John Forbes Watson, a reporter on the products of India at the India Museum in London, catalogued the country’s textiles into an 18-volume compendium in 1866. In them were swatches of over 700 samples, categorised by material, type, pattern and use from India.
These “portable industrial museums” were intended to equip manufacturers in England to mass produce textiles for an Indian market. More than a century later, the Indian government would undertake a census in 1961 that surveyed the handicrafts and textiles of the country. It’s these documents that would enable textile and heritage revivalist Martand Singh (Mapu) to embark upon the decade-long exhibition series, ‘Vishwakarma’.
From pigment-painting, dye-painting to resist dyeing, printing and weaving, they highlighted the technical and design possibilities in the handcrafted skills of weavers and artisans across India.
The National Crafts Museum, Delhi, has been home to many of the exhibits of the ‘Vishwakarma’ series. It was therefore natural for curators Rakesh Thakore, Rta Kapur Chishti, and Rahul Jain to choose it as a venue for the show, ‘A Search in Five Directions’. The exhibition, supported by Devi Art Foundation, which opens on January 20, reflects the design excellence of weavers across the country. Held between 1981 and 1991, the seven ‘Vishwakarma’ exhibitions honoured classical traditions and gave them a contemporary twist.
“I see it as the last great, pan-Indian documentation, as well as revival, of our best-known textile genres. Visionaries such as Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar, who were backed by Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, acted as catalysts in taking the revival of handicrafts and handlooms forward.
Mapu started out with a meticulous mapping of textile techniques and production centres across India, based on archival information accumulated over 150 years, and on the extensive network of Weaver Service Centres across the country. Since Independence, the government had provided a massive superstructure to support skilled artisans in all the states, and today, more than 35 years later, one continues to see the impact of these state-sponsored exhibitions on textile design and production aross India,” says textile designer and historian Jain.
While the 36 exhibits at the Crafts Museum are only a sampler of the Vishwakarma series, they prompt five questions around the use of colour, pattern directories, feel and texture of fabric, its relevance in heritage and its contemporary usage.
“Mapu was then Director, Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad. He wanted to explore the finest that could be made at that particular point of time and how techniques could be inter-married in the contemporary context of design and usage. So for instance, in one of the exhibits you see a tree of life in kalamkari, which is painted and printed rather than only painted. He couldn’t find the range of flowers he wanted in the painted tradition, so he combined painting with printing. You will see an exhibit done by KM Adimoolam from Chennai, a painterly work in screen print. There were artists who worked with craftspeople at Weaver Service Centres to enhance design development. KG Subramanyam worked in Varanasi and developed cut-work, there was Manu Parekh, and many others in various Centres. These exhibitions brought the artists — the weavers and the market — into a collaborative whole,” says textile scholar Chishti.
Jain narrates how historically cloth was used as much for architectural surfaces and interior spaces, as for covering oneself. “Cloth had numerous uses in the past. Walls were draped in cloth, there was cloth and other soft furnishings on the floor for seating, and for ceilings too. It’s this large-scale, all-enveloping aspect of Indian cloth that is highlighted in this exhibition,” says Jain.
The sense of the celebratory is visible in the exhibits, some tower over 15 feet-high as they sit in two galleries at the museum. Some slanted, some hung, and some run 30-feet along the length of the wall. One such is a tapestry done in block print with motifs of birds, as an ode to ornithologist Salim Ali. Singh stretched and enlarged the length, breadth and width of Indian textiles through these exhibitions as he delved into the details, the quality of dyes, the motifs, and the weaves.
In his documentation, Singh writes: “If I were to ask, ‘can you think of a wholly contemporary textile’ it would be difficult because you’re constrained by a vast inherited repertoire of design…For the ‘Vishwakarma’ project, by the time I arrived on the scene, everything was far too complex… too many colours, patterns too large in scale…it had to be invariably a reductionist process.”
This paring down can be seen in a pichwai, where religious symbolisms are taken away and the lotus becomes the foreground in the textile. “Mapu was thinking of ways to make textiles relevant and marketable. It eventually became his own personal journey,” says Jain, “In his vision, Indian fabric was meant to be experienced in a visceral way. He was deeply spiritual, and also a ritualist, fascinated by the gesture and drama that infused the life and arts of India. His exhibitions therefore were fundamentally emotive, their scale affording to viewers a dramatic, immersive experience.”
Fashion designer Thakore, who was with Singh from the beginning of the ‘Vishwakarma’ project, speaks of how it seeded the fashion revolution we see today. “Weavers in every state and every district were mapped. The exhibition gave people access to weavers, which benefitted them hugely. Many of them became master weavers and have now become traders. We hope the exhibition helps students and younger designers to understand what is possible in Indian textiles,” says Thakore.
It is in the creation of the dramatic where things are possible, and this exhibition provides a window into that world.