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What 100 books and forgotten carpets tell us about the history of India

Pramod Kumar KG, the craft curator at the Serendipity Arts Festival, explores craft archives and the multiplicity of India through two remarkable exhibitions

A photo from the exhibit India By the Book in the 21st Century at the Serendipity Arts Festival 2022.

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On Sunday, I was at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa with a singular mission to visit two exhibitions: an archival project Forgotten Carpets of the Jaipur Court; and a showcase of the country’s multiplicity through 100 books at India By the Book in the 21st Century.

The book exhibition has tomes on Mumbai's rich jazz history, animals in Buddhist imagination and Dalit visual imagery, among others. The idea is to explore India’s past and present through multiple filters spanning architecture, textiles, children’s stories, ecology and more.

The photographs of carpets from 17th century Jaipur is significant archival material. “The Maháraja of Jeypore is the owner of a large number of carpets of unsurpassed beauty and value, which are believed to have been brought as spoils of war from Cabul by his illustrious ancestor Mahárájá Mán Singh, when he was the powerful viceserent of the Emperor Akbar in Afghánistán.” This quote by author Thomas H Hendley, writer of the book Asian Carpets, is pinned to the wall. It is a goosebump-inducing experience for history novices, like me.

To know more about the shows, I interview curator Pramod Kumar KG. The managing director of the archiving consultancy, Éka Resources, speaks at length on the significance of photography as an archiving tool and the history of imagination. Edited excerpts:

Pramod Kumar KG
Pramod Kumar KG

What is the role of a craft curator at an art festival?
Sometimes we tend to think of art and crafts as separate entities, not realising that the spelling of craft includes the word art; and art itself is the outcome of skill and craft. From the first year of the event (this is the fifth edition), my co-curator Anjana Somany and I have understood the primacy of representing craft at the Serendipity Arts Festival. We examine it not merely through the prism of making of objects, but also explore their histories, archives, memories, and other aspects. The photographs of carpets is a valuable visual record of India’s greatest historic carpet collection. I use that as an example to tell people not to look at craft only in the making of it, or merely in its physicality, but also in different ways in which crafts are thought of.

What are specialist books exactly? How do they offer an alternate lens to look at the ever changing sociopolitical milieu?
Sometimes we are told that the idea of India is just one India. And, in my work and study, I have realised that I can actually pull out 100 Indias at the drop of a hat. And this exhibition is about 100 different Indias, because they are through 100 different filters, mainly 100 different books, all of them published after the year 2000. Each one—be it through performing arts, religion or food—tell different stories of India. When you have such a plethora and diversity of view, how can you think of one India. The starting point was David Schulman’s More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India. It’s one of the most remarkable books ever done. And that made me realise we look at different aspects of history, but have we looked at the history of imagination?

How have these books kept up with the transition from physical to digital?
They have kept up very brilliantly. Four-five books in the exhibition are available for free download. One of them is environmentalist Anupam Mishra’s The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan. There’s another interesting tidbit: I contacted all the authors and got them to send digital video soundbites telling me what the central premise of their book was. Nearly 50 of them responded with enthusiasm and they are available to listen or view at the exhibition.

Could you elaborate on the discovery of the photos of the carpet collection?
A young photography collector by the name of Rajeev Rawat was offered a collection of 159 vintage photographs from one of his travels across the world. He also runs a carpet manufacturing company, and creates design references for his studio. The moment I saw the images, I knew exactly what these carpets were because there are only two known sets of these photographs ever made by A.J.D. Campbell, a curator from the Victoria and Albert museum who was invited by then Maharaja of Jaipur in 1929. These photographs then became the starting point for me to try and explain how the craft archives that existed for more than 90 years went through various cycles of study and documentation. The story of these carpets as craft archives have not existed in any popular accessible form. I said let’s use the images to explain where they came from, who made them, who studied them and put the story together to tell people that even photographs of carpets can contain craft histories. Archives may not exist in the form of written documents, which you and I are used to; some of it could be photographs, old historical material and oral narratives. We need to look at all of these ways of capturing our past, and that has been an extremely important part of our journey. I am actually using one bird to hit many stones.

A photograph to demonstrate the scale of the carpets at the exhibition Forgotten Carpets of the Jaipur Court.
A photograph to demonstrate the scale of the carpets at the exhibition Forgotten Carpets of the Jaipur Court.

Can you tell me something specific that the photographs of carpets reveal?
The history, which it does reveal to us, is that Jaipur, because of its close proximity to the Mughal courts during the rule of Jehangir, Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb, had access to the finest carpets. One of the reasons that we need to look at Jaipur archives is these photographs offer the last glimpse into what imperial Mughal carpets look like and how they were used. Some of them were darbar carpets which were used in formal court proceedings. Their size and scale were unbelievable—one of them is nearly 70 feet long. This leads one to explore how can one study materiality when the material itself is unavailable? All of these different things add up to form a larger story.

What is the relevance of carpets, that are more than 300 years old, to modern times?
Most people who have seen these photographs exclaim, “Oh my god, we are using similar patterns in 2022.” They realise the idiom of carpet design has barely changed in 350 years. One of the problems I find is we are not able to contemporise craft design as much as we aught to do, so that it’s not just a copy of patterns and motifs, but goes beyond the surface level. That is what I am hoping people take back from this show. If you understand craft archives then you are more likely to create new crafts for the country.

The Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa ends on 23 December. To register, visit www.serendipityartsfestival.com

Also read | Where is India's fashion archive?

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