I’ve visited this exhibition twice – there’s so much to see and take in that a single visit is simply not enough. With more than 200 handmade pieces, mostly from the V&A’s own collection, it’s a feast of colour and texture.
After a fabulous opening printed summer carpet of poppies dating from 1650, the exhibition starts with the raw materials – dyes and fibres. The main species of indigo native to India, Indigofera tinctoria, contains some of the strongest concentrations of the active compound indoxyl, so the Greeks named the plant Indikon, the same word they used for the Indian subcontinent.
But there are other blue dyes available in India, including Strobilanthes cusia, found in Assam, which gives lighter blues when grown in the sun and darker blues when grown in the shade.
Red was obtained from the lac insect (related to the cochineal beetle), Indian madder and chay root, yellow from pomegranate and turmeric.
Samples of dyed pieces included some impressive bandhani, ajrakh and block printing as well as these amazing lahariya turbans.
After a brief diversion to show a bhitiya hanging of appliqué elephants and figures from Gujarat, found on a New York pavement in 1994, the exhibition moves on to fibres. Fascinating videos cover the cultivation of cotton and indigenous “wild”(tasar) silk – I love the way they casually walk around carrying branches of huge caterpillars!
There’s another engrossing video of ari embroidery in the next section on techniques, which includes block printing and weaving. Ari is a kind of chain stitch produced using something that looks like a mini crochet hook. The embroiderer pushes the hook through the cloth and winds the thread around it underneath, so he can’t see what he’s doing, yet works at incredible speed.
There were several pieces in this section that I particularly liked. They included an early 20th-century kantha coverlet. (Interestingly, kantha is a more domestic pursuit done mostly by women, whereas professional embroiderers, such as the ari workers, were men.)
And this border from a woman’s dress embroidered with green beetle wing cases and silver wire.
And this Kashmir shawl embroidered with a map of Srinagar, from about 1870.
The next section on textiles and religion features an impressive temple cloth of printed and dyed cotton showing tales from the Katamaraju epic. Cloths such as these were used in portable shrines (we tried to find someone painting one of these when we were in Ahmedabad but failed).
There was also an intriguing talismanic shirt made of starched cotton minutely inscribed with text from the Koran, which would be worn under battle dress for protection. This one was certainly worn, as you can see the sweat marks in the armpits!
The undoubted highlight of the section on court textiles is Tipu Sultan’s tent, cotton block printed with stylised floral designs, now owned by Powis Castle in Wales.
I also loved the 17th-century Mughal riding coat, densely patterned with ari embroidery of wide-ranging flora and fauna, from lions, gazelles and cranes to daffodils, poppies and irises.
In Britain we are familiar with the popularity of Indian chintz and muslin in the 18th and 19th centuries, giving poorer people who could not afford woven silk the chance to wear colourful patterned fabrics. But Indian fabric fragments from the early centuries AD have been found in China and Egypt, showing that India’s export market was established much earlier.
What is interesting is how the designs were adapted for different markets. Examples in the exhibition include tiny intricate block prints for Thailand, patola (double ikat) for Indonesia and an extraordinary Portuguese 17th-century kantha coverlet embroidered with coats of arms, hunters on horseback and fleets of sailing ships. The photo does not do it justice – it has to be seen to appreciate the detail.
It seems that Britain took a leaf out of India’s book, for after protests by British textile workers in the early 18th century about Indian textile imports, industrialisation in Britain led to the export of cheap machine-made cotton fabric to India, undercutting Indian manufacturers. Fabric samples collected in India were held up as examples of good design, and British manufacturers were encouraged to copy these to sell back to the Indian market.
This led to hybrid products such as a traditional Indian garment, a choli (woman’s bodice), made from fabric printed in England using synthetic dyes in colours like mauve and violet, which are not exactly characteristic Indian colours.
Already unhappy with British rule, Indian mill owners and businesses started calling on people to buy local handmade products and boycott foreign goods. In the 1920s, Gandhi elevated khadi, fabric woven by hand from handspun yarn, into a symbol of defiance and freedom, spinning in public. Hence the spinning wheel on the Indian flag after independence.
After independence, there was a move towards industrialisation and modernisation of the handloom. The exhibition finishes with examples of how modern designers have adapted and developed traditional techniques and materials, using the skills of local artisans.
The Fabric of India runs at the V&A until 10 January.