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Textiles from the city of light

  • Pra-Kashi showcases the finest in contemporary weaving by reinventing obsolete techniques
  • Besides showcasing objects from the National Museum’s collection, it features textiles woven over the past 25 years at Asha, a silk-weaving workshop in Varanasi

Reproduction of a ‘qanat’ from an imperial Mughal tent circa 1650
Reproduction of a ‘qanat’ from an imperial Mughal tent circa 1650 (Photo: Courtesy Eka Archiving Services)

There is an awed hush in the exhibition hall on the first floor of the National Museum, Delhi, as visitors walk around in wide-eyed wonder. The dimly lit room has an array of exquisite textiles that shimmer and shine. These form part of the exhibition Pra-Kashi, presented by the National Museum in collaboration with the Devi Art Foundation and curated by Pramod Kumar K.G. of Eka Archiving Services. Besides showcasing 21 objects—miniature paintings, jewellery objects and textiles—from the museum’s own collection and some from private collections, it features 46 textiles woven on traditional Indian drawlooms over the past 25 years at Asha, a silk-weaving workshop in Varanasi. Some of the masterpieces created at the workshop, under the guidance of textile scholar Rahul Jain, have served to reinvent textiles and complex weaving techniques of opulent court silks—now obsolete—such as patterned velvet, lampas, voided velvet, samite and taqueté.

A triptych of silk, silver and silver-gilt in the ‘samite’ weave.
A triptych of silk, silver and silver-gilt in the ‘samite’ weave. (Photo: Courtesy Eka Archiving Services)

One is drawn to the lush, ruby-red qanats, or tent panels, glowing with the sheen of patterns done in real gold and silver. This is a reproduction of a woven silk qanat from an Imperial Mughal tent ensemble circa 1650, in the collection of The Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad. In another corner of the gallery, one can see a samite weave shawl in silk and silver-gilt thread, from the Suresh Neotia and family collection (Kolkata), hanging by rollers. Then there is a triptych with figurative images adapted from The Last Judgement fresco, created in the 16th century in Vatican City.

“These are techniques that were prevalent during specific time periods on the Silk Route over the past 2,000 years. These have been expressed here in the most sophisticated manner through patterned luxury silk with gilt threads. But when you look at them, they no longer appear to be just textiles. Rather, they transcend their woven nature and appear to have been painted and gilded," says Deepshikha Kalsi, founder of the Textile Conservation Studio, who has helped mount the show.

The show’s title establishes a link between the textiles and the use of silver and gold threads: pra for prakash, or the glowing light reflected in the waters running through Varanasi, or Kashi—the only place where the drawloom is still used.

It is dedicated to the memory of art collector Suresh Neotia and textile revivalist Martand Singh—the two people who supported Jain when he started Asha.

Another highlight from the show is a silk brocaded ghagra from the National Museum, with silver-gilt thread and a design inspired by the traditional shikargah or hunting theme. “It was really interesting to put up the ghagra using just magnets, with least intervention. Preserving the integrity of the object is most important. Lighting has also been kept low so as not to damage the fabric because colour alteration from fading is a permanent loss," says Kalsi, who has used customized mounting processes for each piece of textile. “It’s about understanding the subjective need of every object and treating it with sensitivity."

Pra-Kashi is on view at the National Museum till 8 October.

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