In celebration of its India Festival, the V&A presents their ‘Fabric of India’ exhibition. Explore the rich world of traditional handmade Indian textile art, and take a look at our favourite bits…
Words: Bea Renshaw, Subeditor: Tenelle Ottley-Matthew
From a traditional wedding ensemble to a collection of contemporary saris, this exciting exhibition presents over 200 handmade objects – all holding a wealth of history and purpose. ‘The Fabric of India’ comes as the V&A marks its 25th anniversary of the opening of its Nehru Gallery. Taking you on a journey through the ages, it aims to celebrate the variety, expertise and continuous innovation of India’s textile traditions. The show also explores how the younger generation are modifying these traditional methods, to create art, fashion and design in today’s modern world.
1. In The Beginning…
The opening section of the exhibition takes you back to the raw beginnings of the art, with displays of the basic fibres of silk, cotton and wool – highlighting just how vital India’s natural resources are to its traditional methods. Its textiles are so central to its identity, that in ancient Greece and Babylon, the name ‘India’ was shorthand for ‘cotton’. In this section, see the extremely stripped back, traditional techniques that were used in the very beginnings; such as block printing (wooden blocks dipped in colour and applied by hand directly to fabrics), weaving and embroidery. All of these are visually demonstrated through videos, photographs and numerous handmade objects.
Must-sees from this section are a muslin embroidered with green beetle wings, and a child’s jacket heavily embroidered with coloured silk threads and tiny mirrors. Touch the different types of cottons and silks that were used, and see for yourselves the traditional dresses and fabrics, dyed with natural products such as indigo, turmeric and pomegranate.
2. Fabrics For The Rich.
Having seen the basic techniques of exactly how Indian textile art was traditionally created, the exhibition turns its focus onto how they were used. Courts in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries used handmade objects as a way of showing off their grandeur and power. Example’s show the vast scale of some of these pieces – such as a large floor spread which would have been used as a fine summer carpet in the hot months, its floral design acting as an indoor garden. The poppies on the spread were typical of Shah Jahan, who was the fifth Mughal Emperor of India.
Another highlight is a lavish handmade canopy tent named ‘Tipu’s Tent’, which is erect in the third room of the exhibition. Used by Tipu Sultan in the 17th century, the original roof and a section of the wall are on display in the V&A for the first time in a whole generation. You are able to walk underneath its roof and see its intricate floral pattern up close. Also on display are some the V&A’s star pieces, which include a traditional Mughal embroidered hunting jacket and a sparkling gold threaded woman’s dress. They are classed as some of the “finest examples of Mughal dress in existence”, and they are not to be missed!
3. 3rd Century Fabrics.
‘Fabric of India’ looks into the importance that textile art has on India’s economy, and shows exactly how Indian textiles have been exported in trade deals for centuries upon centuries. To demonstrate this, the exhibition displays three of the earliest known surviving fragments of Indian fabric, which range from the 3rd century to the 14th century! The oldest was excavated in China, the other two [that are on display] were found in Egypt, showing the wide geographical spread of the Indian textile trade. As well as these archaeological pieces, the exhibition also showcases a block printing ceremonial textile that was made in the 14th century, and handkerchiefs from the 18th and 19th centuries. The concept of this is truly spectacular, and seeing these ancient artefacts first-hand is an experience in itself.
4. Freedom Fabrics.
Fabrics in India were not only used for trade and domestic garments, but also as important and significant symbols of protest and national identity. The British exploitation of India’s economy and its people brought on the Swadeshi movement (meaning ‘own country’) in the 1890s. It was part of the Indian independence movement, and called on the Indian people to stop purchasing foreign goods and to boycott the system, by strictly buying Indian products only. This powerful movement inspired Mohandas Gandhi, who appealed for the Indian people to spin, weave and wear their own fabrics to create a material called Khadi. Gandhi believed that his would bring employment to the people and help to abolish poverty.
The Khadi cloth became a symbol of the independence movement and of the resistance – so much so, that the spinning wheel used to create the fabric was incorporated into their national flag. The exhibition shows a range of Khadi materials and clothing, which hold a deep significance to India and its identity.
5. Art Meets Fashion.
Having seen how Indian textile art has adapted and developed throughout time, we see how these traditional methods are interpreted in today’s art and fashion world. The V&A explains: “Since the 1950s, revival initiatives have attempted to protect the cultural place of handmade textiles by reintegrating them into the economy. Today, innovative approaches and historic hand-making techniques are evident, from high-end fashion runways to gallery walls.”
The exhibition showcases key pieces from international designers such as Isabel Marant, Hermes, Abraham and Thakore, and Rahul Mishra, showing just how powerful India’s art influence is on the world of fashion. We won’t give away too much about the finale, but we can assure you – you wont be disappointed by the vibrant display.
‘The Fabric of India’ exhibition will run at the V&A from October 3rd 2015 – 10th January 2016, and is open daily from 10.00 – 17.45 and until 22.00 every Friday. Tickets cost £14 or £9 with a valid student card. Other exhibitions, activities and events are being held as part of the India Festival – to find out more and to book online visit www.vam.ac.uk/whatson.