In the day of innumerable clothing chains and the revolution of online shopping it is hard to think of garments as something remarkable. The cheap mass-production of fabrics has made clothes into easily accessible goods and turned shopping into a trivial element of everyday life. The thought of “who made this” and “how much effort went into it” does not really cross our mind when we unpack a brand new jacket that just came in through the post or when we leave a store carrying a bunch of hefty paper bags filled with shiny new garbs.
If you are one of those people, The Fabric of India exhibition at the V&A might be a fresh breath of air to your dispirited approach towards your own clothes and the materials in your life in general. An ode to Indian fabrics and the mesmerizing tradition behind them, this exhibition seems to embody a philosophy of mindful wearing.
A part of the V&A India Festival, this is the first major show to explore the rich and varied history of handmade textiles from India. On display are around 200 objects illustrating the skill, adaptability and artistry of Indian textile makers, including previously unseen artefacts, ranging from the earliest known Indian textile fragments to contemporary fashion.
The exhibition consists of a few different sections, each dedicated to a different area of Indian textile history: religion, luxury, trade, fashion. However, it is the gorgeous setting designed by Gitta Geschwendtner that stands out as soon as you enter. The walls of the rooms are intricately lined with beautiful materials and enhanced by the subdued, atmospheric lighting. The remaining space is filled with the diaphanous fabrics draped in history and the entrancing, experimental soundscapes designed especially for the exhibition by Jason Sing.
Just like the textiles themselves, the exhibition begins with raw materials. It is an opportunity to learn about the centuries-old dyeing techniques behind the opulent colors. Blue dye, for example, is so closely associated with India that ancient Greeks named the color ‘indikos’ (indigo) after the country itself.
The display also presents the numerous methods of ornamentation such as weaving, embroidery, printing and embellishment. Some of the greatest designs were the instantly familiar paisley pattern, known in northern India as “buta”, meaning “flower”; or the breathtaking Map Shawl: an enormous pashmina depicting the entire city of Srinagar in Kashmir in the smallest detail. The hundreds of hours of labor that went into creating this kind of work is a hair-raising thing to think about.
Other sections of the exhibition explore the more practical uses of the materials. Whether worn for rituals, used as decorations for shrines or offered to temples by devotees, textiles played a key role in the religious world of India. There is something completely mystifying about looking at a 16th-century talismanic shirt inscribed with verses from the Quran, worn during battle and illness, bearing numerous sweat stains and signs of wear; or a crumbling Muslim prayer mat which has rested under the knees of worshippers for many centuries. In this respect, fabrics seem to be a much more intimate medium than any religious painting ever created.
For those with a flair for luxury and panache, the ‘Splendid’ section of the exhibition is abundant with lush canopies, decorative hangings and lavish costumes, commissioned by royal courts. The highlight of the display is the enormous, 18th-century Tipu’s tent which the visitors can walk under. An object of great prestige, it has an area of more than 58 square meters and features magnificent designs of printed chintz.
The rest of the exhibition looks at the impact of Indian fabrics on the global trade, emphasizing the ability of Indian artisans to adapt to and meet the needs of different markets. Whether it was Europe, South East Asia or West Africa, the demand for fabrics varied in each region, forcing textile makers to become masters of all trades.
The story culminates in politics with Gandhi’s protest over imported textiles. By the early 20th century, Indian fabrics became a major symbol of resistance to British rule and in the 1930s Gandhi further intensified this by asking Indian people to spin and weave their own yarn and fabric by hand, to produce a cloth known as Khadi.
At first glance, fabrics may seem like a tad monotonous subject to learn about. However, the exhibition is put together in a way that makes it an incredibly consuming, interactive narrative, inspiring one to fall (back) in love with textiles and reconsider their significance as a work of art in its own right.
Fabric of India is at the Victoria & Albert museum until 10th January 2016.
For more information visit vam.ac.uk.