Exhibition: The Fabric of India

Mary Miers previews the latest dazzling highlight of the V&A's current India Festival.

Textiles are woven into the very identity of India. They dominate every scene and travellers throughout history have commented on their astonishing richness and diversity. In Jaipur, at the start of the wedding season, a madder colour predominates. Bolts of orangey-red fabric symbolising fertility adorn haberdashers’ stalls and the small shop booths to which groups of villagers have come down from the hills to negotiate the purchase of bridal saris.

In an embroidery workshop, teams of men sit silently round low frames hooking sequins and silver-gilt threads onto lengths of silk commissioned for wedding outfits. Outside, amid the frenzy of crowds and traffic, a cow stands ankle deep in litter beside a pile of bandanas, those cheap polka-dot cottons derived from the traditional tie-dyeing process, bandhani.

In that congested quarter of the city, the variety and craftsmanship of India’s most ancient commodity is captured in a snapshot. Extend the scope to the macro-scale of an entire continent, and it becomes a subject so complex and far-reaching that the V&A is brave to take it on. But then, no museum is better equipped: thanks to the former India Museum, the breadth of its South Asian textile collections is second to none.

‘The Fabric of India’ tells the story of an industry that has embraced every aspect of Indian life, from the simplest head-cover (odhnl) or floor covering to courtly gifts, temple hangings and cutting-edge fashion.

Encompassing the vast landscape of pre-independence India, it begins by introducing the raw materials and fabrication processes that have produced handmade textiles ranging from the finest Bengal muslin to the most lavish Benares brocade. Regional distinctiveness relates not only to the plant and animal fibres of their making, but the many variations in weaving, dyeing and embroidery.

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For centuries, Gujarat was the hub of innovative weaving, pioneering complex techniques that spread throughout the continent. Benares (now Varanasi) developed shimmering weaves using zari, the metal-wrapped threads also used widely in lustrous embroidery. From Kashmir come pashmina shawls woven with intricate patterns such as the universal boteh motif adopted by Paisley. More utilitarian, double weaves associated with Sindh and Pun-jab produce robust, reversible cottons popular for bedding.

A satin-weave textile called mashru is a silken fabric with a cotton reverse suitable for Muslim clothing (men being forbidden to wear silk against their skin). It is often produced in ikat, the highly skilled process by which threads are resist-dyed with a pattern before being woven. With its characteristic blurred outlines, ikat features in widely differing patterns. A particularly complex double ikat from Gujarat is represented here by a superb sari (patolu).

Much of the character of Indian textiles comes from their embroidery, the diversity of which is demonstrated in an array of hand-stitched pieces, many decorated with sequins, metal foil, wire, pearls, beads, mirror work and even beetles’ wings. Gujarat is renowned for a fine chain stitch suited to naturalistic designs, Punjab for bold satin stitch in floss silks. Other highly prized techniques include the kantha embroidery of Bengal and chikan whitework from Lucknow.

Bed or wallhanging in cotton embroidered with silk, made in Gujarat for export to Europe in about 1700

Bed or wallhanging in cotton embroidered with silk, made in Gujarat for export to Europe in about 1700

The exhibition explores the role of fabric in India’s main religions, Hinduism providing the widest range of sacred textiles. A unique example is a temple hanging from Tamil Nadu depicting scenes from the Ramayana, a monumental work of stitching with appliqué panels made in an area not usually associated with elaborate embroidery.

Paintings and contemporary accounts convey the splendour of textiles in the royal Courts, many of which had their own workshops (karkhanas). In the north, styles were influenced by the elaborate naturalistic decor-ation introduced by sultanate rulers, notably the floral patterns associated with Mughal design that drew influence from Europe as well as Iran. A highlight of this section is Tipu Sultan’s tent, which was brought to England in 1802 by Lady Clive.

Until the 19th century, India dominated the global market for textiles and the cross-fertilisation of styles and traditions is a fascinating theme of the show. From medieval times, Indian artisans skilfully adapted their designs to appeal to foreign buyers. Seven-teenth-century English crewel-work patterns were sent to them to be copied into chintz, one of India’s finest textile inventions, which involves a complex process combining hand-drawn design with mordant and resist dyeing. Perfected on the Coromandel coast, chintz became hugely popular in Europe at all levels of society.

This vast festive room hanging (bhitiya) from Gujarat was found dumped on a New York pavement and given to the V&A in 1994

This vast festive room hanging (bhitiya) from Gujarat was found dumped on a New York pavement and given to the V&A in 1994

Other Anglicised words such as gingham, calico, dungaree, seersucker and bandana convey the extent to which Asian fabrics infiltrated British households. But the Industrial Revolution reversed the direction, so that, by the 1830s, Britain’s textile mills were flooding India with cheaper, machine-made yarns and cloths that threatened to destroy the very craftsmen whose materials they imitated. The effect was far-reaching. It led to an entire resistance movement from the 1890s, embodied by Mahatma Gandhi, who, in 1921, elevated the simple, hand-spun and woven khadi cloth into a symbol of freedom and national identity.

Recent decades have seen a revival of interest in handmade textiles and the integration of traditional techniques into contemporary fashion. The exhibition includes exciting garments from independent studios, most spectacularly those of the leading designer Manish Arora, who employs 250 specialist embroiderers in his Noida workshop and has introduced their superb handwork to the international catwalks.

‘The Fabric of India’, supported by Good Earth, with thanks to Experion and Nirav Modi, is at the V&A, London SW7, from October 3 to January 10, 2016 (020–7942 2000; www.vam.ac.uk). An accompanying book of the same name, edited by Rosemary Crill, is published by the V&A (£30)