What would your house look like if Indian textiles had never been exported? Mine would be bereft of cushions, chair covers, hand towels, tablecloths and napkins, wall hangings, garden parasols, carpets and the riot of colour they create. There would be no pashminas hanging in the hallway, chintz curtains or gorgeous throws made from old saris, and no pile of large, vividly coloured handkerchiefs in my socks drawer. This is not merely the consequence of the British-Indian post-colonial special relationship. “The all-American bandannas,” writes Avalon Fotheringham, in the catalogue of the V&A’s sensational new show, The Fabric of India, “we now associate with everything from the Wild West to inner-city gang violence are the direct successors” to the popular 19th century Bengali handkerchiefs.
How popular? “By the early 1800s, America was ordering many times the quantity of its whole population, the demand for Bengali handkerchiefs expanding with the country.” If the associations with gangsta rap don’t convince you of the ubiquity and cultural importance of Indian textiles, then what about the political aspects? The sale of these same bandannas was prohibited in Britain between 1701 and 1826 (making them profitable for smugglers). The industrial revolution meant Lancashire cotton mills could make imitations of Indian cloth much more cheaply, and the bandanna ban was a form of protectionism.
Indeed, textiles are central to India’s political identity, for the Indian cloths were handmade. The Swadeshi movement was later informed by Gandhi’s vision of an independent Indian peasant economy, which took the cloth known as Khadi as its symbol and the spinning wheel as its emblem. Buying Indian cloth and boycotting imported textiles became an act of resistance to colonial rule, and a gesture of disapproval of European industrial development.
The magnificent V&A show devotes a room to the Gandhi/Nehru disagreement about India’s economic future, exemplified by their differing attitudes to the textile industry. I am just old enough to have seen some of the newsreel footage when it first appeared, and found this section riveting.
That said, the first rooms of the show deal with the technical aspects of cotton and silk production (“wild” Indian silk is less shiny, heavier and more textured than “domesticated” Chinese silk), and weaving, dyeing and printing fabrics, and are gripping. Not least there are some very brief films, one of which finally made me understand how a loom works.
This exhibition, strangely, is the first major exhibition devoted entirely to the India’s textiles. The V&A, boasts its Director, Martin Roth, holds “the greatest collection of them in the world.” Most of these are 19th century, but there are examples over 1,000 years old and, of course, the apogee of Subcontinental textiles was the 17th century Mughal courts.
Textiles were used for religious purposes, though Hindu wall-hangings with narratives drawn from sacred texts are more common than Muslim religious items; the general Islamic feeling against the portrayal of living creatures means religious textiles are mostly confined to prayer rugs. The Mughals used textiles largely to show off the splendour of their courts. Literally the grandest object on display is the infamously tigerish Tipu Sultan’s tent. Its area is more than 58 sq metres, and its original roof and wall are erected in the gallery, with a bench for you to sit on while admiring its printed chintz designs. It was acquired by the British as a spoil of war, when Tipu Sultan’s army lost the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799.
Among the aesthetic highpoints of this mighty show is the c. 1875 Kashmir Map shawl, with its bird’s-eye view of the city of Srinagar, woollen embroidery on twill-woven pashmina, and of staggering complexity. An entire room within a room is taken up with a 20th century Gujarat wall hanging, 17 metres in length, found dumped on the pavement in front of a warehouse in Brooklyn, where it was found by Jerome Burns. It was too heavy to lift, and he enlisted the aid of friends and a van to move it. When he realised its uniqueness, he gave it to the V&A in 1994. It has never been shown before, and if you relish images of elephants (as I do) you’ll be delighted by this.
It ends, as everything does, with fashion. Contemporary Indian fashion is not my scene, but I could see my wife looking elegant in a ravishing, pale gold, silk tie-dyed blouse and salwar designed in 1994-5 by my old friend, Asher Sarabhai, for Raag, her workshop based in Ahmedabad.