Read an exclusive excerpt from Inspired by India by Phyllida Jay

Updated on Dec 09, 2022 07:05 PM IST

From our grandmother’s closets to runways around the world, Indian textiles, techniques and traditions live a well-travelled life, but they haven’t always received due credit. In this excerpt from the introductory chapter of her new book, British anthropologist Jay discusses changes underway and changes that must be made.

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ByPhyllida Jay

India has continued to inspire a free reigning realm of imagination, hybridity and creativity. Beaton and Parkinson helped ignite India in the imagination through photography in post-war Britain. Tim Walker has created iconic fashion images of India through his signature romantic and surrealist vision in the post-millennium.

In Walker’s images, genteel decay and anachronistic juxtapositions echo the picturesque preoccupations of romantic painters travelling to India in the eighteenth century and the hallucinatory-cum-spiritual lens through which travellers have often viewed India since the 1960s.

This ‘hallucinatory’ lens is often how designers continue to view India. For example, Sarah Burton revisited the contrasting themes of British punk and Raj nostalgia evident in the late Alexander McQueen’s remarkable collection ‘The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’ AW/2008 (see chapter ‘India Redux: Tiger Burning Bright’). For Menswear, Spring-Summer 2017, Burton drew on the imagery of bejewelled maharajas. With the collection styled by Alister Mackie for Another magazine.

Here nose rings – markers of traditional Indian womanhood – fused with the quintessential punk motif of safety-pin facial piercings. To quote stylist Mackie, ‘So we’re in India, but we’re going there via John Lennon and George Harrison.’

Integrating sherwanis and the buta motif rendered in sumptuous silver embroideries on a black background served as sartorial shorthand for India. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Indian designer-wear would recognize the similarities (and creative liberties taken) with the reinventions of royal historical costumes for modern Indian consumers. Since economic opening, visual representations by Indian designers that cater to both a domestic and disapora audience steeped in nostalgia for the spectacularly opulent and feudal world of the maharajas have become increasingly prevalent.

When looking to India for inspiration, even whilst maharaja chic often plays at the edges of consciousness of both Western and Indian designers, in its shared fantasies of royal splendour, other histories and facets of Indian art, craft and design often remain obscured.

A fresh generation of designers, photographers, stylists and other creatives within India are challenging stereotypical representations of India. Many international brands when integrating Indian inspiration are beginning to recognize the importance of working with Indian creatives.

In addition, the densely entwined history of British socialism, Indian nationalism and the ethics of craft continue to play out in modern phenomena such as the ethics of luxury and supply chains. These are fundamental issues inextricable from the challenges global fashion and European luxury brands face today, raising another facet explored in this book: the visible, invisible, and invisibilized.

In the embattled domain of cultural representation, what may not look conventionally ‘Indian’ may be a product of the exceptional skills of India’s embroidery artisans producing for some of the world’s leading luxury brands. The politics of value and issues of representation of Indian craft are explored in the final chapter...

Designers continue to draw inspiration from India, or perhaps more precisely, certain representations and ideas of India. As later chapters on paisley, jewellery and contemporary luxury will demonstrate – a thriving community of artists and designers working within India and the diaspora are an integral part of this narrative of cultural exchange and creativity and what it means to be ‘Inspired by India’.

(Excerpted with permission from Inspired by India by Phyllida Jay, published by Roli Books; 2022)

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