The Fabric of India: an insight into India's fascinating textile heritage

On Saturday 3rd October, the V&A opened its doors to its latest star exhibition: ‘The Fabric of India’. I had the pleasure of previewing it and, given the V&A’s reputation for exceptional fashion exhibitions, and the fact this was the first major exhibition ever that has purely focused on Indian textiles, I had high expectations.

My standards were also set by the fact I travelled around Northern India last March on a once-in-a-lifetime trip and, whilst it didn’t focus on them, textiles were a recurring theme. In Jodphur I visited an amazing warehouse producing the finest quality pieces for international names such Mulberry, Etro and Hermes, whilst in Maheshawr I stopped by the Rehwa Society, a centre for handloom weaving where craftswomen created the world famous gossamer Mashewari textiles. But all it took was a walk through the streets to appreciate how engrained fabrics are in India’s economic, social, cultural and political heritage. So I was eager to see if, and how, this translated into an exhibition located thousands of miles away.

Side note: Unfortunately, due to photography restrictions and copyright issues, I was unable to include any images from the exhibition. So I've included photos taken on my travels around India instead. Hopefully you'll still enjoy them and, anyway, if I showed pictures of what's in the exhibition, it would ruin half the fun for you!

Warehouse in Jodphur

The strengths of the exhibition lie in the quality of the pieces on display and the various aspects of the textile industry it explores. For example, it’s introductory piece perfectly sets the tone for how it discusses past and present. The houndstooth sari, featuring a chic contrast of the classic British print against solid lime green, directly references India’s colonial history, whilst the shirt element and belt give it a contemporary aesthetic. Another stand out piece is a densely patterned Mughal riding coat in excellent condition that may be a rare survival of a nadiri jacket introduced into the Mughal court by Shah Jahangir (r.1605-27). Bizarrely it was originally offered to the V&A in the 1920s but was only accepted 20 years later! It was also wonderful studying the hugely detailed Kashmir map shawl, and an opulent and romantic wedding ensemble by Sabyaschi Mukherjee, one of today’s most sought-after designers for wedding attire.

The exhibition offers a good balance of old and new and I enjoyed the different mediums employed to explain the origins of the textile industry. A combination of textiles and videos tell the story of how cotton found its roots in India (the world’s earliest surviving woven cotton fragment, dating around 4450-3000 BC, was found in Duwelia Jordan, having been almost definitely imported from an Indus Valley settlement), as well as dyes such as Indigo - its name having derived from the sub-continent itself. Moreover, they bring to life traditional techniques such as block painting, weaving and embroidery.

Rehwa Society, Maheshawr

At the opposite end of the timeline, the exhibition explores India’s textile relationship today by considering how India has been influenced by the West, and vise-versa. So there are pieces by internationally renowned Indian designer Manish Arora, who adapts traditional techniques of embroidery, applique and beading to create elaborate western styles. Additionally, a fabulous collection of ‘new’ saris shines a light on how designers are transforming the iconic outfit to stop its decline in popularity amongst younger women. Conversely, outfits by Western designers, such as Azzedine Alaia and Isabel Marant, demonstrate how they have taken inspiration from India.

I also appreciated the exhibition’s attempt to use textiles to educate the viewer on other aspects of India’s culture. Religion was a particular highlight. Naturally, there are Hindu pieces on show, including a stunningly intricate embroidered temple hanging depicting scenes from the Ramayana. But, quite rightly, other religions are acknowledged too. For example there are textiles from Christianity, from Jane and from Islam. The latter offers one of the exhibition’s most intriguing pieces: a talismanic garment. This simple cotton tunic was inscribed and painted in ink and red and gold paint with verses from the whole of the Quran, and would have been worn under battle dress for protection. It clearly had been worn given the existence of sweat stains, and was fascinating to behold.

I had the fortune of being in India on the Hindu Festival of Holi. This is a temple in Udaipur covered in the coloured powder to celebrate the festival.

Additionally, the exhibition touches on the role textiles played in India’s political and economic history by discussing the Swadeshi movement. It explains how, with Ghandi calling for a boycott of foreign cloth to ensure India’s economic independence, a humble fabric called khadi became an icon of defiance and freedom in the 1920s. Khadi outfits and 'the Ghandi cap' became a sign of protest, demonstrating the power and impact of something as basic as clothing. However, interestingly, whilst Ghandi generally opposed the industrialisation of India, favouring a village-led economy, he did support the Singer Sewing machine.

And the exhibition wouldn’t have been complete without a nod to Bollywood. On show is a dress designed for the film Devdas (2002), the most expensive film ever to date. Designed for its lead actress, Madhuri Dixit, to be worn during a dance sequence, the spectacular dress encrusted with large pieces of mirror and embroidered with gold thread, ended up so heavy that it could only be used in promotional material!

Zardosi - beaded embroidery from Agra

Where the exhibition falls short is in its staging. Perhaps it suffers from being the successor to Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. After all, it was never going to be able to live up to the standard set by the hauntingly bewitching show that cost the museum a record £3m to host. But more could have been done to bring the whole experience to life. Each room has a different perspective, but this isn’t reflected in the setting, so they all blurr into one. Stripped back staging may have been deliberate to allow the pieces to stand out, but when India is renowned for it’s vibrancy and energy, non-descript rooms are disappointing. Even the music is too soft against the noise of the viewers.

The other problem is the contrasting size of the pieces on show. Each room is meant to have a large ‘show-case’ piece, such as the tent of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, but given the shapes of the rooms, it wasn’t immediately obvious what it was. Some are even tucked away around a corner. Moreover, since the other pieces are often small, highlighted for their intricate work, there are large uncomfortable gaps in the rooms. Spatially, the best rooms are the later ‘fashion’ ones as each outfit is roughly the same size.

Ultimately, however, these problems come second to the content, as an exhibition is only as good as the quality of what’s on show. And, thankfully, 'The Fabric of India' doesn't fall foul of this. Overall, it boasts a breathtakingly eclectic range of pieces, and offers the V&A a fantastic opportunity to display pieces that have never been appreciated before. It was never going to be able to do total justice to a sub-continent that is so diverse and rich in culture and, for me, owes its true beauty and uniqueness to its people and surroundings. But, whilst I felt the exhibition lacked a bit of ‘soul’, it does a sound job of offering a small snapshot into India’s heritage through a new and engaging perspective. So it’s well worth a visit.

Traditional Dancing from Udaipur, Rajasthan 

'The Fabric of India' runs from 3rd October 2015 - 10th January 2016 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Tickets are £14. Members go free. For more information click here.

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