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August 07, 2019

13 Books That Illustrate India’s Rich But Complex Relationship With Textiles

Compiled by Ojas Kolvankar and Rushmika Banerjee

On National Handloom Day, we asked textile connoisseurs, design experts and tastemakers to share their favourite books on indigenous weaves and how they are influenced by them.

Rapture: The Art of Indian Textiles (2011) by Rahul Jain

“The book traces the evolution of design in historical Indian textiles from the 15th to the early 20th century, spanning an almost 500 year period. This story is told through lavish images of some of the most outstanding textiles made at the highest point of their patronage, in some of the leading collections around the world.” – Mayank Mansingh Kaul, Writer and Curator

Kashmir Shawls: The TAPI Collection (2012) by Steven Cohen, Rosemary Crill, Monique Lévi-Strauss and Jeffrey B Spurr

 

“The power of woven Indian textiles to command trade across the oceans is richly illustrated in this book. The Kashmir shawl, which no lady of fashion could be seen without in 19th century Europe, commanded ever-higher prices, as its intricate tapestry-weave became a rage. European centres reproduced the shawls on the revolutionary jacquard loom as industrialization fueled ‘faster, better and cheaper’ imitations, leading to the extinction of the original weave. Its history bears an ominous warning for today’s rapid migration of handloom to power looms in India, which threatens the very textile skills the world honours.” – Radhi Parekh, founder and director of Artisans

Women’s Work: Textile Art from the Bauhaus (1993) by Sigrid Weltge-Wortmann

 

“This year marks 100 years of the foundation of the Bauhaus, which defined modern design (and education) in the 20th century. The title of the book is significant. As spirited young women were drawn to the post World War I Bauhaus, they soon learned that textiles, in the hierarchy of art and design, were meant to be ‘women’s work’. Their names were unknown. Only recently was Anni Albers acknowledged as a modern and abstract artist in a groundbreaking show at the Tate Modern. Textiles continue to be deprecated in the art-craft hierarchy, even today.” – Radhi Parekh, founder and director of Artisans

Saris: Tradition and Beyond (2010) by Rta Kapur Chishti

 

“A more comprehensive, thoroughly researched book on the sari doesn’t exist. Chishti’s book travels across 14 sari-producing states throughout India to trace the full range and diversity of India’s iconic garment. She surveys the myriad styles, weaves, and designs that give the traditional sari its power, strength and continued relevance today. The full weight of Chishti’s research will be impressive to scholars, designers, and admirers of the sari.” – Rajat Singh, Writer

The Warp and the Weft: Community and Gender Identity Among the Weavers of Banaras (2010) by Vasanthi Raman

 

“Raman paints a portrait of the many hidden hands who make up the term ‘handloom’. Her research into the Muslim weavers of Varanasi shines a light on the ways gender, class and religious identity shape the lives of weaving communities in India, and ultimately shape our understanding of the garment’s production. We understand handloom’s historical ties with the swadeshi movement, but Raman’s book exposes the ways in which plural identities and communal violence are deeply woven within the fabric of the sari.” – Rajat Singh, Writer

Shifting Sands: Kutch: Textiles, Traditions, Transformation (2013) by Archana Shah

 

“This book is a moving tribute to the handmade textiles and clothing of Kutch that explores the key role that textiles play in the continuing narrative of a traditional culture.” – David Abraham, Designer and Co-founder, Abraham & Thakore

Handcrafted Indian Textiles: Tradition and Beyond (2000) by Martand Singh, Rta Kapur Chishti and Rahul Jain

 

“This book looks at the extraordinary textiles developed for the Vishwakarma series of exhibitions (1982-92), which demonstrated the virtuosity of Indian weavers and craftspeople from all over the country in the form of outstanding textiles.” – David Abraham, Designer and Co-founder, Abraham & Thakore

Block Printed Textiles of India: Imprints of Culture (2016) by Eiluned Edwards

 

“Block printed textiles in India have a long history, one that goes back millennia and at the same time continues to have relevance today. This book tells that compelling story, looking at early fragments up to contemporary fashion. The book appeals to me because the topic, though vast, has been well-researched and both the history and the process of production are narrated in an engaging manner with informative images. Block printed fabrics are probably amongst the country’s most familiar textiles and anyone with an interest in them will enjoy Edward’s book.” – Monisha Ahmed, Textile Anthropologist, Co-founder and Executive Director Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation

Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (1996) by Emma Tarlo

 

“In a country with such a rich and varied textile tradition, you’d think we’d be spoilt for choice but what we wear is not always determined by what’s available to us. Tarlo’s book looks at the dilemmas Indians face when deciding what to wear and how our choices are shaped by identity, where we come from and who we are, apart from the fact of what we can afford. She looks at how events and individuals, especially Mahatma Gandhi, in India’s history have shaped our textile manufacture and preferences. You may not always agree with Tarlo, but her book is a fascinating study on the cultural aspects of clothing in India.” – Monisha Ahmed, Textile Anthropologist, Co-founder and Executive Director Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation

Golden sprays and scarlet flowers: Traditional Indian textiles from the Museum of Ethnography, Basel, Switzerland (1986)

 

“It serves as an excellent visual reference to fabrics across the various regions of India.” – Sanjay Garg, Textile Designer and Founder, Raw Mango

Textile Arts of India: Kokyo Hatanaka Collection (1996)

 

“The book explores a great collection of textiles dating from the 17th century to the first half of the 20th century that are painted, block-printed, woven, tie-dyed and embroidered.” – Sanjay Garg, Textile Designer and Founder, Raw Mango

Silk Brocades (2003 and republished in 2008) by Yashodhara Agrawal

 

“I came across this book when I was working in Varanasi for Varanasi weavers’ project of Upasana. I have referred this book many times for handloom its detailed write-up on weaving techniques of Varanasi. This is a great compilation of handloom weaving, as often this kind of research is done by outsiders. Yashodhara ji, however, being a local adds an extra dimension.” – Uma Prajapati, co-founder at Upasana Design Studio

Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014) by Sven Beckert

 

“This book dispels the commonly held notion of cotton as a mere textile commodity. The events of world history have been influenced by cotton in dramatic ways as this book demonstrates. I enjoy the intersection of global history, trade and textiles that are brought together in a unique way to provide a compelling perspective of world events. The book traces the advent of cotton in the subcontinent and its spread through ancient trade routes from India to Europe through the Middle East. Empire of Cotton identifies cotton as the world’s most-traded commodity and as the underlying factor that led to the onset of the industrial revolution and set in motion a train of events that would lead to the emergence of new European colonial powers and ultimately culminate in two world wars. It also establishes the European hunger of cotton as an important driving force in European colonial expeditions and the role of cotton in igniting the American Civil War. This book was recommended to me by none other than Radhika Jayakar (daughter of Indian activist and writer Pupul Jayakar) and is one of my prized possessions.” – K. Radharaman, CEO and Design Head, House of Angadi

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