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How the Rashtrapati Bhavan has preserved Indian textile heritage

As the independence ushered in the process of transforming Viceroy’s House into Rashtrapati Bhavan, its interiors' fabrics changed to reflect Indian traditional textiles

Written by Anjali Bakshi | New Delhi |
Updated: January 8, 2022 3:51:41 pm
RB textileThe Ashoka Hall carpet has a deep-red base with flora motifs in green, blue and white, rust-coloured curtains with gold motifs, matching the murals on the ceiling (courtesy The Rashtrapati Bhavan)

Since ancient times, Indian textile has been much sought after, and its story is one of the oldest in the world. The earliest known reference is to be found in the Rig Veda. Romans apparently gave gold coins in exchange for Indian textiles of the same weight. The textile industry raked in gold and silver, India-made silk and cotton found buyers in ancient Greece, Egypt and the Arab world, and, later, in Europe under colonial rule. Medieval India’s economy reached its pinnacle of glory, and the Indian artisan, with his master skills, caught the eye of European travellers and traders.

The story of Indian textile is layered with stories of cultural appropriation and colonialism. India’s freedom movement saw the revival of the country’s textile traditions as a crucial political move. The richness of India’s textile tradition was repressed under colonial rule, when India was reduced to a mere supplier of raw materials to Britain. The principle of self-reliance underlined Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi Movement, to boycott foreign goods, and alleviate poverty by employing the masses in spinning, weaving and wearing Khadi. Nationalists adopted Khadi as a symbol of resistance, and incorporated the spinning wheel in the design of their flag.

RB textile The carpets’ colour palette and designs are similar to Mughal, Persian and Kashmiri patterns, imbibed and reproduced from the 16th-17th century originals by Rashtrapati Bhavan architect Edwin Lutyens (courtesy The Rashtrapati Bhavan)

The Rashtrapati Bhavan is a repository of the country’s distinct textile traditions, ranging from zardozi and gold-embroidered velvets in its carpets, bed and table coverings, to fine muslin and silk drapes. Its architect Edwin Lutyens wanted to use Khadi as a furnishing in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, it being aesthetically suitable, but he was not allowed. Khadi was seen as a symbol of India’s struggle for independence. The British government probably wanted to convey a sense of imperial grandeur through British fabrics in regal colours, such as gold, dark blue, maroon.

And since the styles of Indian chintz and kinkhabs (brocade), and Indian carpets, were in vogue among the Victorian interiors and fashion, thus these were acceptable in adorning the interiors of the Viceroy’s House. The Bhavan’s archival images — that show the use of heavy velvets with gold braid, floral carpets and chintz fabric — indicate how Lutyens had adapted to the requirements of the regal taste.

RB textile Various State rooms adorn silk Khadi weaves, Banarasi brocades, kinkhabs, Kashmiri carpets, velvets and damasks (courtesy The Rashtrapati Bhavan)

The colour palette and designs of the carpets are similar to Mughal, Persian and Kashmiri patterns. Lutyens had imbibed 16th-17th century originals and reproduced them. Made with the most exquisite textiles in India, almost all the carpets in the Rashtrapati Bhavan are grand, covering the entire floor of the rooms, and almost all of them display floral motifs, exuding a sense of being in a garden full of blooming flowers. The one in the Ashoka Hall, for instance, measuring 32 x 20 m, has a deep-red base with trees and flowers in green, blue and white. The cypress trees etched in the carpet are symbols of eternity. A similar carpet, from 17th-century Persia, exists in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The curtains in Ashoka Hall are rust-coloured, with trees and animals in gold — matching the murals on the ceiling.

Some of the elements designed and selected by Lutyens are still displayed and in use at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, such as zardozi velvets and colonial carpets — showcasing India’s embroidery and weaving traditions. Zardozi hangings and coverings — on the walls, beds, and floors — form part of the Bhavan’s textile collection. They were also used as masnad (Persian for seat). Used by Mughal emperors, who sat on these seats when holding court, masnads are made on a wooden frame, on which the velvet is stretched out on all sides. The embroidery is done using a thin metal wire with a hook-shaped needle. The raised design gives a three-dimensional look and the technique is known as kalabattu. The embroider works the gold thread over a base that is padded with cotton or paper. Archival images show these velvets were draped over the steps, at the time of the swearing-in ceremony of the first president Rajendra Prasad in the Durbar Hall. This tradition might have been emulated by the British rulers. These velvets are displayed in the Rashtrapati Bhavan and Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum.

RB textile The cypress trees etched in the Ashoka Hall carpet are symbols of eternity (courtesy The Rashtrapati Bhavan)

Independence ushered in the process of transforming Viceroy’s House into Rashtrapati Bhavan, the fabrics now reflected India’s nationalist ideals as the selection of fabrics were done keeping our traditions in mind. The choices reflect India’s textile heritage. Various State rooms now adorn silk Khadi weaves, and Banarasi brocades, kinkhabs, Kashmiri carpets, velvets and damasks. The revival of Indian traditional textiles was ushered in by the setting up of handicrafts and handloom boards.

RB textile Heavy velvets with gold braid and floral carpets were used, indicating how Lutyens had adapted to the requirements of the regal taste (courtesy The Rashtrapati Bhavan)

Challenges of industrialisation came up with India’s independence, of increasing factory production to cater to India’s vast population requirements. To protect India’s textile heritage, to support and revive ancient textile crafts and hand-weaving techniques, the government had set up the All India Handloom Board (now dissolved) and established the National Institute of Design. Today, many studios produce handmade textiles. Indian craftsmanship is also in demand for its embroidery and hand-beading. The craftsmanship with its quality and diversity of skills, and its ability to innovate designs for varied international tastes helped Indian artisans regain markets. But only a few know how the Rashtrapati Bhavan interiors were curated and has preserved the great heritage of Indian textile with great zeal.

Anjali Bakshi is joint director at the Rashtrapati Bhavan

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