A new exhibition maps the history of Indian textiles through a presentation of classical and folk traditions

At Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra, a mammoth exhibition titled New Traditions attempts to map the journey of Indian textiles through the 70 years after its independence. The curator, Mayank Mansingh Kaul, spoke to Firstpost about the challenges involved in surveying such a long history, the crucial shifts Indian fabric has undergone over the years, the influence of Western modernism and the need to educate people about the history of textiles from India.

How did you conceive of this exhibition?

I have been interested in the histories of design and textiles in India in the post-Independence period for a while now. And my practice as a writer and curator largely looks at the trajectories that these fields have taken from the mid-20th century to now. When Pooja Sood, director general of the Jawahar Kala Kendra, approached me and suggested the idea for an exhibition on Indian textiles, I felt that both the venue and the city itself, Jaipur, would lend themselves to an exhibition of this scope. The aesthetic and cultural ideas which the design of the Jawahar Kala Kendra suggests — as one of independent India's most iconic architectural works by Charles Correa — are similar to those that several decades of India's experiments with handmade textiles also convey.

Further, Jaipur has played an important role in the revival of hand-crafted textiles in India, whether this is through the birth of some of India's first lifestyle brands in textiles or as a production centre for textile-based products exported abroad. These stories are often not made public, with most of the city museums showcasing historical collections of textiles. I was excited at the prospect of being able to connect such older traditions to the present.

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Some of the textiles on display at New Traditions. All photographs courtesy of Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur

What were the immediate challenges of tracking a history this long and wide in scope?

I already had a wish-list of textiles and works for display that I would ideally like to be part of the exhibition! We have finally presented 72 textiles which represent the work of more than 50 artists, master craftspeople, designers, brands and organisations, drawn from 41 lenders. The immediate first challenge therefore was to bring these in, and coordinating the requests for loaning them from various cities within a very short span of time. Further, one could attempt to present the long and complex histories of handmade textiles in India from the 1940s onward in hundreds of works, and this would still not be enough. So the next challenge was to choose works which are not just a mere representation of the designers and artists who have designed or made them, but which would also convey broader concepts and various chronological periods.

In the history of Indian textiles, what are the most crucial shifts or interventions that have led to improvements?

There have been a lot of factors that have contributed to the sustained production of and interest in handmade textiles in India. These include government policy, private entrepreneurship, the rise of urban and international markets and a variety of educational and creative pedagogies in art and design. Further, being a diverse country, the dynamics of cultural influences and inspirations have played a crucial role in constantly informing new designs and aesthetics.

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What was the contribution of individuals, from policy makers to the likes of Pupul Jayakar, and Martand Singh after her?

The involvement of individuals like Pupul Jayakar and Martand Singh in the revival of handmade textiles was largely possible because of the support they had from the government in the 1950s to the early 90s, which enabled a state-supported ecology for the arts and culture. The present ecology in design and the arts can be directly linked to their foundational vision and contributions, whether seen in the formation of institutions, networks, or in developing a contemporary identity for textiles, design and fashion in India.

Has modernism, the production of mass fabrics, inspired by Eurocentric designs served any good?

The influence of international modernism, mechanisation, or West-centric designs is an inevitability and cannot be ignored. In fact, Indian handmade traditions in textiles have engaged with such phenomena and responded to them in their own ways. So I do not think such developments can be viewed from simplistic perspectives of being bad or good. They are part of our reality and for a writer and curator like me, they become important cultural markers to study. What is, however, interesting is that despite such large-scale mechanisation, new traditions in handlooms and handcrafted textiles are also visible, and India still continues to maintain a large skill-base in hand manufacture. This is unparalleled anywhere in the world and merits more detailed discussion.

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Are we now seeing a shift towards the old, with people's renewed interest?

From the 1980s onward, we have seen a renewed interest in India's historical past and the nature of revival therefore, has drawn from pre-colonial expressions of art and design. The aesthetics of bridal wear for men and women is a good example from recent years, where contemporary fashion has exaggerated the original standards of decoration to enormous proportions. Even in interior design, India seems to be fascinated by its decadent and ornamental past!

Khadi is, for example, considered synonymous with the nationalist movement. The fabrics of tribal communities and smaller cultures haven’t received as much attention. How difficult is it to fill that gap even today, given the sheer variety of narratives we have?

I think taking the example of khadi is very relevant here. Its association with coarse cotton has often obscured the history of very fine hand-spun and hand-woven cotton which was traded as far back as the first century A D with the Romans from India. Such fine-quality khadi is still made in parts of Bengal, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh today. As hand-spun and handwoven fabric, khadi's legacy survives today more in wool and silk than in cotton itself. This is illustrated by the display of handspun fabric from nomadic communities in Kutch and Ladakh in the exhibition.

So the exhibition is in fact an attempt to present textiles from the so-called classical and folk, through the urban and rural and from not only designers, but also non-governmental organisations working at the grass root level to workshops supplying to the most discerning clients internationally. The idea is to connect these fields and areas which are often seen as separate from each other, as interacting with each other constantly. Curatorial projects like this exhibition can help us fill the gap, so can mainstream journalism and academic writing on the subjects.

Having said that, it is important to point out that I do not adhere to the conventional references of 'tribal' or 'smaller' cultures. I think we have sufficient alternative ways of looking at such communities and cultures today.

People who are not abreast of the situation in the textile industry often think of designers as limited to fashion weeks, and therefore associate the industry with a kind of elitism. Is the ground reality different? How are design projects helping preserve heritage and techniques, and what can be done to educate people about them?

Textile innovation is taking place in India at several levels. This may be through the more public face of fashion designers and contemporary artists, or through brands and popular labels. Simultaneously this may be through grassroots-led development work, where hand-manufactured textiles are seen as a source of livelihood and economic empowerment. Also, while certain handmade traditions may be dying, there are other regions whether they are thriving and suggest the invention of new traditions altogether. The exhibition tries to capture such complexities and layers.

Exhibitions like this one are mainly educational in nature, and further outreach of design-led projects in the field of heritage can be channelled through television, social media and the internet. There has been an increase in tourism to textile centres, so promoting such avenues could also go a long way in addressing the urban-rural divide that you speak of.

New Traditions: The influences and inspirations in Indian textiles from 1947 to 2017 is on display at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, till 30 July


Updated Date: Jul 26, 2018 12:40 PM

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