One of my favourite images that I took on my trip to India back in February is the one below. It was taken on the outskirts of Jaipur on a very impoverished side street. But in one snapshot, I see embroidery. I see ombre dyed fabric (a sunset effect from lilac to orange) and I see an array of colours, both worn by the children themselves and also on the clothes line in the background. More importantly it’s the way fabric is utilise and integrated with real life in India, that was so striking to me.
And thus, the title of the V&A exhibition The Fabric of India isn’t just a simple description of the 200 examples of Indian textiles that you will see in the museum. The point isn’t to look at say a richly embroidered Mughal hunting jacket from the 17th century or a vast Gujarat appliquéd wall hanging in strict isolation but to see that the appreciation of crafts such as vibrantly coloured resist dyeing, ornate embroidery, handloom weaving and the overall importance of raw materials like cotton and silk still have a relevance in the India of today. And that was evident everywhere we went.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country where the aesthetics of textiles are integrated so thoroughly into everyday life. From the brilliantly lit-up marquees of banquet weddings to the seat covers of the tuks tuks to the freshly dyed fabrics drying on poles and even the makeshift housing tents on the side of the roads – textiles are everywhere and there’s a pride in their appearance whatever the circumstances. Even when cheap or of inferior quality, there’s an appreciation of overall aesthetics that is hard to ignore. Hence why a woman in an inexpensive Made in China silk sari will still look striking to my untrained eye. A walk around the markets of Jaipur and everywhere people are touching fabric, with of course the rite of wedding being central to these exchanges, where you see women sitting on the floor of a fabric shop, inspecting the embroidery of the cloth and bargaining fiercely with the shop keepers. If people want a change in colour of their existing fabrics, they’ll go to their local dyers . You hear the humming of sewing machines everywhere as tailors regularly do alterations or run up suits and saris. Unlike Western countries where we’re largely divorced from making of of our clothes, in India people – and in particular women – are really connected with the cloth that they swathe their bodies in, no matter what social strata you happen to be in.
The contemporary Indian fashion designers such as Manish Arora and Abraham and Thakore, that feature in the final portion of the Fabric of India might bear little connection with what the majority of Indians wear but fabric in its finished, dyed and embroidered form plays a huge role in Indian life. The exhibition will showcase the most elite and superior examples of these fabrics but even the most mundane and ordinary of ensembles on the streets in Jaipur and Delhi were inspiring to the eye.
The Fabric of India, supported by Good Earth India, with thanks to Experion and Nirav Modi, is at the V&A from 3 October 2015 – 10 January 2016