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‘The Fabric of India’ – textile’s ‘hidden’ treasures show rich influences

‘The Fabric of India’ – textile’s ‘hidden’ treasures show rich influences

October 2 2015

One of the largest exhibitions of its type ever mounted anywhere in the world, the V&A in London has laid on a spectacular array of items, numbering more than 200, that is sure to educate and enthrall…

THERE was a period when India was the centre of global fashion in much the same way you might imagine of London, New York, Paris and Milan today.

During the period of Mughal rule in India from 1526-1857, Indian clothing and tailoring was arguably the envy of the world.

And the trade of clothes could be traced back far beyond that to around 300CE on the subcontinent and – today, Indian fashion designers are combining ancient techniques and old fabrics to again make a statement to the world.

All this is contained in a new, extensive exhibition, “The Fabric of India” which opens tomorrow (October 3) at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

One of contemporary Indian designers Manish Arora's creations welcomes visitors to 'The Fabric of India'

Created to celebrate the 25th anniversaries of both the founding of the permanent Nehru Gallery at the museum and the Nehru Trust Scholarship Scheme, ‘The Fabric of India’ represents the biggest and most prestigious part of the museum’s own India Festival, which continues with smaller and different displays until the end of this flagship offering.

Rosemary Crill, co-curator of this exhibition and one of the world’s leading experts on ancient textiles, told why this exhibition was particularly thrilling to bring together.

She told us: “I’ve been working on this collection for well over 30 years and I really had a chance to get to know it, and I had this feeling I was sitting on unknown treasures and I really wanted to show people much more than what was here already (in the Nehru Gallery). We had only the space to show people the very good highlights.”

The exhibition is split into six sections and takes the story of Indian textiles from its beginning right through to its modern day and the influence of Indian design techniques not just on Indian designers but western ones too.

Divia Patel, the other curator of “The Fabric of India” specialises in 19th-21st century history, and has brought together the items that tell the story from a Victorian period through to the modern day.

She told “What we are trying to show (in later sections) is how the traditional techniques have inspired contemporary designs – all these (Indian) designers work with traditional techniques, adapt and innovate them and create new pieces and take from their heritage. They are inspired by that – and in the final section you see in the wedding outfits how these skills and craftsmanship continue and it’s not just in the work of Indian designers.”

The range and beauty and scale of items (some taking whole sections of a room to display, such as a bed, a majestic canopy and wall hangings) has rarely been brought together like this outside India.

Rosemary Crill, co-curator 'The Fabric of India'

“We have one of the most important collections of art outside of India and there is something like 10,000 textiles (in the collection in total) and while some are on permanent display in the Nehru Gallery, this is really a chance to get some of the really large pieces out,” explained Patel.

“And we’ve tried to cover everything from politics to contemporary fashion. There is something here for everyone. If you’re interested in Indian history and culture, or fashion, or you want to be inspired by pattern and design or if you want to know about world history, it’s all here,” added Patel, who has been with the V&A for more than 15 years and has a degree in South Asian history and anthropology from SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies).

“It’s one of the few countries, if not the only one where they have this range of skills: embroidery, printing, dying, and weaving,” Patel argued.

Crill said she was driven by a desire to show that even everyday items were striking and that it was a chance for people to see an immense range.

“I wanted to tell people that Indian textiles is about much more than those highlights (on permanent display) and that even everyday things are quite beautiful and show the amazing skills and a range of materials that is quite extraordinary.

“I really wanted to get this stuff out there and really tell people what it was about.”

Divia Patel, co-curator 'The Fabric of India'

One of the perspectives is how Islam and outside influences began to change dress sense in India.

Crill explained to “What was happening was that India was moving away from the indigenous draped garment. A move away from the sari and dhoti and with the Muslim influence you get a much tailored outfit, because of such notions as modesty and covering the body; and there were also influences of people from the North who rode horses and lived in cold countries.

“You get more tailoring as Muslims entered India, around 1000CE and in the 17th century European influence starts to come in more with decorative scheme patterns and you start getting floral motifs and then there were garments imitating items from Iran. There was a real mixture going on.”

‘The Fabric of India’ October 3-January 10 2016, V&A, Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL
Tickets £14 (concessions available)
For more info/ticket information see:

The exhibition is supported by Good Earth India, Experion and NIRAV MODI.

See ACV picture gallery from the exhibition:

SHORT REVIEW: Jason Singh's specially composed soundscape for each section lifts this exhibition experience to a new level, and even if you're not hugely interested in textiles or fashion, there is a lot here to stimulate and fascinate. For any avid follower of South Asian fashion or just fashion of any sort, it's a must see...Sailesh Ram
ACV rating: **** (out of five)
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Written by Asian Culture Vulture

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