All great literature, Leo Tolstoy said, is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Textile historian and technologist Rahul Jain’s is of the former. After quitting a plum job at the World Bank, Jain set up ASHA, a drawloom weaving workshop in Varanasi, inspired by an elaborate study on Mughal and Safavid silks, in 1993. Referencing the Mughal patka or the court sash, he attempted to recreate the weave, material and styles of court silks from the 17th and 18th centuries. Currently, an exhibition “Pra – Kashi: Silk, Gold & Silver from the City of Light” at the National Museum, Delhi, scripts Jain’s journey of nearly 25 years, where a shift in pattern and material tells the story of textiles in contemporary India.
Made possible by the Devi Art Foundation, the exhibition curated by Pramod Kumar KG of Eka Archiving Services, is dedicated to the memory of Suresh Neotia and Martand Singh, patrons who found merit in Jain’s research. Presenting 43 samples of textiles from the ASHA Workshop, Pramod has juxtaposed the new collection with “historic textiles, miniature paintings, jewellery and decorative arts from the National Museum”. Textiles woven at the Asha workshop feature in several major collections, including the British Museum, London; the Musee Guimet, Paris; the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Textile Museum in Washington DC.
“Pra:Kashi represents the light source that emanates from all textiles, both historic and new. It shows you Benares through its art forms, and that the textile tradition didn’t exist only in one medium — it went across jewellery and art. The artists who created for one medium, did it for the other too. In this exhibition, we show different art forms to understand their seamlessness,” says Pramod.
Against the backdrop of a Mughal miniature, we see the ASHA Workshop textiles inspired by the Meenakari tradition of jewellery making, where floral motifs are common. The painting depicts how patkas were worn in its various forms. “There are numerous stories within this exhibition, from the revived weaving techniques of patterned velvet, lampas, samite and taquete, to handmade pure zari threads that are a result of over two decades of research, and the drawloom, harnessed entirely by cords. Many of these loom patterns come from the 14th-century master, Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshband of Bukhara, Central Asia,” says Pramod.
The samite and taquete weaves presented alongside the miniature, he explains, has two warps and two wefts and the hold patterns are sandwiched between these layers such that some are seen from the front and some from the back. Observing these gold and silver grounded floral motifs from the side rather than the front helps to understand how complex these weaving traditions have been. Jain has used fragments from patkas and worked his way back to understand their structure and pattern and has presented them in a new format, which are honest to their historic form yet have the privilege of technology.
In the velvet exhibits, recreated from Mughal carpets from the City Palace Museum, Jaipur archives, one sees the lampas technique, where the scale is larger and the patterns too. An exact copy of a tent from the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad stands as four panels, which present a floral pattern, though in a larger format than the previous galleries. “These were important to our material culture in India but much of it hasn’t survived. We are left with our stone and sculpture heritage and very little of our textiles,” says Pramod.
Moving over to the animal motifs, we see a sari from the National Museum collection, which presents the traditional sikargarh pattern of animals and humans at a hunting scene. One sees the circle of life, of smaller animals being attacked by larger animals and people on elephants fighting these animals. The exhibits by the ASHA Workshop present extinct animals in India as a comment on the state of affairs. However, it also presents a uniquely Iranian design, where the animal patterns move clockwise and anti-clockwise, to show the complexity of skill. Jain wanted to push the materiality of textiles to experiment with its looks, where one can’t tell if the textile is a painting or paper or embroidery.
For the first time, Jain presents human figures in weaving, inspired by the panels of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement at the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. While one presents Christ and Mother Mary against a metallic ground, another shows souls rising up towards heaven. “Kashi is the place of moksha, and the idea is similar in different cultures. What better way to show it than through gold and silver,” says Pramod.
The exhibition ends with a panel of golden lotuses. “It’s our homage to Neotia and Mapu, who were Padma Bhushan awardees. The lotus or the Padma is also symbolic of purity, and there is a certain level of purity associated with crafts and tradition, that shows where we came from and where we are going,” says Pramod, adding, “Ultimately, the workshop is an academic exercise. These textiles were given as gifts of honour to the royalty. It was never meant to be commercial. These experiments show us history and a contemporary way of looking at patterns, techniques, materials and technology.”
The exhibition is on at National Museum, Delhi, till October 8