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Published on: 09/22/22 5:21 AM

Feature: NIFT Bangalore pays a wonderful tribute to India`s amazing textile heritage

When a piece of cloth is gateway to a magical world

A silk Paithani panel by S. V. Bhangde and G.J. More.

The Vignette: Viswakarma Textiles: Art & Artistry exhibition that was recently  on at Bangalore`s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), was a powerful emphasis of an immutable fact: that India`s textile heritage is one that benefits from repeated outings to fix itself in the public consciousness. Public memory and attention being short, revisiting our textiles  treasure trove makes for fresh awareness, renewed appreciation and sales, too. All to the good.

Presented by the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) Bangalore which is celebrating its 25th anniversary  this year, the  curated set of  yes, 25 textiles,  created largely in the Weavers Service Centres across India, showcased hand-painting, resist-dyeing, weaving, block-printing and embroidery.

Like all the Viswakarma textile exhibitions that have preceded it, this show too was dazzling in its visual appeal, with weave after weave displaying the consummate skills of the weavers who created these pieces of intricate precision. Basically, maker and medium worked in seamless coordination, to offer an  array that enthralled viewers.

The Tree of Life in silk, created by the Weavers Service Centre, Mumbai.

Heritage we take for granted

Handmade textiles have always been part of our national heritage, something we take for granted most of the time. Once every few decades, though, the spotlight swivels in that direction. The Festival of India, which debuted in 1982 and showcased our art and culture, was one such pivot. After years of relative obscurity, Indian textiles had their moment, raised to prominence by important personages  like culture czarina Pupul Jayakar, who was Chairperson of the Festival Committee, and Martand Singh, cultural  historian and textile maven, who was a member of the same Committee.

So it was that the world got to gasp in admiration at these textiles in 1982 at the first of the Festivals  in London, and India got to do the same one  year later. Since then, there has been a series of these Viswakarma textile exhibitions held through 1983-91,  focussing in turns on themes like the master weavers, the Pudu Pavu warp, the use of lines, trellises, birds and animals, and the like.

The title of this exceptional collab between weavers, curators, craftspeople, artisans, designers and artists from across India, was  inspired by an essay by historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Coomaraswamy held  that the Indian craftsman conceives of his art not as the accumulated skill of ages but as originating in the divine skill of Vishwakarma, and revealed by him.


A cotton weave titled Bulls, made by Bhupendra Desai and D. M. Shah.

The art and the artist

The current iteration of the exhibition which showed recently at the NGMA Bangalore focused on the artist, and featured the work of  16 master weavers, harnessing the formidable talents of weavers like K. Adimoolam, Mani Rao, M. Kailasam, Nasir Khan, Radha Mohan and others. The work titled Bulls, a dye wash on cloth by Bhupendra Desai and D M Shah, is a truly standout piece.

There`s a bonus which can`t be discounted. Each time the viewer takes in their fill of these  gorgeous textiles,  there is renewed appreciation for the GoI-established Weavers Service  Centres, 29 of them at last count, all part of the Development Commissioner (Handlooms) under the Ministry of Textiles. These WSCs are doing a magnificent job of creating, recreating, refashioning weaves that, each and every time they are exhibited, draw gasps of appreciation from viewer and buyer alike.

A detail from The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Kalamakari created  by M. Kailasam.

Traditions of the cloth

Visitors at the Vignette show in Bangalore got a glimpse of how textiles tell a story, part of the painted  cloth tradition where stories are told, myths are recreated, legends are remembered,  all on cloth. The kalamkari style had been employed in this act of storytelling on fabric titled ‘The Art of the Story,` and interestingly, apart from the Hindu legends and one retelling of the  Buddha story, there was  the Assumption of the Virgin  Mary, with panels showing the life of Christ and the Crucifixion, with the Mother draped in decidedly Indian wear, the whole arresting  tapestry one of a Christian story being told in the Indian way. In a fashion that is as unusual as it is charming.

The `Flora and Fauna` section featured marvellous birds, horses, bulls, in the form of butas, jaals and bels, as well as a lushly flowering Tree of Life.

The section titled `Cloths of Gold,` as textiles were referred to in the Rig Veda, showed gorgeous brocades of large widths from Kanchipuram, Venkatagiri and Varanasi, and emphasised how mellifluous the coming together of cotton,  silk, gold and silver zari is; truly a symphony via  fabric.

Birds and Paisley by K. Adimoolam, Mani Rao, V. Gouthaman.

`Birds and Animals` had one exhibit that pays tribute to Dr Salim Ali which the late great ornithologist would have quite relished. It was an explosion of colour, an intricate gathering  of all the birds that Dr Ali had written about in his widely read The Book of Indian Birds; other panels displayed  peacocks, horse heads, and the most interesting, bulls, their bodies a flat wash and their horns painted on, all of them endowed with udders!


Textiles as art

NIFT Bangalore`s Director Susan Thomas says, “ “We have attempted to position textiles as art, moving away from the obvious of functional clothing.

The USP of Vignette was  to appreciate Visvakarma as a public-funded art project of the country. It  was a hat tip to the State, which has continuously since Independence, supported handloom and handcraft through the Ministry of Textiles and its ancillary offices. “

This  jubilee celebration project took NIFT a year to conceptualise and realise. “It was our brainchild, our baby,“ says Thomas and the pride is evident in her voice. The process of selecting 25 pieces was quite a challenge, says Thomas, “since each piece was like gold!“ Documentation being somewhat scarce, the NIFT team had to literally follow the dots, visit museums in Delhi and Mumbai, talk to the weavers, their families, follow each  and every lead that led to the textile they wanted for the show.

Her takeaway from the project: to undertake textile development on this scale is a monumental achievement; no country in the modern world can possibly do it like India has done it. Indeed, one agrees with Thomas; this is Make in India taken to quite another level.

The Vignette exhibition, unsurprisingly,  ran  to large crowds, weekends  seeing numbers like 450, all of them engaged, absorbed, interested. It might travel to other cities but that`s still under discussion right now.

Visitors I spoke to at the exhibition employed words like `stunning,` `beautifully curated` and `impressive diversity of weaves,` to describe the show. One visitor said, “I have never before seen fabric elevated in this manner  to works of art; the canvases are so large; some,  like the Birds piece, had  no repetition of motifs that I could make out…these are gorgeous tapestries!“

Thus, what was a path-breaking project at its inception, lives on, thanks to stakeholders like NIFT and other interested parties. Viswakarma, the god of craft, would have approved.

A gorgeous hand-woven piece from the Kanchipuram Weavers Centre.

All photos by Sheila Kumar.

Main picture is titled Charbagh and created in the Weavers Service Centre, Indore.

Bhupendra DesaiD M ShahIndian textilesK. AdimoolamM. KailasamMani RaoNasir KhanNational Institute of Fashion TechnologyNGMA BangaloreNIFTNIFT Director Susan ThomasRadha Mohantextile heritagetreasure trove of weavesVignette exhibitionViswakarama exhibitionsweaves

Sheila Kumar • September 22, 2022

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