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September 26, 2018

The Fabric of a Nation

New Traditions: Influences & Inspirations in Indian Textiles, 1947-2017 — an exhibition at the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur from 20th June to 30th July this year — showcased the changing aesthetic of handmade Indian textiles since Independence. Its curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul shares his insights on the ideas behind the exhibition and the need to look at more recent histories of design in the country

What was the impetus to curate New Traditions: Influences & Inspirations in Indian Textiles, 1947-2017?
There was not a single underlying thought, but several thoughts. My work over the last decade has focused on the histories of design, textiles and fashion in India since Independence in 1947 and their unique trajectories. I have written and lectured about how the evolution of aesthetics in textiles over the last 70 years has mirrored the political, economic and social developments in the country and how these are distinct from textile design, their making and use in other parts of the world. It was while guest-editing a special issue for Marg Publications (between 2015 and 2016) titled Cloth and India: Towards Recent Histories of Indian Textiles, 1947-2015 that I realised that the subject had never received attention by way of a curated exhibition, and I was drawn to the idea. I have been grateful for having found, in the dynamic team at the Jawahar Kala Kendra (which opened in 1993) in Jaipur, a ready partner to commission and present the project.

In what way did this exhibition present Indian textiles in a new light?
They have often been written about and understood through the lens of non-Indians, who tend to observe aesthetic aspects such as opulence and ornamentation and the bright colours visible on our streets. This has led to stereotypes such as ‘Pink is the navy blue of India’ and so on. While such generalisations certainly convey notions about Indian design and its modes of expression that are not entirely incorrect, with this exhibition I tried to present the perspective of someone more familiar with the domain, looking from within and not the outside. I am interested in the way in which textiles in India have consistently responded to the contemporary socio-cultural dynamics. In order to refute the common perception that Indian textiles are bound by static histories and techniques, I suggested how cosmopolitan and innovative they have been over the last century, with a specific emphasis on the post-Independence phase.

The exhibition consisted of five sections. What was the criterion for the divisions?
Each looked at a specific aesthetic aspect which, according to me, revealed the very nature of changes that India has seen since 1947; the chosen pieces have had a lasting influence on the present ecology of textile design, showing how the thoughts behind the look and feel of the fabrics have endured over the decades. The first segment looked at the national movement and how patriotic sentiments were reflected in Indian textiles. Motifs and patterns associated with caste-clan identities gave way to khadi, the symbol of a national identity. The second gallery presented how, in the early 1950s and ’60s, Indian textile design reflected the international art movement of geometrical abstraction. The third gallery looked at a major phase of revival of handmade textiles, whose decorative elements were inspired by India’s historical past. This phase has been instrumental in shaping our contemporary thoughts about fashion, home furnishings and interiors. The fourth showcased various works that used textile techniques in unusual ways — either in larger scales or by using unconventional materials. Many of these were sculptural. The last gallery looked at Indian textiles, which represent an internationally-recognisable vocabulary, and raise questions about whether the signifiers of Indianness in handmade textiles are still relevant when the internet and globalisation have transformed the world into a smaller place.

What drove the selection of prominent names from the fashion industry?
The choice of works was made according to the curatorial narrative of the exhibition, and it was not based on how prominent the names of their makers/designers are. In fact, the focus inadvertently ended up being on lesser-known names such as Nelly Sethna, Toofan Rafai, Ajit Das and Rahul Jain, whose careers have made a huge impact on the textile landscape of India, but who are not celebrated in the same way that others may be. Even to represent the work of India’s ubiquitous brand Fabindia, we chose to present the work of the late Riten Mazumdar, who was one of its first designers, instead of pieces from the company’s more recent collections.

Over the decades, designers have creatively challenged and changed existing notions about fabrics and textiles. Would you give us a few examples of such stories that made an appearance in the exhibition?
I was looking at the impact that designers have had on the broader aesthetic approach to textile making, through which we can understand the philosophies underlying Indian design. All the works in the exhibition were chosen based on their ability to show Indian textiles in contrast to what is usually on display in exhibitions or museums in the country and abroad. In particular, the works in the fourth gallery stood out because they represented experiments outside of the commercial constraints of the fashion or home furnishings industries, and are expressed in a manner that can be interpreted as art and sculpture. Here, the works by textile designer and artist Chandrashekhar Bheda and weaver Mahender Singh, Odisha’s patachitra painter Bhikari Maharana, kalamkari artist Sri Niranjan and fashion designers Aneeth Arora and Rimzim Nadu were commissioned for an earlier exhibition titled Fracture: Indian Textiles, New Conversations which I had co-curated at the Devi Art Foundation between 2012 and 2015, and which was presented between January and June of 2015. These transform the conventional ways in which textile techniques are used and offer a fresh outlook on the potential of Indian textiles.

What were the obstacles you faced as a curator in putting together an exhibit of such magnitude?
The main challenge was how to represent this vast history of over seven decades! There was no way one could include all Indian textile designers, makers, artists and craftspeople and so one had to find a personal approach. That led me to the connections between the works and their relationship to a broader narrative on Indian textiles in the post-Independence period. For instance, in the second gallery, which looks at the influence of the aesthetics of International Modernism on India, I had placed the works of Sethna, David Abraham, Rakesh Thakore and the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad’s students from the 1980s (accessed from the institution’s archives). Sethna set up the weaving workshop at the NID in the 1960s and invited Helena Perheentupa to start the Textile Design department. Perheentupa in turn trained almost two decades of textile design students at the NID, including Abraham and Thakore (A&T).

In what way did you capture new materials and processes of making in the show?
The earliest work in the exhibition was from the 1930s and the most recent from 2018. What I tried to convey was how handmade textiles have responded to new materials, processes and ideas all the time. We normally think of these as being unconventional or synthetic from today’s standpoint, as in the case of the Factory Made Sari or the jamdani sari woven with silicone yarn. Several exhibits however, helped us understand this differently. For instance, in Kutch, conventionally, cotton was not woven in fine qualities, and in the last decade or so, we have seen the rise of such fabric created using hand-spun Kala cotton yarn. So the concepts of newness and innovation are always relative to their time and place.

Could you share an interesting anecdote of the process of setting up the event?
It was spread out over 10 days with Reha Sodhi, the exhibition designer, and it ended up being a really fun experience. Some of my most enduring memories are of how the installation team responded to the textiles when they were opened out for display. Samant’s Factory Made Sari — a full six metres in length — made by joining the metal caps of Thums Up bottles was a big hit. We convinced them that such saris are in fact worn by some of our friends, which had them in splits! It was also amazing to work within the Jawahar Kala Kendra, one of Charles Correa’s most iconic buildings.

As the curator of this retrospective, what would you say its message has been to visitors?
The main intention was to draw attention to the more recent histories of textiles, which are often neglected. In this sense, I have been very satisfied with the viewer engagement as their questions and responses have shown that we were able to spark interest. Presenting the exhibition in Jaipur allowed us to reach a new audience because, more often than not, curated textiles exhibition of this scale are only seen in cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. And finally, with the exhibition being articulated in both English and Hindi, we were finally able to direct such curated content towards audiences than is otherwise possible only through the medium of English.

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