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The Festival of India: A Celebration of South East Asian Culture

Posted by
Amrita Ravimohan Nayak
on September 21, 2015 at 11:40 PM

This autumn the Victoria & Albert Museum, London will display in the Festival of India exhibition around 200 objects that illustrate the skills, variety and adaptability of Indian textile makers, ranging from the earliest known Indian textile fragments to contemporary fashion. The exhibition which starts on the 3rd of October 2015 will be on till the 10th of Jnauary 2016.

© Courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum (popularly known as the V&A), London is one of the premier institutes in the world, devoted to showcasing art & design in all formats. It receives more than 3 million visitors every year. The V&A has one of the greatest permanent collections of South Asian arts in the world. This year, the Museum will present a series of exhibitions that will explore the culture of South Asia, both past and present. The India Festival will mark the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Museum’s Nehru Gallery, which displays some of the most important objects from the V&A’s South Asian art collection produced between the 16th and 19th centuries. It is also 25 years since the launch of the Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections (NTICVA), which encourages the study, preservation and display of India’s art and cultural heritage.

One of the major highlights of the India Festival is the ‘Fabric of India’ exhibition, which will explore the rich world of handmade textiles from India. On display will be around 200 objects that illustrate the skills, variety and adaptability of Indian textile makers, ranging from the earliest known Indian textile fragments to contemporary fashion. On display will be examples of everyday fabrics and rare treasures; from ancient ceremonial banners to contemporary saris, from sacred temple hangings to bandana handkerchiefs, to the spectacular tent used by Tipu Sultan, which will be fully erected in the gallery, allowing visitors to walk inside it to see the magnificent decoration to be viewed close at hand. The exhibition will offer an introduction to the raw materials and processes of making cloth by hand. The opening section will reveal the process of using natural dyes such as pomegranate and indigo and the complex techniques of block printing, weaving and embroidery across the ages. 

Wealth, power and religious devotion are all expressed through textiles, and the exhibition will examine how sacred fabrics created for temples and shrines would employ the best of available materials and highest levels of craftsmanship. Examples on display will 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 Jain panel embroidered with silk thread and an 18th-century Crucifixion scene made in South-East India for an Armenian Christian church. 

The historical and ongoing importance of textiles to the economy of India forms a key focus of the exhibition, highlighting the prevalence of Indian cloth around the world over millennia. Indian textiles have long been exported globally, as will be 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 will showcase the remarkable ability of Indian artisans to adapt designs and techniques for a wide variety of different markets. The global export of Indian textiles became particularly evident in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries through the popularity of chintzes. The enormous popularity of such cloth in the West will be illustrated through a display of bed-hangings originally belonging to the Austrian Prince Eugene (1663 – 1736). 

The exhibition looks at the changing world as European industrialisation threatened to eradicate Indian hand-making skills in the 19th century. Imitation versions of India’s cloth could be made at lower cost, particularly in British mills, and these fabrics were then imported to India. Lengths of cotton and simple garments created from European-made materials will be on display to illustrate the phenomenon. 

The consequences of this exchange, illustrating provoked a resistance movement which saw textiles take on an important role in the development of Indian nationhood and identity, particularly through the Swadeshi movement. By the early 20th century, Indian textiles became a major symbol of resistance to colonial rule, and the result was the immense popularity of self-spun Khadi. Through Gandhi, wearing, spinning and weaving Khadi became a political tool of the Independence movement. The Fabric of India will display a selection of contemporary clothing using Khadi, showing that its symbolism remains relevant to this day.

Contemporary Indian textile art will also be on display to illustrate how traditional natural dyes, embroidery and hand painting techniques are being used today to create decorative pieces. The final section will explore India’s fashion industry and its continuity of India’s textile traditions. Many Indian designers are using handmaking techniques in imaginative ways and some innovative designs, such as a selection of the most exciting saris being produced today will serve a vibrant finale to the exhibition.

The Fabric of India, is supported by Good Earth India, along with Experion and Nirav Modi.

Designer : N/A
Photography :Courtesy the Victoria & Albert Museum

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