The Fabric of India: the Ghost of the India Museum in London

Barbara Franchi is a final-year PhD student and Assistant Lecturer at the School of English, University of Kent. Her thesis examines the role of intertextuality and ekphrasis in the fiction of A. S. Byatt, and her research interests are neo-Victorian fiction, feminism, postcolonial studies and fairy tales. She teaches Nineteenth-Century literature and Critical Theory at Kent.

Email: B.Franchi@kent.ac.uk

Twitter: @barbara_franchi

Have you ever wondered where the word cotton comes from? Or what a bandanna is made of? And do you know what these two words have in common with British imperialism and Gandhi’s non-violent revolution for India’s independence? I found the answers to all these questions and many more at a recent visit to the colourful, rich and fascinating exhibition The Fabric of India, which ran at the Victorian and Albert Museum between October 2015 and the 10th of January this year. This exhibition celebrated the Indian textile tradition in a broad sense and included artefacts from the whole subcontinent, including the Republic of India, as well as modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Displaying ‘the best of the V&A’s world-renowned collection together with masterpieces from international partners and leading designers’,[i] viewing The Fabric of India made me reflect on how powerful material culture can be in shaping history, in particular the history of trade relations, colonialism and independence in the Indian subcontinent. As a neo-Victorianist, I was also curious to see how so many historical pieces could address the legacy of the past era of imperialism on the contemporary role of India in the postmodern and global imagination. I was not disappointed – at least, not from a purely visual point of view.

The exhibits on display ranged from the legendary tents owned by eighteenth-century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan to chintz bed hangings made on demand for European aristocrats, and even actual silk cocoons.

Photograph copyright Barbara Franchi

Photograph copyright Barbara Franchi

Indian fabrics have long played a crucial role not only in India’s relations with the rest of the world, but also with its representations in western culture. From the material texture to the textuality of India, few objects have been more influential than saris, Kashmir shawls and khadi cloths in shaping the western and often problematically orientalist ideas which have been associated to India from the eighteenth century and the Victorian era onwards. The histories that each exhibit told are significant in this respect: whether meant for domestic, decorative, commercial, political or religious use, each piece not only brought testimony of its place of origins, but it also contributed to shaping the perception of India abroad.

Take the example of cotton and silk, the textiles which are synonymous with the subcontinent’s fabric production. Called ‘India’ in Ancient Greece and Babylon, cotton’s first specimens (some early examples were on display at the exhibition) date back to 4,000 BC, and have been found throughout the subcontinent and beyond, in areas such as Jordan and the Egyptian side of the Red Sea. Cotton is therefore as old as its trade.

More valuable than cotton and not an actual Indian invention (it was created in China), silk stands for the second best-known textile product from India. While certainly less widespread because less affordable than cotton, silk is divided in a least two categories: tasar, or rough silk, and the more refined, commercial silk, intended for trade throughout the world and mostly obtained from mulberry silkworms (Bombyx mori). So-called because of the mulberry leaves that the worms love eating, this type of silk also shows how much the production of such worldly-famous fabrics depends on the local vegetation and fauna.

I also learned that bandhana means ‘to tie’ in Hindi and that a cotton cloth is a bandana only if it has a dotted design on it; ikats, conversely, are two fabrics of different colours dyed together whereas you need to go through up to 14 (!) stages of dyeing to obtain an ajrakh.

It would be hard to account of all the greatest hits that these stunning exhibits displayed: if I had to choose the best pieces, I would certainly pick a huge bhitiya, a wonderful wall hanging on a cotton piece with animals, patterns and humans.

Photograph copyright Barbara Franchi

Photograph copyright Barbara Franchi

Equally, a 1870s pashmina shawl representing the map of the city of Srinagar, Kashmir, proved another favourite of mine.

Photograph copyright Barbara Franchi

Photograph copyright Barbara Franchi

One of the most fascinating facts I learnt throughout the exhibition, however, was the role that textiles, in particular khadi, played in paving the way to India’s independence and post-imperial age. Khadi is a very simple, hand-woven, whitish cotton cloth, and was made famous worldwide as the garment that Gandhi adopted throughout his non-violent protests of Indian independence. A metonymy for Gandhi and his battles, during pre-independence years the khadi became an emblem for Indian resistance, as well as a rediscovery and reassessment of traditional spinning techniques, whose survival was threatened by the industrial production implemented by British rule. In independent, modern India, khadi still has important connotations in the nation’s cultural memory: Indian flags are still made exclusively of khadi, and, in their white section, they feature the image of a wheel. A symbol of eternal repetition and reincarnation of Hindu tradition, thanks to Gandhi it has also become the wheel of the loom, which spun the history of the nation’s independence and future.

A pure feast for the eyes, the exhibition was highly informative and thought-provoking. Nonetheless, I think that the curators missed a great opportunity: a sign in the first room indicated how many of the pieces from the V&A’s own Indian collection come from the former India Museum in London (1801-1879). Unfortunately there was no more information available, but it would have been extremely interesting to find out more about the history of this collection, and how and why many of these pieces ended up in London in the first place. A ‘phantom collection of a phantom orient,’[ii] as Jonathan Jones termed it in an article appeared on the Guardian in 2003, this museum is a lost piece in the history of how imperialism obtained foreign treasures, and shaped the museum as a national institution in Britain. Given the primary relevance of trade in Indian textile production and industry over millennia, ‘The Fabric of India’ would have been the perfect occasion to rediscover this Victorian ghost and transform it into a neo-Victorian space of historical acknowledgement and postcolonial reassessment.

While the primary aim of the exhibition, namely the celebration of the fantastic textile tradition of the Indian subcontinent was fully successful, I think that a wider reflection on the implications of imperialism would have been useful. By mentioning the presence of the imperial trace implicit in the exhibition (through the reference to the India Museum), ‘The Fabric of India’ hinted at the Victorian and imperial legacy which underlay so many of its exhibits, without fully voicing it. Allowing it to become part of the discussion could, in my opinion, only have helped making the exhibition more complete, and even more fascinating.

[i] The Fabric of India: About the Exhibition, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/the-fabric-of-india/about-the-exhibition/.

[ii] Jones, Jonathan, ‘Fugitive Pieces’ (The Guardian online, 25 September 2003), http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2003/sep/25/heritage.art.

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