Fabric of India at the V&A

Chiara de Nicolais on the highlight of the V&A’s India festival

On 3 October the exhibition The Fabric of India opened to the public, the main highlight of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s India festival. It will remain on view until 10 January 2016.

The Fabric of India focuses on the production of textiles in the Indian subcontinent. It showcases many pieces from the V&A collection which only recently came to light and have never been shown before.

Tipus Tent © National Trust Images

The exhibition looks at both the technical aspects of textile production and its artistic value. Firstly the visitor is introduced to various materials: silk, cotton, linen, muslin and wool. They then encounter the dyes and the different weaving techniques, from silk brocades to embroidery, applique and block-printing. This first section of the exhibition allows the viewer to understand the workshop process behind a piece of art and also the complexity of its manufacture, an aspect which is often overlooked.

Talismanic shirt inscribed with verses from the Qur'an, probably northern India, late 15th or 16th century © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The coexistence of different religions and traditions in the Indian subcontinent is shown throughout the exhibition by a large variety of textiles produced for ritual purposes, including narrative panels woven for Hindu temples, Muslim prayer mats and talismanic shirts, Jain hangings and Christian drapery.

Hanging - The Crucifixion, cotton, painted & dyed, 18th century © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These examples are also testament to how external influences have been interpreted and adopted to suit a local Indian context. A notable example is a Crucifixion scene depicted on a chintz textile made in the region of the Coromandel Coast and used in an Armenian church. This strikingly beautiful piece combines a technique of resist-dyed cotton printing largely employed in 18th century India and a design which is inspired by Armenian illustrated gospels of the 12th to 14th centuries.

Mughal hunting coat, c. 1620–30, embroidered satin with silk © Victoria and Albert Museum

The exhibition contains pieces made for both the local Indian and foreign markets. A satin and silk hunting coat is one of the finest examples of Indian Mughal embroidery to survive. It was made in an imperial workshop (karkhana) by embroiderers from the Gujarati Mochi community. It is embroidered in fine chain stitch with delicate flowers and plants interspersed with ducks, peacocks, storks and tigers.

Houndstooth sari by Abraham and Thakore, double ikat silk, Hyderabad 2011. Photograph courtesy of Abraham Thakore

The third and last section of the exhibition focuses on the important political and socio-economic role that the khadi (‘handspun’) movement had on the Indian Independence movement. The boycott of foreign manufactured goods, particularly cotton, was fundamental in the fight for independence as it promoted the local economy and kept alive the tradition of weaving. This important tradition of textile making has played a key role in conserving and re-inventing India’s cultural heritage and continues to influence today’s fashion as well as contemporary art.

The Fabric of India exhibition is one of the highlights of the V&A India festival and is a must see for those interested in exploring the artistic crafts which have made India famous throughout the globe.