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Martand Singh revisited

What emerges from a retrospective of the late Martand Singh's work in textiles in Delhi is that a tribute to him is really a tribute to the weavers he championed

Double Ikat panels by Govardhan, 1981, both at the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum in New Delhi Photo: Devi Art Foundation.
Double Ikat panels by Govardhan, 1981, both at the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum in New Delhi Photo: Devi Art Foundation.

M.Kailasam, R. Sundarajan, J. K. Reddiya, Chhotalal Salvi, Bakshu, Seva Ram, Sri Prakash, Hanumant, S. V. Bhandge, G. J. More, Swaleh Ansari, Vithal Dasji, B. Kannaiah, P. Sivaraman, Ramgulam Jugalkishore, Radha Mohan, G. Govardhan, Bhadresh Bhagat, Ikramuddin, V. R. Shetye, Nasir Khan, H. A. Jabbar, Adimoolam. These are only some of the artists and master weavers whose works are being shown in A Search In Five Directions—Textiles From The Vishwakarma, currently on view at the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum in New Delhi. The exhibition is a tribute to the vision and work of textile expert and curator Martand Singh, who died last year, and has been curated by Rakesh Thakore, Rta Kapur Chishti and Rahul Jain. It has been organized in collaboration with the Devi Art Foundation.

Mapu—as Singh was widely known—led a pioneering series of government-led interventions from the late 1970s to the 1990s that aimed at the documentation and revival of handmade textiles in India. These culminated in seven exhibitions, under the aegis of Vishwakarma, which were shown in major Indian cities, and internationally in the UK, US, France, Sweden and China. Abroad, they were exhibited as part of the Festivals Of India, a series of cultural diplomacy exchanges with other countries that included projects in the fields of visual arts, performing arts, design and fashion. Initiated by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and under the overall leadership of Pupul Jayakar, these formed the first post-independence series of sustained and consolidated efforts to project the contemporary creative practices of the country internationally.

Pigment-painted Pichvai by Vithaldasji, Nathdwara, 1981. Photo: Devi Art Foundation.

It may be relevant to see the Vishwakarma exhibitions at first as part of a broader trajectory. In the first few years, independent India received two main aesthetic streams in textiles: of Khadi and swadeshi manufacture, and courtly patronage. One had ensured that the traditional skills of hand-spinning, hand-weaving and related textile hand-skills were not entirely lost during an otherwise devastating colonial rule. And the other, that the most refined and complex forms of excellence received patronage from the royal, aristocratic and wealthy mercantile elites. Through the 1950s and 1960s, with the Central government supporting design and architecture that was influenced by American and Euro-centric models of modernism, such hand-manufacture and arts came to be consciously differentiated as “crafts".

With the rise of urban artists and designers, the relatively rural bases of textile production came to be represented largely through notions of their “mass" capacities, delivered by faceless and anonymous “crafts people". Government support was primarily aimed at enabling livelihood generation for the maximum number of such artisans. By the 1970s, Indian mechanized-textile industry had developed rapidly and mill-made cloth had become popular. Calico, a prominent mill in Ahmedabad, had founded a museum to house a collection of Indian historical textiles, at the suggestion of renowned historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. It was here that Mapu served as director for almost a decade before getting involved in the Vishwakarma interventions. Interestingly, the title—Vishwakarma—was borrowed from one of Coomaraswamy’s publications. The word Vishwakarma itself refers to the name of a Hindu god traditionally honouring hand-craftsmanship and today, an annual festival that worships even machines and the factory-made.

The first of the textile exhibitions, Vishwakarma—Master Weavers, was held at the Royal College of Art in London in 1981. This later travelled to 26 cities in the US. The textiles presented attempted to match the finest examples of historical samples in museum collections and make them contemporary; this required the revitalization of traditional skills which had lost patronage, in many cases, in the preceding century and before. Today, when the faces of Indian fashion designers are sloganeered as the messiahs of crafts people and weavers, it is worth noting that this exhibition projected, as the chief protagonists of its sophisticated textile arts, the makers themselves. And for the 10 years that I had known Mapu, it was the names of these master weavers and artists that came up in our conversations repeatedly.

