticity of a hand-crafted process led to the introduction in 1999 of the Geographical Indications of Goods Act which was revised in 2003. This enables a community of craftspeople to register their region as the only place within which a product can be made. The distinctiveness of that product is attributed to the region from which it comes. However, the lack of enforcement has made the law fairly ineffectual. The threat of the loss of regional cultural heritage as embodied in craft practices due to technological change has always been present. This jacket is an object of innovation and creativity, it is also an object that illustrates the controversy which surrounded its display.

6 Legacy: Acquisitions and future displays

An important legacy of this exhibition is the range of contemporary objects that have become part of the museum’s permanent collection. The V&A policy (2010) states that the museum collects historical objects if they add to the overall understanding of the existing collections but the major focus of collecting is the 20th and 21st centuries. In its collecting the museum aims to respond to changes in technology and design practice, and reflect changing social contexts which have been the focus of much design innovation. In 2014, the V&A policy gave a much stronger statement on contemporary collecting. With specific reference to South Asia, the museum hopes to:

‘develop its collection of contemporary handloom/hand-dyed/hand-printed textiles from the traditional and modern design arenas by purchase and commission. Recent years have also seen the rapid development of a South Asian fashion industry, much of it based on a revival and elaboration of indigenous types of dress. We aim to collect and document key examples of modern and contemporary clothing, fashion and textiles. We also aim to acquire examples of craft and product design relating to the domestic interior’.

     Temporary exhibitions are often the driving force behind a sustained period of collecting within a focused subject area, and in the case of The Fabric of India the acquisition of contemporary handloom and hand-crafted textiles and dress was essential to illustrating the continuation of craft techniques to the present day. Approximately 80% of the displayed contemporary material has become part of the permanent collection. The V&A’s rich and renowned Indian textiles and dress collection of mainly historic (largely 19th century) material now contains a significant body of contemporary pieces that make it the most wide-ranging collection in the world.

     In addition to the objects noted above, other important acquisitions include a male and female wedding ensemble designed by Sabyasachi Mukherjee. The outfits bring together fine embroidery techniques, sequins and semi-precious beads on layers of hand-woven antique and new fabrics. Through conversation with the designer and his studio it was possible to document where the various components of the two outfits were made, for example, we know that the various types of embroidery were executed in the towns of Bolpur, Barasat, Nodakhali and Daualpur, West Bengal. In the exhibition the outfits illustrated the continued cultural importance of hand-crafted textiles used for special occasions and the desirability of highly elaborate, opulent designs. The democratising of craft practices through a vast copy market where cheaper options at varying levels of quality are available for all brides was written about in a blog-post that accompanied the exhibition.  

     The process of documentation that accompanies a new acquisition enables the museum to capture information that might otherwise be lost and in the case of historic works is often absent. For example, it is only through conversations with designers David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore that we could record that the ‘Hound stooth’ sari was woven in the workshops of Shri Govardhana as that information is not normally required by their clients, however for the museum it is necessary to ascertain as much about the making of the piece as possible. Subsequent research found that Shri Govardhana’s association with handloom weaving dates back to the late 1970s and his skill and openness to innovate in this field was recognised in the Viswakarma exhibition held at the Royal College of Art in 1982. A year later he won a National Crafts Award and his success since then has led to his being awarded one of India’s highest honours, the Padma Shri. This Information brings added value to the sari and adds to the biography of a contemporary craft practitioner. 

     Commissioning can be another route to acquiring for the permanent collection. In the case of the social enterprise Jiyo! it provided a means of recording the making process which would not have been possible otherwise. Jiyo! is brand developed by the Asian Heritage Foundation (AHF), an initiative funded by the World Bank and the Japan Foundation with the objective of reviving crafts clusters across India by investing time in up skilling people at all levels of the process, from the design and making of a product to the accounting, branding and marketing required to sell the product.  Under the Jiyo! brand products were promoted as luxury handcrafted pieces in a bid to shift perceptions of craft beyond that of cheaply produced trinkets. The V&A acquired two saris, a red abstract-patterned sari designed by Hitesh Rawat and Avanish Kumar and hand-woven by Jella Sudharkar using the single ikat technique, and the ‘Pebble stream’ sari. The latter was a collaboration between Swati Kalsi, the designer appointed by the AHF and four young women from Bihar; Rani Kumari, Anisa Kumari, Guriya Kumari and Khushboo Kumari, who were part of the craft cluster identified by the foundation. The commissioning element was kept to a minimum and involved making a choice of one pattern from a sample of four and selecting the colour of the embroidery thread. The original sketched motifs on tracing paper along with photographs of the transfer of the design to fabric and the group embroidery sessions are now part of the museum record for this acquisition. Having the opportunity to document the names of all the women involved in the embroidery process means that full acknowledgment can be given on object labels, this immediately draws attention to the multi-authored nature of the object, personalising it rather than anonymising it under a group credit. (fig 4)

