India’s cultural tradition is tactile. Handmade textiles constitute the country’s national identity; both individual and the state existence are structured around the manufacture of fabric. Sumptuous fabrics adorn the corporeal form, effectively linking the individual wearer to past courtly splendor and ancestral traditions. A staple of daily costume, textile additionally provides vital sources of revenue via trade. The export of textile has persisted for centuries due to constant western demand. Surviving the advent of Springer sewing machines and mass-production techniques, textile production in India has evolved to incorporate methods of modern design while retaining many of its traditional processes.
Coinciding with the Victoria and Albert’s India Festival, The Fabric of India presents over 200 objects—fabric swatches, garments, rugs, historical costume, and modern fashion pieces. In keeping with the Victoria and Albert’s focus on wearable arts, the exhibit pairs works from its permanent collection with loans from international museums and fashion houses. The exhibition covers a large swath of time with the earliest textile dating from the 3rd century. Multimedia features detail the complicated processes and procedures of dying, weaving and embroidering textile. Such features greatly facilitate the viewing process as many visitors approach the exhibition with limited prior knowledge on the manufacture of fabric.
The exhibit follows a quasi-chronological timeline. However, most rooms are clustered in accordance to theme rather than context of creation. As the viewer traverses through the exhibition, the rooms build in complexity, linking earlier themes to create a cohesive narrative. Commencing with the materiality of textiles, the exhibition clearly outlines the myriad of techniques and dyes utilized in different regions. Swatches of cloth and samples of pigment provide a visual groundwork; given this introduction, the viewer proceeds with a greater understanding of the materiality of the objects they are visually decoding. Separate rooms explore the religious, aristocratic, profit, political, and modern roles of Indian textile. The exhibition is bookended with elaborate high fashion costumes by contemporary Indian designer Manish Arora. These extravagant works depict the relevance of Indian textile in the modern era. By adapting ancient techniques of making, these garments weave tradition into the age of modernity, stressing the sublime nature of the handmade over the machine manufactured.
A harmonious soundtrack greatly complemented the viewing experience. The melodious sounds reverberated off the regal red and turmeric yellow walls, enveloping the viewer. Well-paired to each theme, the soundtrack facilitated contemplation. Inducing a trance-like state, the soundtrack obliterated the idea of time; it instead inspired the viewer to be wholly engaged. The soundtrack had the rare effect of silencing the museumgoers—the human voice rarely muttered throughout the exhibition. One was truly able to contemplate the omnipresent, yet profoundly complex, concepts of color and form. As the works under analysis were textiles and wearable garments, little thought needed to be expended on deriving purpose; instead, the viewer was prompted to trace the evolution of style through identifying intentional iterations in color and composition.
While there is much to be applauded in the Victoria and Albert’s Fabric of India exhibition, the exhibition presented an incomplete, Eurocentric picture of India’s history of textile production. The exhibition intentionally chose to shirk directly addressing the issue of British colonialism in India. The problematic notions of white colonial settlement and the subsequent consequences, which arose from the British East India Company’s foyer in the region, were deleted from the discussion. While one multimedia work featured Gandhi wearing his traditional khadi cloth while imploring the British Government to grant India independence, the topic of colonialism was quickly jumped over to present contemporary works of Indian fashion houses. While, I must cede, the inclusion of modern saris and high fashion ensembles spoke well to the promising future of Indian textiles, I left frustrated by the gapping hole in the exhibition.
Objects of art are artifacts of history. Each work is a product of its geo-political context; in the case of Indian artworks, textiles evidence the oppression and capitalization of colonialism. Hence, a discussion on the beautiful and the painful—the consequences of freedom and colonialism—could have been aptly structured around the Victoria and Albert’s display of textiles. In The Fabric of India, the Victoria and Albert had an opportunity catalyze such open discourse on colonialism. Utilizing beautiful objects to more fully unpack these complex and socially stratifying issues would have proved fruitful.