An almost sari-length piece of red silk with gold Sujani work on it can look like a bridal garment. But what if it was mounted to symbolize the abode of an angry goddess? Or, if the creator of a carpet lends it the contours of a flying carpet in the way he displays it, a flyaway kit for your imagination?

Fracture: Indian Textiles, New Conversations, the exhibition now on display in Gurgaon, Haryana, launches a war against clichés in the use, perception and potential of handmade textiles. Startling in parts, surprising and thoughtfully conceptualized, it assimilates work done by graphic and fashion designers, visual artists, master craftspeople, and a film-maker. It involves the art, design and technology of textiles.

The show, co-curated by textile exponent and author Rahul Jain, who was recently awarded the Padma Shri, textile curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul and designer Sanjay Garg, builds on a project involving an array of textile-art commissions from 2000-14 by Lekha and Anupam Poddar, founders of the Gurgaon-based Devi Art Foundation. “We commissioned most of these works about three years back to explore the break in our textile traditions and the return to reinterpretation," says Kaul, explaining the word “fracture" as a break to “mend" again. He adds that no reflective work on handmade textiles has been attempted so far.

Jain, Kaul and Garg say they decided to present this show as the culmination of dialogues with practitioners of craft as art. Indeed, many such conversations between the artists and curators are reproduced in dialogue form and mounted on the walls.

Most of the works are a collaboration between two or more artists—one an artisan or craftsperson, and the other a graphic, visual or fashion designer. In some cases, the conversations have been mediated by a third artist or a crafts group.

An artwork showing the pre-weaving patterning process of the double Ikat weave by Akhila Krishnan, Neha Puri Dhir and Govindbhai
An artwork showing the pre-weaving patterning process of the double Ikat weave by Akhila Krishnan, Neha Puri Dhir and Govindbhai

New Delhi-based textile artist Swati Kalsi’s stand-alone work with Jharkhand’s Sujani and quilting technique uses red and gold threads to provoke thoughts about a shrine. Designer Aneeth Arora has employed handwoven lace to create what appears to be an exquisite and large mosquito-net square space, a veritable mosquito net (my interpretation) in dull white. It could be a private but see-through space, or a delicate trap.

Fashion designer Manish Arora and Varanasi weaver Hashim Mohammed have used Banarasi brocades in abstract patterns. Another work by visual artist Astha Butail and Varanasi master-weavers recreates gold brocade signifying hiranya, the gold cloth mentioned in the Rig Veda. The installation symbolizes the golden egg, hiranyagarbha, the womb of all creation.

A riveting fibreglass bust of a bespectacled and older woman created by Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala and Islam Jaherul shows very fine Gara embroidery work, used quite unusually. Its pristine minimalism “busts" familiar notions about the excess of colour and busy motifs associated with Gara.

In another case, an artwork by London-based film-maker and performance artist Akhila Krishnan, with Vadodara-based textile artist Neha Puri Dhir and Patola weaver Govindbhai from Patan, shows the pre-weaving patterning process of the weave, yielding a completely new pattern instead of the familiar double Ikat.

One piece is just a story narration about school uniforms created with the traditional cloth of a North-Eastern community, displaying the “mending fracture" theme, vulnerably and beautifully. You break away from tradition, but you mend too with it.

Each creation is conceptualized to give the viewer a historical idea of a particular hand-crafted textile, but with shifts in the visual language showing artistic evolution. Collaborations include a range of urban-rural artists working with different mediums, and everyone who helped execute something has been credited.

There are representations by Lucknow-based Charu Wadhwa, who works with mukaish, and one by New Delhi-based sculptor Sachin George Sebastian. Graphic designer Ishan Khosla has worked with master block-printer Sandeep Kumar, while textile artist Parasmita Singh has collaborated with Assam’s Kocha Rabha weavers. New Delhi-based visual artist Meera Narula has worked with embroiderer Asif Shaikh of Ahmedabad, while Mumbai’s master screen-printer Shaikh Mohammad Hussain has collaborated with Bhikari Moharana, a traditional patachitra artist from Puri. There are others.

Disentangling textiles from current traps, this exhibition raises pertinent questions. Some come from the curators themselves. “Why must ‘artisanal’ only mean the handmade? Why can’t digital art, machine embroidery and screen-printing begin to be included in the idea of Indian artisanal?" asks Jain. How can you make this show relevant and provocative for those who don’t speak or read English and are not deeply engaged with intellectualizing art or detaching it from tradition? questions Garg.

So is this is a good representation of contemporary textile art and designers? Yes and no. Yes, because it seeds interest in the unexplored dimensions of textiles, with the potential to start new explorations. Some of the work is so engrossing that you don’t care who made what, and that’s a triumph. And no, because in parts it is too intellectualized to communicate fluidly with the spectator—especially the conversations mounted on walls. Also, while it tells the engaged viewer which designers (among those working in fashion, for instance) to associate with as “artistic", it curiously leaves out names like Rahul Mishra, Rajesh Pratap Singh, even Sabyasachi (the latter not as represented by his brand now, but from the earlier days of his design work). These are designers whose “departure" and “continuity" explorations have been textile-focused and relevant to the idea of India.

Refreshingly, nothing looks forcefully “modern", a term the urban textile community finds itself burdened with. The clean starkness of a piece of finely woven muslin Khadi in natural colour, the last piece if you follow it in the serial order the curators intend you to, is the ultimate stamp of contemporariness over modernity.

Finally, as Jain says: Who would give a set of young people this kind of opportunity? After the Vishwakarma exhibitions of the 1980s (remembered as the Festival of India series that showcased Indian crafts and arts in other countries), this is a landmark one, particularly since India lacks a design museum.

Such a museum may, in fact, provide just the nesting space such expressions need to grow and evolve.

Fracture: Indian Textiles, New Conversations is on till 31 May, 11am-7pm (closed on Mondays and public holidays), at Devi Art Foundation, Sirpur House, Plot No.39, Sector 44, Gurgaon (0124-4888177).

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