Weaves will, weaves will rock you: Reimagining the future of textiles
What else can fabrics be? Try AI-led storytelling tools, art, saris that weave ancient arts together. Artists are saying: Look, can you even tell this is cloth?
It can be hard to get people excited about textiles. We take cloth for granted — even though it is one of the most complex ancient inventions, and was likely one of the most expensive consumer goods in early civilisations.
We consider textiles part of a distant heritage we’ve heard rather enough about; like the aunt who was once at a Beatles concert. Admittedly cool; certainly historic. No longer riveting, though.
Well, prepare to be riveted. New projects are taking ancient weaves and heirloom fabrics (stay with us, now) and turning them into AI-led journeys across time, space and culture; airport installations that reflect the many moods of the fliers that stand before it; saris that combine ancient art forms to stunning effect.
All in efforts to answer two questions: How do we keep this rich, lush heritage relevant, contemporary and exciting? How do we make it new again?
This is important, not just from the point of view of tradition and craftsmanship. (Though that is vital too. The number of weavers and allied workers, for instance, has fallen by half, from about 6.74 million in 1987-88 to 3.52 million in 2019-20, according to the fourth All India Handloom Census.)
It is important because our identity and our history of innovation are intrinsically woven into our textiles. The Ajrakh print and the Paithani weave, the Kanjeevaram, Chanderi and Benarasi silk are part of the flag we have waved to the world for centuries, declaring who we are and what we can do. “But, across the board, weavers, pre-loom workers, craftspersons can only sustain their livelihoods if they get both respect and revenue,” says Jaya Jaitly, founder and president of the Dastkari Haat Samiti, and a veteran textile and handicrafts curator.
Our textiles are also vital because they tend to be more sustainable than the fast fashion that generally replaces them. “Ours is a country filled with clusters and clusters of artisans who have historically respected and worked in tandem with nature to create textiles that last decades. At a time when we’re discussing climate and sustainability, we need these handloom artisans,” Jaitly says.
How this heritage is reimagined is crucial in the hyper-capitalist now; perhaps more so than at any other point in our history.
Read the stories alongside for some of the newest attempts at such a reimagining: the saris that combine ancient arts; the unusual airport installation; the Sutr Santati (Continuity of Yarn) project and more.
Now, paint yourself into the picture.
“Meaningful, large-scale change will not happen until demand changes. And that won’t happen until fashion changes,” says author and climate-tech investor Mridula Ramesh. “My 11-year-old daughter opts for a T-shirt and shorts far more than a beautifully handcrafted handloom piece, even though the latter is more suited to local climate and is likely better for the planet and for livelihoods. We need our textiles to be considered meaningful, yes; but we also need them to be considered aspirational and straight-up cool.”
AI builds the thread
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are helping viewers travel across continents, centuries and cultures, through the medium of textile art, in a new project unfolding in India.
Interwoven is a collaboration between Bengaluru’s Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) and Microsoft’s AI for Cultural Heritage initiative. Accessible through the platform (interwoven.map-india.org) are about 2,500 artefacts — clothes, textiles, accessories, paintings, maps and wall hangings — from across 15 museums, including MAP, London’s Victoria and Albert, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Paris Musees, the Harvard Art Museums and the Smithsonian Institution.
Users can pick an artwork, select a combination of filters, and let the platform make connections across its repository. Textile art / Leisure / 18th to 20th century, for instance, throws up a dhurrie from India depicting an Englishman out on a hunt; a scroll of eight Japanese scholars in various states of inebriation; and a 1760s-70s tapestry from France featuring young men and women playing games in a park, among other works.
A 20th century fluorescent pink velvet phiran from Uttar Pradesh and the filters Textile art / Fashion / All eras, yields about 50 samples and representations of traditional coats, jackets, and related artefacts. These include a 16th-century painting of a princess in robe, sash and tunic, holding a bottle of wine and a cup, from Iran’s Safavid era.
