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Celebrating India’s textile heritage

A Delhi show marks75 years of India’s independence by reinforcing the value of traditional fabric and embroidery

'Freeway', by Mumbai’s Chanakya School of Craft, on display at the National Museum.
'Freeway', by Mumbai’s Chanakya School of Craft, on display at the National Museum.

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It was two years ago that textiles revivalist Lavina Baldota first thought of bringing together textile traditions from the length and breadth of India under one roof. And when covid-19 and lockdowns kept us indoors in 2020, Baldota, who aspires to build a textiles museum, spent months zeroing in on the artisans, craftspeople and designers who could seamlessly craft the theme she had in mind—India—on to one textile of their choosing that reinforced the value of the fabric.

The result: Over 60 artists, from Manish Malhotra, Rinku Aggarwal, Tarun Tahiliani and Jigmat Normu to Ajay Bhoj, Vaishali S., Mahua Lahiri and Umang Hatheesing, have each presented their interpretation of independent India on fabric.

Also read: Future of textiles: The craftsperson-designer is here

All 106 pieces are on display at Delhi’s National Museum, as part of Sutr Santati: Then. Now. Next, till 20 September. Fibres like kandu and kala cotton, mulberry and wild silks, camel and sheep wool, and goat and yak hair have been used to promote the ideals of organic and slow consumerism. When it comes to processes, the creators have employed resist-dyeing (dyeing with patterns), printing, painting and appliqué.

Gurvinder Kaur Gundev's ‘Rukh: Tree Of Life’ (in Phulkari with red base)
Gurvinder Kaur Gundev's ‘Rukh: Tree Of Life’ (in Phulkari with red base)

“It’s very strange, you know, textile has been part of the independence movement, yet we don’t see or talk about them as much or even discuss the role they have played in shaping our country,” Baldota says when we meet at the exhibition venue. “(Mahatma) Gandhi ensured that every household had the charkha, the swadeshi movement, our handloom—they played a role in making people self-reliant,” she says, pointing to an 8x8ft piece that has Gandhi and his charkha woven into a handspun Khadi base material.

Displayed at the centre of the exhibition venue, the piece, from Mumbai’s Chanakya School of Craft, is called Freeway. Artisans from Kashmir, Bengal and Kutch spent over three months combining feather stitch, stem stitch, crochet and long and hook needle, among other techniques, to create an abstract cultural landscape that depicts the idea of “self-independence and how different craft forms can blend seamlessly. When a viewer sees the work, I want them to reflect internally and think about what independence means to them,” says Karishma Swali, the brain behind the work, on the phone from Mumbai. When Swali, the creative director of Chanakya, learnt of the show’s theme, India, her first thought was ahimsa. “That’s what Gandhi always insisted on… self-reliance, sustainability, unity, diversity. Our piece tries to capture that essence of how we can be so different yet so similar.”

While white pigeons circle the sun in Freeway, beige-coloured sparrows, made using the supplementary weft technique, run across Pragati Mathur’s Sone Ki Chidiya. Mathur, a textile artist from Bengaluru, was a little confused by the theme. After all, how do you create a luxurious piece of textile that’s age and gender neutral, and captures the distinct and diverse nature of India, without being kitsch? She came up with Sone Ki Chidiya, an odhna that looks like a vibrant river of gold. A single touch (visitors are encouraged to touch and feel the fabric; you can’t buy it) gives you an immediate sense of how light it is, and how easy to drape. “It’s the tissue technique; silk warp and zari weft,” Mathur explains. “I used gold because it’s considered auspicious and sone ki chidiya because Romans called us the golden sparrow (owing to India’s wealth in ancient times),” she explains.

‘Sone Ki Chidiya’ by Pragati Mathur; and (right) ‘The Awakening’ by Gaurav Gupta.
‘Sone Ki Chidiya’ by Pragati Mathur; and (right) ‘The Awakening’ by Gaurav Gupta.

It took three months for two Karnataka weavers, both fifth-generation master weavers of pit loom who have adapted to the treadle loom, to create the piece on a 240-hook jacquard loom. To shine the light on the importance of repurposing vintage textile, Mathur has repurposed an 80-90 years old brocade sari in the border of the odhna, a historically important piece of textile that was worn from Kashmir (in wool) to Rajasthan (cotton) and Deccan (silk). The extra shine of the brocade and subtle bling of crystals make the piece elegant and funky enough to be worn with a kurta, sari, even jeans.

In Nazam (poem), three artisans from Kashmir have presented a colourful interpretation of a past-meets-present-meets-future design. “It’s about our ‘phygital’ reality,” says Wajahat Hussain Rather, who conceptualised the shawl. He’s the founder of the clothing label Raffughar. Combining embroidery motifs like paisleys and pixelated motifs and use of natural dyes, the artisans have given shape to a piece that contemporises traditional embroidery. “There’s also kasidakari (a traditional form of embroidery), and hand pleating is inspired by the khatambandh craft (an almost forgotten art of making ceilings by joining small pieces of wood into each other, forming geometrical patterns). There’s just so much in the past, we just have to look.”

Wajahat Hussain Rather's Nazm
Wajahat Hussain Rather's Nazm

That was exactly what Gurvinder Kaur Gundev, a design student at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, did while envisioning Rukh: Tree Of Life. The 1x1m wall panel shows the almost lost art of phulkari. “What you get in the market is essentially embroidery of block-printed geometric patterns. In the original way, you count the number of threads and create a pattern out of it,” says Gundev, who’s doing research on phulkari.

The highlight of her piece, of cotton khaddar created by three artisans over four months, is that it can be connected to different faiths. “In pre-Partition Punjab, we had Hindu, Sikh and Muslim artisans,” she explains. “Muslims used to only make geometric patterns since their faith didn’t allow them to create figurative ones, while the Hindus and Sikhs made both.”

As I am about to leave I come across Satyamev Jayate—A Motto That Unites, a stunningly lit up piece of Parsi gara by designer Ashdeen Lilaowala. It has Satyamev Jayate, or truth alone triumphs, written in 22 languages. The panel next to the piece explains the idea: “In terms of foreseeing a future for the embroidery tradition, a need is felt to strike the perfect balance between keeping its core alive, with innovation in its applications.”

That holds true for all textiles and embroideries. The good news, this exhibition shows, is that the process has begun.

Also read: Where are India's textile museums?

Sutr Santati: Then. Now. Next is on view at Delhi’s National Museum till 20 September, 10am-6pm (closed on Mondays).




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