     Through these acquisitions a firm body of collecting contemporary work for the permanent collection has been established. The pieces already acquired are in keeping with our historic collections but are also a reflection of changes in society and technology. They are not a static preservation of tradition but a means of capturing change and the context of that change, and if future generations are to get a sense of the evolution of Indian crafts and designs then continued collecting in this field is vital. 

Inclusion in the permanent collection makes these objects available for future displays and exhibitions where they may offer a different perspective. Some of the objects can be viewed from, for example, the perspective of sustainability and alternative economies, others may be part of themed exhibitions that go beyond a focus on India. The current momentum in the UK for museums to take a more global approach to exhibitions and galleries is a welcome prospect and within this context it is likely that these objects will contribute to a broader transnational dialogue on textiles, fashion and contemporary craft practices. 

 

List of illustrations

Fig. 1: Introductory section of The Fabric of India exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig. 2: The Moving Forward section of The Fabric of India exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig.3 Contemporary Fashion in The Fabric of India exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig.4 Pebble stream sari, tasar silk, designed by Swati Kalsi for Jiyo!, embroidered in  Bihar by Guriya Kumari, Rani Kumari, Anisa Kumari and Khushboo Kumari, India 2011-2012, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Footnotes

Films can be viewed here http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/the-fabric-of-india/nature-and-making/

Bean, S, ‘Gandhi and Khadi, the Fabric of Indian Independence’ in A.B. Weiner and J. Schneider (eds.), Cloth and Human Experience, 1986, pp.360-365. Also, Trevedi, Lisa, Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India, Indiana, 2007

Balram, Singanapali, Thinking Design, Ahmedabad, 1998

 Hellstrom, Krystyna, Jaipur Quilts, New Delhi, 2012, pp.129-137. Also visit to studio and telephone interview November 2014

For a more detailed account see Meeta and Sunny, ‘Chippas of Rajasthan…Bindaas Unlimited’, in Laila Tyabji (ed.), Threads & Voices, Marg, pp.31-43

Interviews with Judy Frater, Aziz and Suleman Khatri, Khalid Amin and Dayalal Kudecha, November 2014

For further discussion on fashion and use of craft practices see Patel, D. India Contemporary Design, Fashion, Graphics, Interiors, 2014, pp.59-75

Kashyap, M. V, ‘Maximilano Modesti’, Border and Fall online, 2013, http://www.borderandfall.com/journal/no-4-covenant/maximiliano-modesti/

See V&A Collecting Policy https://vanda-production-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/09/29/14/25/43/0ef149fc-de8d-4c49-a29b-eb9fdb171a22/VA-COLLECTIONS-DEVELOPMENT-POLICY-2014-rev1.pdf, p.5

Edwards, E. Sustaining Cultural Heritage? The case of contemporary Indian block prints in Asian Textiles, No.63, February 2016, pp.3-9 

V&A Collecting Policy 2010, http://www.vam.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/176967/v-and-a-collections-development-policy.pdf, p.4

V&A Collecting Policy 2014  https://vanda-production-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/09/29/14/25/43/0ef149fc-de8d-4c49-a29b-eb9fdb171a22/VA-COLLECTIONS-DEVELOPMENT-POLICY-2014-rev1.pdf, pp.3-9

Ibid, p.9

Interview with designer in his studio in Kolkata, 24 March 2014 and subsequent email exchange. 

Singh, M. Visvakarma II, Development Commissioner, Handlooms, Government of India, 1987

In 1965 the Office of Development Commissioner, Handicrafts introduced the National Crafts Award scheme which confers annual awards to the most outstanding craftspeople.

Asian Heritage Foundation, Jiyo: Believe, Buy, Belong (New Delhi: Asian Heritage Foundation, c.2009). Interview with Rajiv Sethi and visit to the studio, 15 February 2010 and 15 November 2010.

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