Mystic Of Indian Textiles in International Museums

Prof. (Dr) Charu Smita Gupta Founder/ Former Director MGCATT Museum, Siem Reap Cambodia

Retired Deputy Director, National Crafts Museum

Ministry of Textiles, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi

dchasmig@gmail.com


Indian textiles have been weaving and ornate magic for centuries. The famous bust of Indus valley, The Priest King spells the skills of textiles weavers-dyers and block printers/ embroiderers for centuries. Some of these precious collections’ dates to nearly 4000 years. This bust doesn’t speak of the quality of the fabric, nor do the Ajanta cave paintings or for that matter various other sculptures found in metal and stone tell the entire story of its exquisiteness. But the actual samples of the block printed cotton fabrics found in Futstat Egyptian tombs distinctly speak of the glorious days of trading of the Indian cottons from the 9th century onwards. The Indian foreign trade and her textiles were interconnected. It is said that the spices were wrapped in beautiful textiles bags.

Block Printed textile fragment from Futstat–presently exhibited in Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA.
Block Printed textile fragment from Futstat–presently exhibited in Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA.

A surge in the Indian textiles export was evidenced in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia in south east Asia from the start of the 13thcentury to the 19thcentury. Large painted textiles in India from this period are now rare to find. But with the efforts of Tapi collections, many of these textiles are brought back.

A group of experts from Hali magazine reviewing TAPI collection at Surat.

Trading of hand painted textiles from Masulipatnam in Andhra Pradesh and the woollen shawls from Kashmir to various countries in Europe was at its peak in the 18th-19th century. The great Indian durbars also called Imperial durbar/Delhi Durbar were held in Delhi in the years 1877,1903, and 1911. Artisans of Indian textile and other handicrafts were invited to these Durbars and given an opportunity to showcase their skills. In1911, Delhi Durbar was attended by King George V. Many artisans from provincial courts presented several textile items for personal use of the King and are exhibited in UK museum.

India is privileged to have many natural fibres from Plants, animals and insects which can be spun to weave a variety of textiles. Along with these there are many vegetable and mineral dyes, colours from semi-precious stones, which were and are continued to be used for adding colour to the Indian textiles. There are fine intricacies and complexities of making of textiles. The tedious processes of dyeing the textiles in array of colours before weaving and after weaving is an art. The complex design inserted with extra warp and weft in metallic filament and other dyed fibres in cotton, silk, and wool create their own enchanting impact. The finished fabrics adorned with the block printed motifs, embroideries appliqué paintings etc. has mesmerised the world of aesthetics for centuries. These wonderous textiles have travelled far and wide into various continents of the world.

My love for the Indian Textiles and tryst with display of variety of India ornated textiles in museums across the globe started after I joined Crafts Museum in July 1976. After completing my post-graduation in social anthropology, I was pursuing my PhD on Inter-caste relations in the slums of newly emerged colonies across the banks of Yamuna in Delhi with a JRF from ICSSR. While pursuing research, I received an interview call to work as a technical assistant under the scheme Documentation of Folk, tribal and traditional handicrafts in Crafts Museum – then located at Thapar House, New Delhi. Before appearing for the interview, I walked into the museum to get familiar with the place of work, where I am expected to work if selected. As I walked through the Galleries of the museum, I was amazed to see the fabulous collections of variety of Indian textiles displayed there.

This collection made me recall my passion for Kathak dance form and glitter of costumes that kept me engaged learning and performing it for many years. Decision was made instantaneously! This is what I want to pursue and that is where my long connect and ardour for the traditional Indian textiles began. I appeared for the interview and was selected. I gave up my JRF–ICSSR fellowship and moved into the domain of anthropology of textiles. Joy of exploring something exciting about every fabric that is documented has a unique sense of accomplishment. As a researcher I reviewed available literature to know more but learnt that the textiles were not much researched and talked about in the field of traditional Arts and Crafts. Materials like ivory, stone, bone, wood, and metal and leather captured critics fascination. My anthropological curiosity knew that there are many hidden stories that these fascinating textiles hide. Golden hues of Zardozi, symbolized by royal passions across the continents caught my curiosity.

I decided to change my research focus and instead of Inter-caste relations decided to do PhD on Zardozi art of embroidery. A community of Zardozi workers called Zardoz lived in the by-lanes of walled city of Delhi. I also lived in the same area and interacting and observing them on their intricate designs became a part of daily learning. In the absence of any trained supervisor on Indian textiles in the department of Anthropology, Delhi University, I decided to register for my PhD in the Department of Museology, Calcutta University. Dr. Amita Ray a Professor of Ancient Indian History at Kolkata university gave me lessons in history. My anthropological background had trained me for field work through participant observation. Thus emerged a PhD which is interdisciplinary. I published the thesis, and the book is titled Zardozi Glittering Gold Embroidery. This is how I came to be recognised as the textile’s expert.

