A profusion of colour greets the eye as soon as one enters the exhibition space at Delhi’s Bikaner House. One of the most stunning textiles on display is the intricate double Ikat Telia Rumal weave by master weaver Gajam Govardhana, which features 100 non-repetitive motifs. In contrast, the black and white Spanish Ikat from Majorca uses the weave to create a dreamlike blurry effect. One can see a similar design aesthetic in Abraham & Thakore’s creations, displayed in the foyer, alongside contemporary Ikat works by designers such as Gunjan Jain and Neeru Kumar. Also striking are the large motifs used by Rasul Mirzaahmedov in a special Ikat weave in velvet called bakmal. The generations-old workshop of Mirzaahmedov in Margilan, Uzbekistan, is acknowledged as that country’s living cultural heritage, much like the establishment of the Patan Patola Heritage Museum, managed by master weavers Rohit and Rahul Salvi, in Gujarat. Included in the exhibition are age-old techniques such as the Japanese kasuri, Guatemalan jaspe and Malaysian pua kumbu, which have been interpreted by master weavers and contemporary designers from different regions, giving rise to new design vocabularies.

The exhibition World Ikat Textiles…Ties That Bind, organized by the World Crafts Council, World Crafts Council-Asia Pacific Region (WCC-APR), Delhi Crafts Council and Bikaner House, helps one connect the dots between the different Ikat legacies. Curated by Malaysian architect-designer Edric Ong and Manjari Nirula, vice-president, World Crafts Council Asia Pacific Region, the show features over 100 Ikat items from more than 20 countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Mexico, France, Chile, Tajikistan and India. It took two years to put together the exhibition, which was first shown at the Brunei Gallery, in SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), London, last year.

The process itself involved a series of discoveries and revelations for the curators. “What took me by surprise was that in the 18th century, weavers were working in Nîmes, France. Around the same time, denim was also invented there," says Ong. “It was also novel to see the variations in India, where weavers use mixed media, such as Ikat embellished with brocade."

South-East Asian form of Ikat, at the ‘World Ikat Textiles…Ties That Bind’, Bikaner House in New Delhi.
South-East Asian form of Ikat, at the ‘World Ikat Textiles…Ties That Bind’, Bikaner House in New Delhi.

The India leg of the exhibition features a series of firsts. For instance, the double Ikat, the work of two young artists, Amanda Speer and Dain Dallar, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, is being showcased for the first time.

To see master craftsmen at work, bespoke cultural journeys are being organized to Ikat centres of Gujarat and Hyderabad by Shilpa Sharma, co-founder of the premium online store Jaypore, who also helms the experiential tour organizer Breakaway. On the itinerary are the Patan Patola Museum, and interactions with people like Suraiya Hasan, one of the few remaining weavers of the Telia Rumal, and Archana Shah, who has been documenting the crafts of Gujarat. “It is very important to create context for a particular craft, and interaction is key to that," says Sharma.

At the exhibition, one can see glimpses of rich documentation. For instance, Ong has showcased the intricate warp Ikat textiles known as pua kumbu, indigenous to Borneo—an island shared by Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. “These are ritual cloths which are inspired by dreams conveyed by the weaving goddess, and are known as woven dreams. The status of women is dependent on how well they weave. This is different from the Patan Patola, in which the weavers are all men," he says.

The revival of weaves such as Ikat is not just about reliving memories or taking forward age-old motifs, it is about reinterpreting them in a modern vocabulary—something that Indian fashion designers have been doing successfully over the past couple of years.

Bibhu Mohapatra, who was exposed to Pipli and Ikat work from Odisha while growing up, integrates a lot of these experiences into his designs. “My heritage gives me that edge in making my clothes more modern," he had said in an earlier interview. Craft revivalist Madhu Jain has been interpreting the Ikat traditions of Indonesia, Uzbekistan and India, while taking innovation to another level with bamboo silk Ikat. Designer Suket Dhir too has been working with Ikat weavers in Telangana to incorporate Merino wool into weaves which would otherwise feature cotton or silk.

Care is taken to look beyond the traditional. “We use the technique in a language which is relevant and speaks to our customers everywhere. Years ago, we interpreted the houndstooth pattern in double Ikat. And right now, we are working on a collection in which we are interpreting the Ottoman florals in double Ikat, block print and Jamdani," says David Abraham of Abraham & Thakore.

Gunjan Jain, who started Vriksh, a handwoven textiles studio, in Odisha in 2008, ensures that the cultural significance of the motifs is kept intact while introducing a contemporary touch. Especially striking are her calligraphic works, using the typical Odia curvilinear Ikat. “The calligraphic Ikat, inspired by the Gita Govinda, has been made only in Odisha since the 12th century. Called phetas, these are offered within the Jagannath temple," says Jain.

It was a challenge to balance urban sensibilities with the weavers’ devotional zeal. She gave them a choice to weave in any other verse, apart from the Gita Govinda, and one of the weavers chose the Hanuman Chalisa—a masterpiece featuring the 40 verses in Ikat using natural dyes can be seen at the exhibition. Jain is now working on a collection based on the exchange of design vocabularies between India and South-East Asia over the past 500 years. “I am working on a collection which is derived from Indonesian and south-eastern textiles and shows glimpses of Odia design," says Jain.

World Ikat Textiles…Ties That Bind will be on display till 16 September at Bikaner House. It travels to Malaysia next.

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