This book celebrates India's spectacular textile art. It takes the reader
on a visual odyssey spanning 500 years, tracing the images created on cloth
for India's magnificent courts and temples, as well as for more distant but
not less discerning patrons in Europe and Asia. It showcases the motifs and
colors of some of the most remarkable Indian textiles to have survived from
the past. Several of these have never been published before, and some appeared
in textile books and journals so many decades ago that they are now nearly unknown.
At a time when specialist studies have confined the appreciation and study of
India's historical textiles to academic circles and connoisseurs, this book
offers a unique survey of the subject to a new generation of textile enthusiasts,
practitioners, and researchers.
RahuI Jain is a textile researcher and historian who lives and works in New Delhi. His publications include technical studies of the traditional Indian draw loom, the woven silks of Sultanate India, as well as the court velvets, sashes, and luxury fabrics of Mughal India. He has also written about contemporary Indian hand- crafted textiles. He runs a workshop of traditional draw looms in Varanasi. The workshop weaves silk serine, larrups, and velvet textiles modeled on historical Indian and Iranian fabrics.
Even in the 21st century, several million Indian craftspeople continue to use traditional weaving and patterning techniques to create unique textiles. Weavers, embroiderers, printers, and dyers all over the region produce traditional garment fabrics for the fashion industry, contemporary home furnishings, ritual and temple cloths, common tourist souvenirs, and materials for the export trade. Today, these hand-made textiles may be de cribbed as traditional or contemporary, depending on one's point of view. Their hybrid textures, patterns, and hues reflect the sweeping economic and cultural changes in this part of the world. Yet, many of these artisanal cloths still carry the imprint of centuries-old decorative motifs, patterns, and design arrangements. Traditional images of flowering trees and plants, floral sprays and paisleys, birds and animals, ritual and iconic symbols, imaginary landscapes, and scenes of celebration and worship, continue to be expressed in a variety of textile techniques. These fading artistic vocabularies were born of a history of spectacular textile design, about which contemporary craftspeople and their patrons know little. It is this Indian tradition that this book sets out to celebrate.
The history of image-making in India's textile arts survives principally in the region's court, temple, and trade cloths that are now preserved in museum and other art collections around the world. In most places, these historical pieces are rarely on display for public viewing. Although many have appeared in textile books and journals over the years, the published works are far too numerous for non-specialists, particularly younger textile enthusiast, access and to view as a single visual narrative. Oddly enough Facing page: Detail of panel, cotton patterned with block-printed, stenciled, and hand-drawn resist or mordents, 515 cm x 80 cm, late 16th and early 17th century, Coromandel coast, Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore, 2669 despite the great number of publications, there exists no illustrated overview of Indian textile imagery from the centuries preceding the modern era. This book attempts to fill that gap. It showcases historical Indian textiles from some three dozen collections located across four continents. It includes some of the most striking, as well as some of the least known, of the surviving Indian pieces. The images depicted on these cloths are arranged to trace the historical evolution of Indian textile design at the highest levels of patronage and production.
The narrative emphasizes the essential unity and flow of a great river of surface art but does not subvert the uniqueness of its many individual streams. The text that accompanies this visual journey is, in some ways, a personal rumination on the beauty and significance of the illustrated works. To that extent, it offers an intimate point of view. At the same time, it also sketches varying aspects of the context in which the textiles were created and used. These explanations have been kept simple and succinct for those readers who are unfamiliar with the historical settings and with matters of textile technique and workmanship. The copious descriptions from historical texts, and the visual parallels from the other Indian arts, which generally accompany such presentations, have been excluded. Those references are best pursued in the more specialist publications, some of which are listed at the end. Instead, this book takes a more visceral visual approach that might spark a spontaneous appreciation in a newer, younger generation of readers. It might inspire some into exploring, beyond this book, the many facets of this appealing historic art.
The textiles of the Indian subcontinent have captivated the world for more than two thousand years. No other region has been home to a greater variety of fiber, fabric, and patterning technique. Indian craftspeople created magnificent woven, embroidered, and resist-patterned textiles, as well as cloths painted or printed with dyes and pigments, for the region's temples and courts. They expertly adapted a wide range of apparel and furnishing fabrics to foreign tastes. These were exported across the globe and created a sensation wherever they reached. Most of these historical fabrics, whether produced for Indian patrons or traded to distant regions, have perished with time. This is particularly true of the subcontinent, where climatic and cultural conditions have aided the destruction of most types of cloth. As a result, the record of India's textile production and trade preceding the late medieval period has survived mostly in historical literary works, temple inscriptions, court chronicles, and travelogues.
