Now the Victoria & Albert Museum is hosting the first major textiles exhibition to focus on India, one of the world’s most influential producers of fabric. The Fabric of India explores the country’s multifaceted world of handmade textiles from the third to the 21st centuries.
Pioneer and innovator
More than 200 exhibits tell a story of dazzling invention, artistry and beauty. They range from raw cotton and humble, undyed cloths to the spectacular royal tent of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of Mysore.
On show are cloths woven or brocaded with pure gold and silver-wrapped threads; hand-painted and printed 18th-century chintzes; ikats and tie-dyes, and the finest warm and gauzy Shahtoosh fabrics woven from the underbelly hair of antelope. From hankies to ceremonial hangings, it’s all here.
Fabrics have been woven in all corners of the world, but India became the pioneer and innovator. Its climate is suitable for growing several types of cotton and it has three indigenous silk moths, as well as the Chinese mulberry moth.
Natural dyestuffs abound. The distinctive indigo blue has been obtained for centuries by processing the plant’s leaves, while scale insects have long been used to produce crimson dyes. Yellow dye hails from turmeric or pomegranate shells. Interestingly, because traditional black dyes rotted cloth, black was — and still is — little-used, adding to the vibrant colourfulness associated with Indian textiles.
The subcontinent has always had a vast population employed in this labour-intensive work, and the handmade textiles industry is still one of its biggest, after agriculture.
In Indian homes, whether lowly or palatial, textiles have been traditionally used for hangings, floor coverings and seat coverings. In royal Mughal tents in the 17th century, they were so valuable and gorgeous that looking after the royal tent was seen as a part of divine worship.
The tent of Tipu Sultan is one of the show’s highlights. With an area of 624sq ft — as big as a small two-bedroom flat — it will be erected in the gallery. Lined with cotton that’s block-printed and painted with gorgeous flowers, it’s a magical meadow inside. The V&A also owns the life-size wooden “Tipu’s tiger”, a carved mechanical beast depicted mauling a man.
Tipu was famously defeated by the British in 1799, when his tent became a spoil of Edward Clive, 1st Earl of Powis and Governor of Madras, who took it home to Wales. It was used for years there as a marquee for garden parties, before it went on display at Powis Castle and Garden.
Just as fascinating is the story of humble bandana handkerchiefs. The Indian word “bandhana” means “to tie” in Hindi, and the name stuck.
In the 18th century there was a booming trade of Indian-made hankies going to Europe, despite them being banned between 1701 and 1826 to encourage home production. But huge quantities were smuggled in all the same.
There was a similar European lust for Indian-flowered chintzes — glazed cotton, beautifully printed and painted with floral designs. These versatile fabrics could be used for everything from dresses to bed hangings and spreads. More practical and affordable than silk, there’s a set of 18th-century chintz bed hangings on show, too.
Today, Indian fabrics are still highly prized and handmade skills flourish anew. The V&A shop offers some gorgeous silks from different parts of India, showcasing different techniques, while Bedeck and Good Earth offer fine bed linens and cushions via their own websites. The history that goes into these ordinary things adds to their power to enhance everyday life.
- The Fabric of India exhibition runs from October 3 to January 10, 2016 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, SW7.