There must be more ways to tell the story of India than its historians and social and cultural anthropologists together can narrate. Can the tale of this nation with its complex conflicts—economic, religious, political and societal—even be told? And if it must, what is that one tool of enquiry that can help express and explain a nation?

For London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), that tool is fabric. Using India’s fabrics to explore its essence, the museum is launching an exhibition, Fabric Of India, next week with more than 200 pieces on display. Supported by design house Good Earth, the exhibition is curated by Rosemary Crill and Divia Patel, both from V&A’s Asian department. It has been designed by Gitta Gschwendtner.

On display will be historical objects such as the mammoth 58 sq. m cloth tent with chintz designs used by Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan from the 18th century, ancient ceremonial banners, sacred cloths, Mughal hunting jackets, textiles lost and found; from the earliest fragments of India’s handmade textiles to contemporary saris.

Mounted as a part of V&A’s ongoing India Festival, which marks 25 years of the museum’s Nehru Gallery and of the Nehru Trust for Indian Collections, which encourages the preservation, study and display of India’s art and cultural heritage, the exhibition showcases craft processes, religious practices and commercial conundrums encoded in fabrics. From dyeing, weaving and printing techniques, threads, handmade traditions, the interpretation of chintz for European markets, the adaptation to exports that affected handloom production, the threat of industrialization, the resistance to it during the British rule in India, the life and times of Khadi, and sacred fabrics, such as a 16th century Islamic talismanic shirt with verses from the Quran inscribed in gold on it, to modern fashion creations by designers, including Manish Arora, Rahul Mishra, Aneeth Arora, Sanjay Garg, Abraham & Thakore and Rajesh Pratap Singh—it is a comprehensive map of India’s textile history and contemporary times. It also includes a piece of couture from Bollywood, the mirrorwork lehnga, by the designer duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, worn by Madhuri Dixit-Nene for the promotions of the 2002 film Devdas.

At a time when India seems confounded by the way its textile history is being excavated and debated, confused by the criss-cross arguments and new debates on textiles, this exhibition may be an eye-opener. For those who merely “love" textiles, this display, a visual showcase of the pride and prejudice embedded in the country’s textile narrative, will help understand challenges, invite political interest and, hopefully, ignite new ideas for sustenance.

Edited excerpts from an email interview with senior curator Crill and curator Patel:

How long did it take to zero in on what to include and what to leave out?

Crill: As with all major V&A exhibitions, it has taken several years to research, conserve and secure the loans (of objects) for the exhibition. We started with the V&A’s own rich and varied collection. We have both been acquiring pieces for the V&A with a future exhibition in mind for very many years. We have some key pieces loaned to us for the show. We have also consulted widely with other experts. However, it was a very difficult and painful, if necessary, process to decide what wonderful pieces to leave out. It was determined by several factors: what story every object tells, its size and how much conservation they might need to get them ready for display. What we have in the show are the best examples of Indian fabric available to us.

Patel: Meeting Dayalal Kudecha (weaver) and Aziz and Suleman Khatri (dyers), among other craftsmen, in Bhuj was highly rewarding in the insight it gave on how they operate on a day-to-day basis and the great skill they have. From their basic workshop environments they produce the most stunning pieces. An indigo clamp-dyed sari that I purchased from Aziz and Suleman is one of the star pieces of our contemporary sari range.

Crill: It was a privilege to explore the reserve collections of the National Museum, in Delhi, and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, in Mumbai, discovering things that haven’t been on display for a long time, if ever.

What kind of handmade work, fashion or drapes from India are most appreciated in the current global market?

Patel: There are many aspects of handmade textiles desirable in the global market today. The skills of block-printing, embroidery and weaving (like shawls) can be seen in everyday high-street fashion and elite designer wear. We have chosen to highlight the global demand for handmade embellishment. Consumers may not be aware that their beaded and embroidered garments are likely to have been created in India. International brands such as Isabel Marant and Hermès, among others, use Indian embroidery skills on their products. Marant and Hermès have each lent a classic piece to the exhibition. We also have an example of a high-street brand to show how this filters down to other income levels.

How have you interpreted Khadi in your exhibition?

Patel: Many visitors to V&A may not be familiar with Khadi, so our initial aim is to introduce everyone to the fabric. We give an overview of India’s Swadeshi movement and show how Khadi was elevated from a humble fabric to a symbol of defiance, through archival footage. We also explore the legacy of Khadi and its continuing significance. Many contemporary fashion designers incorporate the fabric into their collections. The exhibition includes a beautiful sari by Taanbaan (textile historian Rta Kapur Chishti’s label).

Which textile has seen the best reintegration into the economy, making it an example of a commercially viable aspect of India’s handmade legacy?

Patel: It is not possible to say that any particular textile has been reintegrated into the economy and will remain there for a while. Much of current production is subject to fashion, changes in technology, taste and patronage. Chanderi saris have recently become popular because designers have promoted them, but this can change in a very short space of time. Woven silk from Varanasi is receiving attention at the moment because of the outcry over its near-demise. Designers have been brought in to help revive it, but it remains to be seen if this can provide a long-term solution. Chikankari embroidery has enjoyed huge economic success at many levels, but some would argue that the very rough work that has become ubiquitous cannot be regarded as authentic Chikankari. This is a complex question with no easy answer.

The exhibition note talks about an 18th century crucifixion scene made for an Armenian Christian church. What exactly is it?

Armenian merchants settled in many parts of India and were especially prominent in the textile trade from south-east India, where this piece was made. They were instrumental in trading Indian textiles to Iran and other parts of the Middle East (West Asia). This hanging could have been used in an Armenian church in India itself, or in an Armenian settlement in Iran or elsewhere.

On what basis did you choose the fashion designers from India whose work is displayed in the fashion section?

The focus is on those designers using hand-making techniques in really innovative ways. We include designers who extend the possibilities of craft skills to new areas, or examples of interesting relationships between artisan and designer.

In what context has the sari section been curated?

Patel: The finale of the exhibition is called The New Sari. In recent years, designers have generated new interest in the sari by giving it a more contemporary look, experimenting with styling and making it more fashionable and fun to wear.

Fabric Of India will be on from 3 October-10 January, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. For details, visit vam.ac.uk/fabricofindia

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