The village of Anegundi near Hampi, Karnataka, has many stories woven around it. Legend says it is the mythical Kishkinda from the Ramayan—the kingdom of the vanara king Sugriva, whom Ram and Lakshman meet during their search for the abducted Sita. In more modern times, Anegundi, which means “elephant pit” in Kannada, was a place of great importance in the Vijayanagara kingdom and houses several relics of historical and archaeological interest in the Hampi architectural tradition.
A quiet village on the banks of the Tungabhadra, Anegundi is at once a model of rural life and a significant cultural centre—today, it is also well-known as the headquarters of The Kishkinda Trust, a broad-based non-profit focused on the conservation of the region’s natural and cultural heritage through performances, crafts and sustainable tourism.
It feels right, then, for the storied village to become the site for a unique exhibition—built along the concept of an “unmuseum”—that tells yet another culturally significant tale: that of the sari in India. Curated by textile archivist Mayank Mansingh Kaul, using garments sourced by the Bengaluru-based Registry of Sarees, the exhibition, Red Lilies, Water Birds, which opened on 14 November and will be open for general viewing till 6 December, locates itself in Anegundi with meaning and deliberation. “I made the curatorial decision to move out of formal spaces in big cities—institutions, galleries and museums—around seven years ago. It is important to me to take exhibitions like this to people who would be intimidated by the conventional gallery space—we seek deeper engagement rather than wider viewership,” says Kaul. The exhibition is spread over four heritage homes in Anegundi that have been restored and are maintained by The Kishkinda Trust.
The title Red Lilies, Water Birds refers to the design motifs often found on saris and was inspired by the English translation of a verse from Muttollayiram, an anthology of poems in classical Tamil which sing the praises of three monarchs, one each from the Pandyan, Chola and Chera dynasties, explains Kaul. The specific verse is offered to a Chera prince:
The land of Kothai,
deft wielder of a spear
with Poison-tipped, leaf-shaped head,
knows no turmoil
caused by the water birds.
For when the red lilies
bloom in the waterlogged fields,
the birds panic,
Thinking the water is on fire…
The exhibition features a selection of 108 saris and draped garments narrated through nine themes, which have been acquired by The Registry of Sarees over the past five years. They represent the late 19th to early 20th centuries and comprise textiles from some of the most prominent handloom centres, including Kanchipuram, Venkatagiri, Chanderi, Paithan, Patan, Varanasi, Murshidabad and Sambalpur. The garments were not bought directly from these clusters or from weavers and sellers, however—almost all are previously owned garments acquired by Kaul and Ahalya Matthan, founder of The Registry of Sarees, during their travels across India; collected from individuals who love saris and often donated by families after the death of a loved one.
“Handwoven saris and draped garments in the Indian subcontinent, broadly, comprise three main design elements—the border, the end panel and the field. In the thematic groupings (of this exhibition), they come alive through a variety of fibres, motifs and patterns,” says Kaul. “The drama that unfolds on cloth here casts them aflame with colour and emotion, their changing landscapes reflecting the art, rituals and languages of those who have created them, and those whom they have dressed. To me, they represent the ‘field’ of the poem.”
Exhibition designer Reha Sodhi worked with Kaul and Matthan to display the garments in heritage homes in Anegundi in a way that would make them accessible and real, as opposed to artefacts locked behind glass cases—making it an “unmuseum” of sorts—but this posed logistical challenges as well. “These are all archival garments, part of a textile archive that The Registry of Sarees is building, and we have to take care they are not damaged. Natural light and excessive humidity are destructive to them, so we had to seal the doors and windows of the display spaces and prevent any seepage of water, using lime wash on the walls, which also protects the environment from insects… it took us over a month to set up the entire thing,” says Kaul.
The exhibition is open to viewers in the form of guided walkthroughs in Kannada and English—the effort was to make it less dependent on textual explanations that might have been difficult for local viewers to follow, and to drive a deeper engagement with the garments on display.
The “nine stories” in the title refers to the schematic split of the exhibition. The 108 garments have been split along nine themes that refer to either their particular weave, colour or pattern, to their place of origin, or to their place in a cultural tradition. Among the nine themes are “Kora”, garments made using undyed, unbleached cloth; “Red and White”, the tradition, largely significant in eastern India, of using the two colours in a variety of combinations to convey everything from sensuousness to religiosity; a collection of garments in the ikat weaves of Odisha, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh; a selection of checked and striped weaves from southern India; the art of brocading on fine muslin cloth—uppadas, venkatagiris and chanderis from the southern states; and two sections on Banaras weaves.
Talking about the Banaras sections, Kaul says: “One of the less well-known aspects of the Banarasi tradition is how the weavers customised the silk and brocades for various markets, often making significant departures from known traditions: for instance, the Baroda shalu sari created for the Gaekwads of Baroda, the various motifs they wove into saris for the Mysore royals, or using black, a non-traditional colour, for saris made for Coorg women.”
Meanwhile, the other Banaras section focuses on how the centre was influenced by other schools of design: such as the global Art Deco movement or by the Chinese aesthetic and motifs.
It is these kinds of details and storytelling that make the sari part of a living, breathing tradition rather than an object of academic study, says Kaul. “The idea behind this show was also to decolonise the idea of a museum in some sense. There are two ways to conserve something: You either spend a lot of resources on creating a comprehensive archive that is then sealed away—and I am not disparaging that method, because it works for some things—or you make it part of a continuing tradition,” he adds. “A museum typically is a place where you put dead objects, and the sari is not dead by any means.”
Red Lilies, Water Birds is on till 6 December in Anegundi, Hampi.