The Fabric of India
Rosemary Crill (editor)
Hardcover, 248 pages, 11.5 x 10″
V&A Publishing, 2015
Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
At the heart of making is craft.
And if one had to choose a date when craft came to widespread institutional attention it would probably be the Great Exhibition of 1851. Also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, this first World’s Fair was remarkable in the breadth and scope of its displays. Over one-hundred-thousand artifacts including mechanical miracles of technology such as printing presses, steam locomotives, fire engines (horse drawn, of course), industrial weaving and spinning machines; and new innovative materials such as rubber and cast iron. Beside these, and seemingly inert by comparison, were more subtle objects: notably textiles from around the globe. As befitted an empire in the ascendency, textiles were positioned as industrial artifacts; items of trade, and examples of exotic and fabulous skill from the lands Britain colonized.
An estimated six million people visited the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” under the vitreous rooftops during the six months of it tenure in Hyde Park. During this time it realized a profit of £186,000; enough to purchase 96 acres of land in South Kensington and to fund the construction of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. It also gave birth to the Museum of History and Science, The Royal Colleges of Art, and Music and the Royal Albert Hall.
The exhibition’s legacy was deep and long-lasting. It was as if the world were one great watershed during a season of rains. But what flowed into the heart of London was not water but cultural artifacts; items which, in the skill of their execution and in the materials they used, beggared the imagination. Subsequent events such as the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855 and 1867 contributed significant pieces to the V&A, and when the Indian Museum in London dispersed its collections in 1872, the weaving, costumes, fabrics and embroideries also went to the V&A.
Today the V&A’s holds the greatest collection of Indian Textiles in the world. As Director Martin Roth points out in his introductory notes to The Fabric of India, it is surprising, therefore, that there has never been a major exhibition of them, nor has there been a comprehensive volume such as The Fabric of India.
Readers will not be disappointed with the Fabric of India. It is a large format, hardcover edition with 248 pages documenting the exhibition and providing expansive supplementary text. Rosemary Crill’s prose is exactly what one would expect from a senior curator of such an august institution. It provides a wealth of technical and historic detail, yet is accessible and open, somehow managing to satisfy both general readers and those with more scholarly interests. Crill’s unornamented style conveys the exceptional nature of so many of the pieces simply by serving the facts straight up how pieces were made, why they are important, and how they fit into the larger picture of patronage, trade, Anglo-Indian relations, or textile history.
The book contributes much toward an understanding of the role of textiles in trade and industry. The eighteenth century craze for chintz displaced local British-made items – despite bans on chintz imports. Later, British mills, utilizing technologies like the ones showcased at the Great Exhibition, reversed the situation and devastated the Indian spinning and weaving sectors. These trade relations are well known as the factors leading up to Indian independence. But India also had far reaching trade relations with the Arab world in the middle east and even further into Africa. A favourite image shows a group of Kalabari men dressed in Madras check wrappers (the photo was taken by Joanne B. Eicher in 1991). Travelling in the opposite direction, Indian cottons patterned with mordant dyes and resist printed (chintz made c. 1720-30) went as far as Japan. These were not simply Indian textiles traded to Japan, rather they were specifically designed as Kimonos and made for the Japanese market.
The book concludes with a provocative look at the future of Indian textiles. Provocative, because it points toward the constantly changing nature of craft. As paradigms shift from artisan to designer and from tradition to innovation, the role of artisan is once again brought into question. Where notions of prestige for Indian textiles were once motivated by royal patronage, now they are announced by inclusion in the high-stakes fashion industry. Runway collections are the world of the auteur. Notwithstanding designers who might wish to emphasize the role of craft, or even showcase collaborative projects, industrial fashion is a game of brand recognition and name retention. Runway shows are equal measure performance art and provocateur role-play. It is possible that, in the same way that industrial processes took over the science and manufacturing aspects of craft (its ingenuity and productive power), fashion designers will co-opt the art and imaginative aspects of craft (its creativity and power of expression).
The Fabric of India contains an excellent section on the role of the artisan. And as the book points out, the dichotomy between artist and designer becomes harder to maintain when artisans go to design school and become artisan/designers. But in most cases art colleges and design schools (even those in India) promote Western models of creation based on the fashion industry or the commercial gallery — the two main arenas of personal expression for textiles in the west. Can such centres encourage tradition? Or is this idea antithetical to their very nature. Can very high-level artisan skills even be taught institutionally? And how can such institutions respond to students who are are themselves coming from families that enjoy a multi-generation craft heritage? Innovators in the architecture of cloth (Jurgen Lehl springs to mind as one example) look to tradition (in this case handloom) for grounding and inspiration in a way that capitalizes on highly refined yet flexible hand techniques. As India grapples with modernization these issues will become increasingly poignant, and India’s reputation as the place where the greatest diversity of high-level textile knowledge lives on, will be at stake.
The Fabric of India is an exhibition in a book. For those who cannot view the exhibition in London the book does an excellent job of bringing the exhibition home. And for those who wish to gain a comprehensive understanding of Indian textiles … it would be difficult to recommend this title too highly.
The most recent issue of V&A magazine features the Fabric of India show. Tim McLaughlin and Charllotte Kwon contributed a feature article to this issue describing hand block-printed Indian textiles. The Issue is available in Maiwa’s Online store here.