Culture on Our Sleeve: A virtual exhibition chronicles textile treasures from across the country

The project showcases four broad categories — iconography, movements, weaving traditions and design but at the core of the India chapter is the ubiquitous sari.

Written by Damini Ralleigh | Updated: June 10, 2017 8:09 pm
A weaver from Meghalaya.

A Benarasi brocade skirt from the Museum of Art and Photography in Bangalore features the motif of the Indian flag across it in the virtual exhibition, ‘We Wear Culture’, on display on Google Arts and Culture. The motif may be interpreted as the weavers’ urge to participate in the nation’s fight for independence. Another brocade skirt depicts the map of undivided India bound within a sunflower motif.

A result of the collaborative effort of Google Arts & Culture and museums, universities and NGOs from across the globe, the exhibition has over 350 curated projects which include virtual tours, 360 degree videos, street views and ultra-high resolution images that highlight diverse fashion stories — from the courtly couture of Versailles to iconic pieces such as Marylin Monroe’s stilettos that changed the way people dressed; the Comme des Garcons Kimono-inspired sweater that exemplifies a marriage of the traditional and the contemporary to the timeless elegance of the Indian sari. “With so many stories, we knew we had to make navigation easier for the viewer. As a special feature on the platform, fashion collections can be discovered by searching for time or a colour,” says Simon Rein, India Programme Manager, Google Art and Culture. Its India edition began in 2012.

The project showcases four broad categories — iconography, movements, weaving traditions and design but at the core of the India chapter is the ubiquitous sari with virtual shows of sari variations, drapes, and textiles. Some of the seminal exhibits have been sourced from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya; Indian Museum, Kolkata; and SEWA Hansiba Museum, among others. “We don’t just wear clothes, we wear culture. The cultural background of the clothes we wear today is not known to most. This exhibition is an attempt to change that,” says Rein, emphasising on the cultural metaphors and social histories encoded in our traditional garments that have been clouded by processes of machanisation and globalisation.

Each textile, form and motif, carries lesser-known histories reflecting the social-cultural milieu in which it was crafted. For instance, the Baluchari silks with long and elaborate pallus, witnessed a change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the “age of mechanical reproduction”. As a result, many artisans, including Baluchari weavers began depicting their newly learned visual vocabularies in their craft. So, the pallu became replete with figural imagery of hookah smoking nawabs and courtesans, Europeans with canons and horsebacks, and later to steamboats and trains.

The extensive material available on regional Indian saris ranges from the Saktapar sari, often woven in red and black yarn-resist cotton in the regions of Samabalpur, Bargah and Sonepur; to the elaborate Patola, an unique double ikat weaving technique by the Salvi community of Patan; to the richly decorative brocade saris that are often made in silk from Varanasi; extending further to varied drapes such as the Kuncha saree drape, Kuchipudi drape, Coorgi sari drape and the seedha palla of Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, developed regionally across the country offering insight into the manifestations of culture and functionality.

Various Sari Drapes

The exhibition also focuses on shawls and odhinis while making a case for the re-incarnation of the “humble blouse”. The wide-range in the exhibition, however, does not provide a context to some of the pieces thereby failing to make it comprehensive.‘Colours of the Earth’ and the ‘Himalayan Indigo’ argue for sustainable fashion by reviving ancient practises of natural dyeing. “Artificial dyes are major polluters and we need to formulate a sustainable systems of production. The problems with the fashion ecosystem need to be addressed. Natural dye becomes an important entry point, it creates a means of earning a livelihood for those in villages, while also reducing waste thereby producing a healthy ecosystem of sustainable fashion,” says Rashmi Bharti, Avani Society and curator of the two exhibitions.

Global icons on Show

Yves Saint Laurent: ‘1970s-1980s Signature Styles’ features 12 mannequins dressed in YSL’s vintage designs like the Tuxedo ensemble that transformed the male tuxedo into a garment for women; The Daytime ensemble that pairs a masculine pair of trousers and a double-breasted blazer with a bow blouse that adds a feminine touch; a straight silhouette, the Long Evening Ensemble, consists of a bolero and a long skirt.

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel: Coco Chanel once said to Salvador Dali while referring to herself in third person, ‘all her life, all she did was change men’s clothing into women’s: jackets, hair, neckties, wrists’. The exhibition of her suits from the ’20s and ’30s assert her trademark philosophy.

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