(Extreme left): Martand Singh. Photo: HT Archive

In fact, they were central to his reflections of the decade-long period that saw him, through the Vishwakarma interventions, travel across the entire country. With the gift of a remarkably fine-tuned photographic memory, he could recall specifically the individual skills and creative inputs of these artists. He acknowledged how much he had learnt from them, and their role in the collaborative projects got equal mention in the exhibition catalogues. Artists, technicians, designers, all were mentioned alongside in no conscious hierarchy, quite unlike the scenario today when crafts people are at best under-notes, though this scenario has been challenged to some extent in recent years. Many of them worked at the Weavers’ Service Centres which had been set up by the Central government to facilitate design and technical resources for the handmade textiles sector. Some of them were from families of master artisans, yet others were drawn from the fresh pool of fine art college and design school graduates.

From research and mapping, graphic design and exhibition mounting, to the actual sampling and product development, the Vishwakarma exhibitions stimulated innovation and dynamic creative collaborations. In many centres where production of certain textiles was in the last stages, it got a new lease of life. In others, new traditions were introduced. In many regions, the uses of traditional textiles underwent changes and new forms evolved. Assessed from today’s standpoint, the explorations that ensued laid the foundations of developments in the non-governmental and private sectors of fashion and home furnishings. Their role in enabling the present ecology of contemporary hand-artisanship, is foundational.

On a recent trip to Hyderabad, I met G. Govardhan, who had worked on some of the Ikat commissions for Vishwakarma. Apart from running a major enterprise today that supplies fabrics all over the country, he is in the process of setting up a small museum with a collection of textiles he has acquired over the years, along with the choicest samples of his own work.

With the gift of a remarkably fine-tuned photographic memory, Mapu could recall specifically the individual skills and creative inputs of artists-

Over the years, I have met several others with similar success stories. In Varanasi, the Vishwakarma commissions involved small companies and entrepreneurs, almost all of whom have seen significant success in India’s post-liberalized economy. Several of the artists involved, such as Ajit Das and Adimoolam, have gone on to build studio practices, showing and being collected by discerning art collectors. Almost two decades after the last of Mapu’s government projects in textiles, he is viewed with awe and admiration among every section of the handcrafted textile community in India, right down to the grass roots.

Parallel to the Vishwakarma exhibitions, from the early 1980s onwards, Mapu also led an equally ambitious series of projects to research the various unstitched forms of women’s apparel, “Saris Of India".

Mapu also got involved with a few private projects. One was an exhibition, Textiles And Costumes Of Royal India, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fashion and Costume Institute in New York, in 1984-85, where he worked closely with its head Diana Vreeland, who was to become his close friend. In the years post Vishwakarma, Khadi became another major project, in which handspun and handwoven cotton from Bengal and Andhra Pradesh was revived, with a catalogue of 108 varieties of such fabrics being woven in India in the early 2000s. By then Mapu had become the chairperson of the UK trust for the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, and became engaged in pioneering architectural restoration.

So powerful was his preceding public role in textiles that this phase of his life and career have received comparatively less attention. What is even less known is that for the last decade of his life, he lived in Mussoorie, pursuing a personal interest in the study of precious gems and jewellery.

The current exhibition is a reminder of how state-supported initiatives in pre-liberalization India not only laid the foundations of the handcraft infrastructure in the country, but also helped set the highest standards of excellence in artisanship and creativity. As a tribute, it commemorates his unique eye, but in my view, must be seen ultimately for his own faith and appreciation of the numerous artists and master weavers who continue to keep alive the dynamic traditions of textile arts and manufacture that have brought India both renown and wealth for millennia.

A Search In Five Directions: Textiles From The Vishwakarma Exhibitions is on till 31 March at the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum in New Delhi.

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