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Designs from the Past

The textile labels on display at a Mumbai art gallery show the competitive minds of the common man and the colonial rulers.

Written by Radhika Singh |
Updated: August 10, 2016 12:00:23 am
mumbai, mumbai art, mumbai art gallery, traditional art, radhi parekh, Aryodaya Spinning and Weaving Co Ltd., ahmedabad, fashion, colonila art, indian express talk The labels testify to the influence of miniature paintings, photography and new art materials.

A hundred years ago, when the Swadeshi movement was gaining an unstoppable momentum, Radhi Parekh’s family was the proud owner of The Aryodaya Spinning and Weaving Co Ltd. The textile mill in Ahmedabad provided Indians an alternative to British cloth, which had been flooding the market at the time. Today, the mill’s label, a chromolithograph of a dancing lady, hangs on the wall of Parekh’s Mumbai art gallery, Artisans’, as part of her exhibition titled “Ephemera”. The week-long show opens on August 11 at Kala Ghoda.

The woman on the label poses with one arm outstretched and the other by her side, looking over her shoulder at her admirers. Her flaring green skirt and red top pop out against a yellow and blue background; the mill’s name is printed at her feet. Produced through lithography, a method of printing used during that period, this picture would have been slapped onto bales of cotton cloth for sale. “The common man, often illiterate, would have used the picture to identify the mill’s products,” says Parekh.

Over the last few years, Parekh has been collecting chromolithographs from various dealers in India, drawn in because of her family’s connection to the mills. The textile labels on display at “Ephemera” give viewers a fascinating insight into the competing mindsets of the common man, colonial powers, and independence-driven Indians, believes Parekh. “For instance, colonial labels tried to connect with their subjects, with whom they had little direct touch, through popular symbols. Through those visuals, you can get a sense of the ideas of identity they had,” she says.

One such choromolithograph was produced by the Manchester mill F Steiner & Co. during the 1880s. It depicts Krishna, hidden among some trees, playing the flute. In the fore is Radha, sitting on a swing, surrounded by her coterie and a few peacocks. The mill had presented its labels during the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888, an important event during the early years of mass production when advertising was shaping up to be a powerful tool. British designers often replicated mythological scenes from Rajasthani miniature paintings to attract consumers.

Precursors to graphic design, these textile labels also reflect the influence of photography and new art materials, and for Indian designers, the impact of the colonial art school. Such trends are apparent in the chromolithographs by Raja Ravi Varma, who is known for his calendar art and advertisements. His work will also be on display at “Ephemera”.

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