Since independence, the discourse on textiles has been focused on revival, with an effort to document and preserve forms and techniques. Over the past decade, however, there has been a shift—while textiles such as chintz have been reimagined in a contemporary context by artists such as Renuka Reddy, designers like Amit Aggarwal have taken traditional textile elements and juxtaposed them with radical silhouettes. The conversation seems to be moving from conservation to innovation.
In an interview with Lounge, textile designer and curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul talks about the shifts, the new trend of master craftspersons envisioning small museums around their best pieces, and the continuing relevance of private collections like Lekha Poddar’s. Edited excerpts:
What is missing from the ongoing conversation around textiles?
A major aspect of conversations on Indian textiles and handlooms has been around revival. But it is important to clarify that this is from the perspective of state-led initiatives, not-for-profits and those working with communities at the grassroots. The innovation, which took place in the private sector 1960s onwards, has not been acknowledged. There were huge incentives for exports in the 1970s-80s, which led to the first generation of export houses. Those paved the way for the current scenario where large Indian companies cater to the world. There have been a lot of new developments in design, materials and technologies here that we either haven’t documented or paid enough attention to.
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Further, there is no comprehensive archive of work by any of the major Indian fashion and textile designers which is being shown publicly. Anywhere else in the world, an influential and successful company with a provenance of over 50-60 years would have had a museum by now. In fact, the entire private sector has not put out its archives, even if they do exist. While this may be a reflection of a systemic problem—a lot of export houses produce for companies abroad, so they can’t show their work in India—this is indeed a glaring gap.
It is also concerning that today, revival has become a fashionable word, with so many designers claiming to be ‘sustainable’, ‘doing good’ for the crafts sector and so on, without the necessary means to qualify such claims. There is a lot of posturing which needs to be questioned.
Figures like Pupul Jayakar and Martand Singh were pivotal in the conservation effort. Who, in your opinion, are the newer names who will be remembered for their contribution when India turns 100?
We must bear in mind that work by these iconic personalities received very long periods of public patronage. They achieved what they could with huge government support. We haven’t seen that level of governmental involvement in a while . However, today, there are many people who are doing very involved work, and its impact will be felt in time to come. For instance, Juhi Pandey, who was earlier director of an organisation called Khamir in Kutch, Gujarat, has now moved on to Shillong, where she is heading a new Khadi centre for excellence, set up by the government. During the pandemic, she came together with various other organisations to form a network for supporting craftspeople. I have observed her work and feel that her contribution to community building will be significantly felt in the decades to come.
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There is also the emergence of private museums, which is noteworthy—The Shrujan Museum in Kutch and The Jigmat Couture Museum in Leh being examples, aside from study centres like The Registry of Sarees, and so on. I myself am involved with a new initiative called TVAM Foundation in Pune, started by Rasika Wakalkar, which is dedicated to research on textiles of the Deccan. I feel that such private-led efforts will be amplified in the near future. Then you have ateliers like Vastrakala in Chennai and the Chanakya School in Mumbai. Though a lot of their work is geared towards the international market, in 25 years we will hopefully get a chance to see their work in a public space.
In your extensive travels across the country for research, what are the major changes you notice at the grassroots?
The most important development is that a lot of artisans and craftspersons from family lineages have become very successful entrepreneurs. Their children are going to design schools and will forge a new master craftsperson-artisan-designer profile. This is welcome. Also, master weavers like Gajam Govardhan in Telangana are deciding to reserve their best pieces for their own unique private museums.
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There is a lot of work being done on chintz in India, to separate it from its colonial origins. Are there textile forms that are waiting to be explored?
Wherever you go in the country, numerous small to big efforts are amplifying local forms and techniques. I was in Ladakh recently, and it was exciting to see a number of young designers, who have come back after studying elsewhere and are working with pashmina and local traditions. In the next decade, we will see a reimagination of traditions by them. Chintz continues to be fascinating,for it involves lengthy processes of cloth treatment, resist painting and natural dyeing to achieve the levels seen in historical masterpieces. When artists like Renuka Reddy are able to triumph them, then we know that such difficult traditions also stand a chance for a new lease of life.
Is there an archive/private collection that will be extremely significant in the years to come?
Yes, Lekha Poddar’s collection is significant, and largely unpublished. She and her son, Anupam, set up the Devi Art Foundation, which has primarily focused on contemporary visual art from across India and South Asia. With every big curatorial project of theirs, they have tried to address different aspects of the contemporary ecosystem in India, whether video art or the vernacular. I myself co-curated an exhibition, titled Fracture—Indian Textiles, New Conversations (2015, at the Devi Art Foundation), to look at the contemporary in Indian textiles with them. This kind of interest in the contemporary through special commissions has not been seen in any other Indian art collector. Even though hers is a small collection, it is at the same time representative of the period from 15th century onwards, thus becoming a great reference point for researchers, who would like an overview of Indian textiles, the continuities and changes within a broad time frame.
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Could you talk about the highlights of the Lekha Poddar collection?
Lekha has, until recently, been one of the main patrons of the ASHA workshop run by the eminent textile scholar Rahul Jain, reviving 17th-18th century period Safavid and Mughal textiles. Last year, the late textile expert Martand Singh’s collection of the Sarees of India, which were acquired under his trust, Amr Vastra Kosh, and which he worked on with Rta Kapur Chishti, has merged with hers. It comprises almost 1,500 saris, dhotis and unstitched apparel. With her plans to open this up for study we will have post-independent India’s first collection, which will represent the rural mainstream of what the country was wearing in handlooms until the early 2000s.