The 17-metre handwoven Indian fabric has seen worse days. Traced to 20th century Gujarat, it travelled across the Atlantic, where it was discovered abandoned on the streets of New York by art appraiser Jerome Burns. On a pavement outside a warehouse in Brooklyn, Burns needed help to transfer the heavy fabric, which he gifted to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1994.
Two decades later, the rare piece will have its first showing. It is being carefully examined by museum director Martin Roth and his team before it is suspended in a specially-prepared room. The team has several other antiquities to inspect as the museum prepares for the India Festival that will be held in the UK from October 2015 to 2016.
Marking the 25th anniversary of the opening of the museum’s Nehru Gallery, this follows a spate of India-centric exhibitions organised by the historic museum. Since he joined office in 2011, Roth has delved into the shared history of the two nations through numerous initiatives: from bringing a selection of Kalighat paintings to Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata in 2011 to the exhibition “Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Painter” at V&A in December 2012. Last year, he had on display MF Husain’s final triptych’s commissioned by Usha Mittal, wife of Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate. “Globally, cultural exchange is very important. If you think about the political situation today, we need it more than before,” says Roth, 60.
The commitment towards cultural exchange is a trait that lingers from his previous role as Director General of the Dresden State Art Collections (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden), where he was in-charge of 12 museums and galleries, and responsible its renovations and international collaborations. At V&A, Roth holds the distinction of being its first non-British director.
Speeding in his blue Porsche when a head hunter approached him for the chair, Roth suggested a few British colleagues, before he realised the offer was for him. “I said it was a misunderstanding, I’m German,” he recalls. Confessing that the expectations are enormous, he charted his own priorities, which includes balancing the several aspects the museum had intended to accomplish, and giving due emphasis to engineering, design and architecture, apart from other departments.
With an electrician father and a tailor mother, he grew up liking museums. A student of cultural anthropology, he completed his PhD in History of Museums and Cultural Politics in Weimar, before travelling across Europe, from Paris to London, in different capacities. He remains a personal member of the German Olympic Sports Federation. It is perhaps this divergent experience that influences his decisions at V&A.
Recent years have seen exhibitions considered unlikely of the institution. The year 2011 saw one of the museum’s most attended exhibitions, retrospective of pop musician David Bowie. Open till last month, the exhibition “Disobedient Objects” comprised street art, from suffragette teapots and protest robots. “There were apprehensions from some, but then we saw thousands coming for it,” says Roth.
He now braces for an Alexander McQueen retrospective. The London autumn might also see a Subodh Gupta installation on the lawns of V&A. “We are planning an exhibition, hopefully it will come through,” he says.
Art on a Tour
Fabric of India
Spanning the third century until now, the display will include ancient ceremonial banners, contemporary saris, sacred temple hangings, 16th century Islamic talismanic shirt inscribed with verses from Quran and a printed chintz tent used by Tipu Sultan.
Curated from the Al Thani collection, the highlights include an Indian turban jewel made for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, Golconda diamond gifted to Queen Charlotte by the Nawab of Arcot in 1767, Mughal jades and pieces belonging to the Nawab of Hyderabad.
An exhibition featuring photographs of India and Burma back in the 1850s and ’60s, by British photographer Captain Linnaeus Tripe.
Nineteenth century musical instruments will be juxtaposed with footage of contemporary musicians playing similar instruments.