“We want to democratise art,” says MAP director Kamini Sawhney. “This way, you’re directed to a whole new journey of connected artefacts, whole new stories. The possibilities are endless,” she says.
In addition to the customisable route, the platform offers pre-defined journeys. These span themes such as imperialism; leisure and games; representations of congested spaces and conflicting classes. A journey titled Women Across Time, Genre and Space - An Object Lesson, offers a visual history of women’s attire, with images ranging from a 19th-century Deccan Pichwai in silk featuring Krishna’s gopis in elaborate ghagras to a 19th-century class portrait of a Catholic girl’s school in France, with girls in blouses and bonnets.
In another curated journey, titled Crowd, Crown and Conflict, the viewer journeys across South Asia, South America and Japan, with art works including a frame-within-a-frame 1937 painting of a gentlemanly art connoisseur, double monocle in hand, inspecting a painting of a protest.
Search for the kairi motif, or paisley, meanwhile, and one finds oneself in ancient Babylon, Persia, Mughal India, Kashmir, and Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. “Textiles influence our economies, lifestyles, labour, politics, and consumption in so many ways. In these polarised times, we felt they could serve as a way to highlight commonalities,” Sawhney says. “We picked textiles for the AI exploration because the journeys they have made across the globe are also so compelling, we felt it would be an important starting point from which to explore this new technology.”
A ‘city’ of emotions that sits beside a runway
If fermented coconut water can be used to make a textile, why are our ideas of the medium so limited, says experimental weaver and textile artist Pragati Mathur, 57. “The sky’s the limit to what it can be.”
In some ways, she’s breached that limit. Her installation, themed on the nine emotions or navrasa of the classical Indian performing arts, hangs at Terminal 2 of Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International Airport. It was created with master weavers and artisans from Bengaluru and from Turuvekere, in Karnataka’s Tumkur district.
Red silk tentacles curl angrily, dark brass pellets swirl, cloudy tufts of organza drift as copper flowers glint and twinkle. An ancient textile-art technique (tapestry weaving, shag pile craft, basketry, block prints) is at play in each segment, paired with an unorthodox material (copper, metal pellets, steel strips).
The concept — which won against more than 400 sent in by artists from across the country — itself draws inspiration from an interpretation: the 16th-century Bijapur ruler Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s poetic treatise, Kitab-i-Nauras, an exploration of the rasa theory of the Natyashastra. “Ibrahim Adil Shah II was so fascinated by the rasas, he is said to have conceived of a nine-tiered city, Nauraspur. Although I found no further details about his conceptual city, I imagined it to be organised by feeling, representing, by extension, the different facets of what it means to be human.”
At the airport, Mathur’s art work, titled Nauraspur and unveiled in September, forms a 500-sq-ft suspended city of emotions. The tentaclesare anger, Mathur says, because of how that emotion can sneak up on and grab you. “The tentacles have these knots, which is what anger leaves us in,” she says.
A wall of copper wire and cotton yarn with handcrafted copper flowers is happiness. An upside-down whirlpool of brass pellets and copper wire represents the trio of fear, revulsion and jealousy. “Because amid those emotions, we tend to spiral… The work is lined with a silver gota border to say that if we just take a step back, we’ll find a silver lining,” she says.
Wonderment is a tapestry of cascading windows inspired by her first international flight, to London, in the 1970s. “My father kept insisting we stick our faces in the windows. That first view of the clouds, hills, the earth beneath left me with a sense of wonderment as a 10-year-old,” she says.
When people walk by her installation, she hopes they experience a similar sense of revelation. “I’d love for people to rethink what textiles can be, what they can evoke in us,” she says.
Ulterior motifs: Pichwai worked into a pallu
Entrepreneur Bharathy Harish, 43, is mixing things up in the village of Uppada, in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.
She is taking the ancient Jamdani weave, which has roots in present-day Bangladesh and West Bengal and travelled under royal patronage to Uppada, and cross-breeding it with a traditional art form from Nathdwara, Rajasthan: the Pichwai painting.
