It is certainly ironic that the only handloom showcase celebrating our glorious country’s 75th anniversary is held at the National Museum, the country’s largest public museum and a colonial behemoth, which the current government is in the process of removing for a so-called redevelopment. It is certainly ironic that India won its freedom by using the khadi as a symbol of protest and boycott of foreign goods, while this year’s Independence Day saw polyester flags distributed by government agencies.
But the Indian looms are so beautiful (I keep saying that the only thing India makes better than any other country is hand-spun textiles) that I felt nothing but joy and awe. wonderment while visiting ‘Sutr Santati: So. Now. So’. The exhibition features a textile collage of nearly 100 items and is curated by Hospet-based Lavina Baldota. It’s until September 12.
More than 100 artists, designers, weavers and revivalists have collaborated in the realization of this spectacle. Arguably it had the most extensive spectrum of Indian weavings and handicrafts seen so far, with Benarasis, chanderis, mashrus, kora cottons, pashminas, paithanis, woolen hairs and of yak, telias, rumals de chamba and others exposed. They were created through weaving, embroidery, resist dyes, painting, applique, and other forms of yarn and fabric manipulation.
One of the most amazing things I’ve seen is a dupatta called the Jamdani Repertoire, created by Krishna Biswas and designed by Weavers Studio. Jamdani weaving, or dhakai chiffon, is known as the queen of weaves thanks to its intricate 16-step process and sheer near-nudity that made it immensely popular in Europe (Marie Antoinette and Jane Austen were mad fans). The hand-rolled cotton dupatta featured multiple patterns made by an unstructured discontinuous weft, complementary to the standard weft, and drawn on grid paper rather than on the fabric itself.
I discovered the Baroda Shalu, commissioned by the former royals of Baroda from the weavers of Benarasi on special occasions. Made of pure single-ply zari (ek taar) and cotton, this one was gold and looked like a ray of sunshine shimmering on a naked body. It was designed by Shubhanginiraje and Radhikaraje Gaekwad, and manufactured by Saeedur Rahman.
A hanging Shrinathji wall panel was mesmerizing, thanks to the gentle air-conditioned breeze passing through it, as if the lord of Nathdwara and the fashionable pichhwais (intricate paintings used as backdrops behind the idols) were alive and breathing in the room. This one was silk woven in the Patola style – the double-ikat glamor – using seven colors. The panel took five years to create and was designed by Gaurang Shah.
Another beautifully fitted cloth was the Kasavu veshti, the famous white and gold sarong of the Kerala male. Made in Balaramapuram (named after the ruler of ancient Travancore), the kasavu is mounted in a way that reveals its shadow. The words “Some Body Any Body No Body” are woven into the gold border as a commentary on class, caste and gender binaries.
Why are textiles important to us today, when we have the power of e-commerce at our fingertips and international giants like H&M and Zara are readily available? Two reasons: The first, because Indian craftsmanship is a real luxury and specialty item, handcrafted with such finesse. And second, because although they are collectibles and heirlooms, Indian craftsmanship is a stark reminder of how poor our country still is. The story of Indian fashion is the story of Indian craftsmanship, and the story of Indian craftsmanship is the story of Indian hunger.
During one of the panel discussions at this exhibition, the educated daughter of a craftsman stood up and asked a pertinent, if nagging, question: “When I show my father’s work at craft fairs, why does everything does the world ask me for a discount?”