The title of this remarkable exhibition conjures up visions of colourful saris and ornate embroidery. In practice, the story turns out to be one of empire, trade, craftsmanship and enterprise. During the Mughal era fabric was a marker of wealth and power, while in the 1930s it became an integral part of India’s struggle for independence.
The exhibition follows a timeline through India’s history, starting at the beginning with dyes. Native plants such as indigo and turmeric gave the local population natural colours that were unavailable any where else. Samples of these roots, leaves and barks together with the resulting fabrics demonstrate the skill and expertise that gave Indian fabric makers their initial competitive advantage.
The story develops to include the cottons, silks and fine wools that developed through the country. The exhibits are punctuated by mesmerising films of ancient skills still in practice today. Particularly captivating is the demonstration of Ari embroidery. This exquisite thread embroidery takes years to learn because much of the skill lies in guiding the needle behind the fabric. It is astonishing.
Having established the mastery of the nation’s fabric makers, the exhibition moves through India’s history. The days of the Mughal empire saw the development of sumptuous fabrics with the most delicate embroidery and the use of gems and precious metals.
Two particularly breath taking exhibits are Tipu Sultan’s tent and a hunting jacket. The tent features a beautiful chintz pattern and spans over 58m². It usually resides at Powis Castle only partially on display. For the first time, the roof and wall are being shown together. Standing in the middle looking out, there is a real sense of how magnificent the tent must have been in Tipu Sultan’s time.
The hunting jacket makes for an interesting contrast. Fine silk thread embroidery on a background of white satin depicts a repeating pattern of animals and plant life, creating one of the most densely decorated surviving Mughal garments. It takes a little patient gazing to pick out the tigers, deer and flowers on this truly stunning garment.
The exhibition looks at the use of fabrics by the nation’s various religions and across different uses such as wall hangings and floor spreads, before moving onto the days of Empire. India’s fabric merchants were quick to adapt their fabrics for a European market which in turn fell in love with chintz and muslin. This happy beginning took a dark turn as British rulers exploited India’s fabric industry to both subjugate and profiteer. For the Indian independence movement, cotton became a symbol of freedom.
The story concludes with a look at fabric in modern India. The ancient artisan skills of craftsmen are being conserved by astute designers and through the efforts of regional governments. At the same time, new patterns and styles are being developed for a wealthy, modern urban population.
The story of India’s fabric industry is like no other. The craftsmanship is remarkable and highly prized, both today and through the centuries. The extent of trade across the world is astonishing. Indian fabrics were found in ancient Egypt and sold across Europe and the Far East. Finally, the impact of Indian designers on the patterns and colours we continue to value today is striking. This is an original and enlightening look at an industry woven into the fabric of the nation.