Textiles differ, in important ways, from all other manufactured objects. Above all else, a textile is a sensual material that is held in close proximity to the human body. Its texture, weight, and dimensionality, even at their subtlest, exert a powerful sensation upon skin. These physical properties merit as much appreciation as a fabric's visual qualities of pattern and color. At their finest, Indian textiles, whether of cotton, silk or wool, offered an unparalleled sensory experience: cotton muslins that were woven to the thinness of air and that flowed over the body as would water; dye-painted chintzes glazed like polished parchment; tapestry- patterned wool worked to the thinness and translucency of silk; and metallic tissues calendared to resemble beaten gold and silver. In many instances, the workmanship of Indian fabrics approached a certain material limit, breaching as it were the territory of an altogether different medium. India's textile artisans excelled at the transformation of the ordinary.
While the material qualities of India's cotton, silk, and wool textiles were exceptional, the patterns created for these fabrics were not entirely unique. The images depicted on these cloths belonged, ultimately, to a greater Indian tradition of surface design. Line, motif, and color, as well as their arrangement into a decorative or narrative image drew from an earthy, fertile, and widespread substrate of what have been called, far too narrowly, the 'folk' and 'provincial' arts. To greater or lesser extent, textile patterns followed, or inspired, the decoration of all sorts of utilitarian objects and paraphernalia produced for daily life, work, leisure, and ceremony, as well as the decoration of domestic and ritual spaces. It was in the elite cloths commissioned by India's wealthy temples, courts, and merchant classes that textile design entered a more rarefied terrain. In these instances, textile patterns adapted images and styles from more formally worked stone, metal, and wood, as well as from mural and manuscript painting, and in turn entered the decorative programmers embedded in these arts. The great foreign demand for Indian cloth, furthermore, required Indian artisans to imitate or interpret unfamiliar images from distant cultures. Equally, the import of select varieties of foreign textiles into India added new motifs to the prevailing local vocabularies. For the most part, therefore, the design of India's surviving historical cloths spans a wide overlap between the so-called folk and classical realms. It occupies a striking artistic interface that was continuously enriched by the assimilation of motifs and styles from foreign sources. It produced in turn a number of pattern genres that profoundly influenced the history of decorative design in many parts of the world.
Much of the surviving Indian material belongs to a relatively late period of Muslim rule and influence over large parts of the subcontinent. Therefore, many of the surviving textiles are decorated with the formal and repetitive arrangements, the elegant foliate motifs, and the symmetrical linear, geometric, and arabesque patterns that were favored universally in the arts of the Islamic world. In most instances, however, these patterns are highly indigenized. Their hybrid style reflects the eclectic and heterogeneous tastes prevailing at India's medieval courts and shrines as well as the force of millennia-old pattern-making traditions. The formalism and abstraction that are characteristic of Islamic ornament are tempered and softened in these textiles. Often, birds and animals are incorporated freely into the design. Other surviving textiles show an even greater divergence from these Indo-Islamic vocabularies. Human figures appear as their principal subjects. Their landscapes and narratives are depicted with a bold but sensitive line, a sensuousness of form, an asymmetry of arrangement, and a sense of monumentality. These quintessentially Indian qualities may be traced, ultimately, to ancient local traditions of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain art, and their preoccupation with plasticity and a life-like rendition of volume and weight. Very generally, therefore, the design of India's historical textiles reflects a meeting of two great streams. It blends the order and elegance of Medieval Islamic decoration, and of its derivative Indian styles, with the voluptuous naturalism of India's ancient arts. This synthesis sometimes created curious hybrids, but often produced objects of Great beauty and distinction.
The Majority of the Textiles illustrated in the book were created for the royal places and tents and the temple shrines of medieval India well as for aristocratic patrons in Europe and in southeast central and West Asia. These elite cloths were prized for their design and workmanship and carefully stored in court and temple treasuries as well as in the holding of princely estates. For ceremonial use and for their preservation as ritual object. Over the centuries however only a small number have survived. It is through these relatively few exclusive pieces that the branch and richness of India’s historical textile design must be imagined and appreciated. The Indian cloths of everyday use in comparison were simply discarded or recycled. Like all organic material they perished without leaving a trace.
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