India's cultural heritage consists of numerous intangible and tangible components, many of which represent the zenith of human achievement.
Our great monuments and texts reflect the knowledge and know-how that was intrinsic to society and signify our country’s scientific and material wealth. Our myriad schools of dance and music, coupled with the varied art forms, are a testament to the richness of India's cultural legacy.
Small wonder then that a culture as diverse as ours should enjoy such an imponderable variety of textiles and crafts that have been passed on to us as part of our cultural inheritance.
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Textiles are the symbols of our rich and varied heritage. From the vibrant colours of the Rajasthani bandhej to the intricate embroideries of Kashmir, from the bright patolas of Gujarat to the glamour of the eternal Kanjeevarams of Tamil Nadu, Indian textiles are a palimpsest of our great civilisation.
The antecedents of our textile heritage can be traced to a multitude of sources. The earliest forms of textiles that were found at the Indus Valley indicate a most advanced culture of textile usage in what has long been called the cradle of human civilisation.
A large body of evidence points to the Indian subcontinent as being the very seat of cotton agriculture and weaving in ancient times. From here, this knowledge spread east to China and Southeast Asia and to Persia and the rest of West Asia.
Over time, Indian textiles have assimilated a variety of techniques, which have borne the stamp of its indigenous people.
While weaving and knitting have been practised since time immemorial, many of the current schools of embroidery and weaving were introduced to India by a combination of trade, migration and conquest.
Trade with other ancient civilisations such as Persia and China introduced Ajrakh, Tanchoi and Zorastrian embroidery techniques. At the same time, the Mughal imprint can be found in the carpets of Kashmir and the textiles of Banaras.
In the southern part of India, newer and more majestic traditions arose. Under the influence of the triumvirate of the Chola, Chera and Pandya empires, India’s love affair with silk was accorded much patronage.
The references to textile adornments in Sangam literature further lend credence to the belief that a succession of Dravidian dynasties used textile as an expression of their cultural values.
That textiles have been a part of our evolution as a society is beyond doubt, but there's a need to emphasise their role in our cultural mores.
The practice of using uncut cloth as a form of attire has been in prevalence since the earliest days of our civilization. Driven by the ancient belief that the universe itself is a vast unending fabric woven by God, the Ultimate Master Weaver, the use of uncut cloth was accorded ritual importance in many traditions.
The advent of the British Raj marks the most recent chapter in this incredible saga of textiles. The British policy of using India as a source of raw material and a captive market for British mill-made fabric symbolised India’s economic exploitation under the Raj. As a result, the Indian Freedom movement gained momentum with the open call to abandon the British cloth, thus cementing the historical linkage of our nation to textiles.
With the shifting sands of global economic power, we are witnessing the dawn of a new era. There can be better representations of India’s inordinate “soft power” than her rich and varied textiles.
Many of these textiles are enjoying a revival of sorts not witnessed since the early rushes of independence. It is clearly no longer fashionable to remain ignorant of Indian textiles at soirees and galas, fashion weeks and weddings. But this, I believe, is only the beginning.
As our country completes 74 years of independence, I am happy to report that just as the idea of India has endured, so will her textiles.
K.H. Radharaman is the chief executive officer and principal designer of The House of Angadi.