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History with cloth

Three days of textile heaven ensued as experts and enthusiasts convened under the pleasure domes of Jaipur’s Diggi Palace, valourising cloth as a performing artist in its own right, reports Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2008 23:25 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Every fabric has a story of its own, was the starting thought for Pramod Kumar KG when he conceived and curated ‘Mantles of Myth’, a three-day international conference on Indian textile narratives in Jaipur last weekend. Collaborating with Mita Kapur, CEO of Siyahi, the Jaipur-based writers’ consultancy, Kumar pulled in his wishlist of speakers from three continents while some of the audience flew in from every corner of India and some from outside.

Three days of textile heaven ensued as experts and enthusiasts convened under the pleasure domes of Jaipur’s Diggi Palace, valourising cloth as a performing artist in its own right.

Scholar Kavita Singh, for instance, made a brilliant caste-art-politics presentation on the Rajasthani phad, the scroll painting tradition of medieval cattle heroes Pabuji and Dev Narayan, remarking on the irony of Gujjars now wanting a political downgrade to Scheduled Caste status while their own scroll tradition pointed to an urge to Sanskritise as Rajputs. Another fascinating talk, by bureaucrat-writer Mamang Dai, filled in a few blanks in ‘mainstream’ heads about the woven narratives of the North-east — worldviews, myth and legend, ritual — highlighting cloth as the carrier of culture.

Susan Bean, curator of South Asian Art and Culture at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem in Massachusetts, presented khadi as a three-act political costume drama staged by Mahatma Gandhi. Well-packaged for a foreign audience, it was simple material for Indians with no new insights, though Bean’s stirring visuals and the sentiments evoked by khadi made it a tale worth hearing yet again.

Three talks stood out for their close-ups of sacred swathes. Anna L. Dallapiccola, former Professor of Indian Art at the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg, Germany, and author of the catalogue of South Indian paintings at the British Museum, London, spoke on samples of 19th century ‘kalamkari’ Ramayana hangings at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum, London. Rosemary Crill, senior curator at the V&A’s Asian department, unfurled the tale of old ‘gohain kapar’ (priests’ cloths), the silk lampas weave first made in Assam in the mid-16th century when Shankara Deva instituted Vaishnavism in the region. Called ‘Vrindavani Vastra’, they tell of Vishnu’s avatars and epic incidents and have now vanished off the textile map.

Professor Kalyan Krishna, head of the history department at Benares Hindu University spoke movingly about the ‘pichwai’ cloth paintings of Krishna as Srinathji of Nathdwara: the pilgrim takeaway that modern India, since the 1970s, has never tired of as essential home décor.

From the hands-on end, couture designer Wendell Rodericks explained the old Goan skirt-blouse-stole ensemble called Pano-Bhaju. There was blood in every stitch for it bore witness to Goa’s brutal colonial history and the changes enforced when the Portuguese converted Hindus, held an Inquisition and abolished Indian clothing edict by edict in the 17th-18th centuries. Rodericks spoke with passion and detail and should be invited by cultural institutions around India to share this incredible story complete with his archival slides. He showcased that history works best when not brushed under the carpet but faced squarely and accepted as past.

Such stories poignantly underscored that this was the first time in India that textile scholars, designers and activists had come together with ‘cloth kathas’. It recalled the first-ever conference on Indian manuscripts two years ago, that historic gathering that had manuscript people from Malabar interacting for the first time with those from Manipur, with delighted cries between bhashas about each other’s inks and tricks of preservation. It was organised by the National Mission for Manuscripts, that short-lived (four-years) wunderkid of the Ministry of Culture virtually killed off last year by its under-achieving ‘parent’ body, the Indira Gandi National Centre for the Arts.

Fortunately, the Siyahi initiative is a privately funded effort that can’t fall prey to inter-babu rivalry and ministerial ignorance.

A book on ‘Mantles of Myth’ seems in order now to restore such lost or forgotten stitches to the fabric of India. Meanwhile, begin to catch up with the lushly informative Textiles from India: The Global Trade (Seagull Books), edited by Rosemary Crill of the V&A, collating papers from a textile trade conference in Kolkata in October 2003.