From January 1990 to April 1990, I went to Victoria and Albert Museum as academic visitor. This visit provided an excellent opportunity to study large Indian textiles collections exhibited and stored there. Victoria and Albert museum has an excellent tradition of organizing textile exhibitions from different parts of the World. To celebrate vivaciousness of Indian textiles, exhibition of The Fabric of India was organized from 3rdOctober 2015 to 10thJanuary 2016. This exhibition explored the dynamic and multifaceted world of handmade textiles from India from third to twenty-first century. Replicas, images, and samples of rare textiles were exhibited. The skills, variabilities, and adaptability of the Indian textiles’ makers to the designers of all times made this exhibition an exceptional experience.

Sourced from the exhibition Fabric Art of India –Hali Magazine.
Sourced from the exhibition Fabric Art of India –Hali Magazine.

Colonial designs and lust for control over economics and world of design played havoc with the ancient tradition of textiles and indigenous designs from India. To promote their own mill textiles, Britishers deliberately curtailed its export. However, exporting of magnificent textiles continued to United states of America. Consequently, there is a large collection of splendid Indian textiles with many private collectors.

Indian Chintz collection, Johnson University of Art Cornell University.
Indian Chintz collection, Johnson University of Art Cornell University.

George Washington university museum, Washington DC, USA has a wonderful collection of textile art comprising of nearly 20000 articles from all over the world spanning over 5000 years. Exhibits include extraordinary collection of Indian carpets, tents, and several other items. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA is a treasure trove for every art lover. Indian Textiles from 1700-1944, primarily in dyed, printed, and painted cotton are major attractions. It has a fascinating amalgamation of past and contemporary designs and fashions. Museum for Textiles Toronto, Canada has a permanent textile collection dating back to 2,000 years. It showcases more than 13,000 artefacts including precious textiles, garments, carpets, quilts from all over the world. It also conducts rotating exhibitions showcasing the works of local, national, and international contemporary artists.

Sadly, there are no dedicated museums of Indian textiles in the world except the Calico Museum of Textiles located at Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. The Museum was curated by Gautam Sarabhai in the heart of one of the leading textile towns. There is a rich collection of handicrafts and textiles on display giving a glimpse of India’s rich heritage preserved against adversity. Several furnishings and costumes embellished with rich bead work, embroidery which is unique to India are displayed here.

Calico Museum – Ahmedabad tourism .com
Calico Museum – Ahmedabad tourism .com

All the ethnographic museums and museums of National/regional/local importance have dedicated Indian textiles collections. National Crafts Museum, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, National Museum, Janpath New Delhi, Indian Museum, Kolkata, Gurusaday Museum, Kolkata, West Bengal; Banaras Hindu University Museum, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and many more have good Indian textiles collections. To conserve treasure of Indian textiles and to acquaint the larger public with its splendour, Indian textiles are continuing to be collected, researched, preserved, and show cased in a handful of Museums around the globe.

I had the privilege of being associated with one such effort. During the last two years of my service, I was appointed as an expert to set a textiles museum initiated by the Ministry of external affairs through ICCR. The basic responsibility was to plan the Museum and develop and display the collection. In the year 2013 after my retirement from the Crafts Museum, I was posted as director of this upcoming museum, which only had a bare building, at the time of my joining.

MGCATT MUSEUM---- Cambodia
MGCATT MUSEUM---- Cambodia

As the founder director of this museum, I had the responsibility of setting up the museum under the guidance of Indian government. The land for the museum was given by the Cambodian government and the construction of museum building was financed by the Indian government.

Working on Display in the museum galleries-MGCATT MUSEUM
Working on Display in the museum galleries-MGCATT MUSEUM

Under the stewardship of former Prime Minister late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a dedicated museum of traditional textiles was developed in the year 2001in Cambodia. This planned initiative was undertaken as part of the look east policy of the Indian government. The museum known as Mekong Ganga Cooperation Asian Traditional Textiles Museum (MGCATT MUSEUM) was opened to public on 7thApril2014. As the name indicated the museum exhibits the traditional textiles and their contemporary adaptations from five countries along the bank of river Mekong flowing from Kunlun Mountains into Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand and India. It symbolises the path river Ganga follows from Himalayan mountains through northern India.

The five countries along the banks of Mekong river share several textiles traditions with India. Silk fibre found in all the five countries is woven with high skills after tying and dyeing the warp and weft yarn or only weft yarn. The intricate procedure of decoration known as ikat is practiced in all the six countries. This sharing of cultural civilizations paves avenues for building stronger neighbourly relations and promotes cross-cultural communication. The location of the museum is in the vicinity of the largest temple in terms of land mass- the Angkor Wat in Seam Reap City located in the north-west Cambodia. The city of Angkor is a UNSCO World heritage centre and has enormous tourist footfall.


Display of fabrics from the five countries at MGCATT MUSEUM
Display of fabrics from the five countries at MGCATT MUSEUM

Setting a new museum from its foundations is a unique challenge but spirit of anthropological enquiry and excitement of crafting a tribute to Indian traditions made my task easy and rewarding. Graduating students from the departments and schools of anthropology in India should consider adventurous experience of working in museums and evolving a career there. Love for exploring intricate world of textiles is an endless experience. Once in it, you are always there. Travel the road and live it up!