In all the talk about the richness of Indian textiles and fabrics, perhaps one aspect seldom given due importance is the art textile artisans have left behind. And that this art reflects not just political and cultural changes, but is also indicative of how new art forms from other countries influenced our designs and patterns as travel and export grew.
The book Rapture: The Art of Indian Textiles examines these journeys through scraps and reams of cloth—tents, tapestries and ceremonial hangings—and spans roughly 500 years, from the 15th-20th centuries. The author, Rahul Jain, a textile researcher, points out in the introduction that while Indian materials such as cotton, silk and wool were exceptional, the patterns created on them were not always entirely unique to textiles. Images on these fabrics belonged to the Indian tradition of surface design (used from pottery to paintings), with patterns inspired by folk art. He adds that there was a blend of the order and elegance of Islamic decoration with the naturalism of ancient Indian arts.
The book is divided into three periods, and Jain tells the stories of 85 textile pieces through folklore, history, geography, religion and art.
Ninety-nine per cent of the textiles studied in the book were created for Indian royalty and temples, patrons in Europe, and South-East, Central and West Asia. These were luxury items, not representative of what the mass market was consuming at the time. Reading about each era, or each piece, brings one a little closer to understanding what influenced our textile artisans, what changed their mindsets and how they understood the importance of commerce even as they struggled to maintain some form of their own identity.
The first 26 pieces in the book belong to the period between the 15th century and the first half of the 17th century. Most of the pieces reviewed from this era were exported to regions such as Egypt, Tibet and Indonesia. Many feature mythical Indian creatures such as the singha vyala or yali, a ferocious feline with protective powers, or makara, a crocodile associated with the river goddess Ganga, or hamsa, a scared goose. Human figures, when they appear, are on their own or in rows, as majestic, monumental figures.
The second group of 45 pieces dates from the middle of the 17th century to the end of the 18th century. The court textiles of this period had a new style of floral decoration—poppies, lilies, irises and tulips—sometimes adapted from Dutch botanical illustrations, often depicted singly as majestic icons placed under architectural niches. Mythical Indian animals and birds all but disappeared and human figures appeared only on pieces meant for foreign lands or for temple rituals.
The last 14 pieces, which span the 19th and 20th centuries, were used in courtly or aristocratic contexts. The graceful Mughal floral decoration is still there, but there is a profusion of animals, birds and human beings. The ambi, kalka and kalgi, or the motif of the unripe mango, also known as Persian cones or the paisley motif, became prominent in this period.
Rapture—The Art of Indian Textiles: By Rahul Jain, Niyogi Books, 244 pages, Rs 3,999.