Madhurya, her Bengaluru boutique, is working with six families of artisans (led by master weaver Laxman Rao Tammisetty) to offer six designs. Instead of the conventional patterns of rosebuds, lattices and diagonal lines, there are intricate herds of cows, representations of Krishna, dancing peacocks and rain clouds.
The paintings were created by a woman Pichwai artist, Santosh Lohar, for Madhurya. The saris each have the pattern woven in manually, “at the rate of about an inch a day at most,” Harish says. A sari takes about eight months to complete, and is priced at ₹1.5 lakh to ₹1.8 lakh.
Harish is hoping that the fresh approach will draw more young weavers into the fold. In her 10 years of working with Uppada weavers, she has seen people leave the profession to do far less remarkable jobs, she says.
She is also hoping the saris will draw influential, young fashionistas. That did happen with her last experiment: a batch of saris released in 2017-18. They were Chanderis, Banarasi silks and Kanjeevarams that looked perfectly traditional, until one peered more closely.
Then one saw that the motifs on the Banarasi were tiny flamingos or dachshunds. On the Chanderi were baby elephants. And on the Kanjeevaram, tiny gold-and-black bunnies. A special Chanderi featuring a motif of three tiny kittens was sent to actor Alia Bhatt and went viral when she wore it to an awards ceremony.
These were made as part of a collaboration with Bollywood stylist Ami Patel. Prices range from ₹20,000 to ₹35,000. The weavers were tickled at the motifs, Harish says. “They kept asking, ‘Akka (Sister), are you sure?’ But it was very well-received. We still get orders for them.”
A brown bud blooms
Cotton has been cultivated in India for about 5,000 years. And it’s still throwing up surprises.
The Registry of Sarees (TRS), a textile research centre in Bengaluru, is researching an indigenous variety of naturally coloured cotton that blooms brown, and does not need to be dyed.
It is, additionally, pest-resistant, drought-resistant and requires about 25% less water than the prevalent hybrid varieties (many of which, incidentally, are not indigenous to India). “With the need for dyeing eliminated, further reducing the use and wastage of water, chemicals and energy, this is a more sustainable variety to grow,” says TRS creative head Barkha Gupta.
It was BM Khadi, an agricultural scientist at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Dharwad, who rediscovered the variety, while testing samples from the varsity’s seed bank in 1983. “Instead of the usual white cotton, a naturally coloured brown cotton plant began growing in the midst of a white cotton field,” says Gupta. “Around 2019, we learnt of research that the University was conducting on this cotton, and decided to develop it into our own project.”
TRS purchased seeds for Dharwad Desi Coloured Cotton (DDCC-1) from the varsity and is currently working with farmers in two districts to grow it.
In a first batch, enough was grown to spin about 800 metres of fabric, which was used to craft a collection of shirts, trousers, jackets and kurtas, in 2020. It was sold through TRS’s Yali store. A second such crop was recently harvested.
“The fabric is supple. The hand-spinning lends it a coarse texture. It’s perfect for the cool winters here in Bengaluru,” Gupta says. “We’re now exploring its entire ecology — seeds, fibres, fabric forms — trying to create a conversation about its benefits and explore whether there can be a market for a sustainable business in this area.”
An unlikely Ganesha and other tales
The Padmashali weavers of Andhra Pradesh believe the first thread in the universe was drawn from Vishnu’s navel. The name Padmashali comes from padma (for the lotus held by Vishnu) and shali (for weaver). They consider themselves descendants of the cloth-spinning sage Bhavana.
In Odisha, the generational artisans of Nuapatna weave the khandua ikat that dresses idols of Jagannath and his companions, Balabhadra and Subhadra.
Among the nomadic Vaghari tribe of Gujarat, cloth is itself the shrine. Banned from entering temples, they sought to carry the mata or goddess with them, painting her image on giant squares of cloth that travelled with them.
At an ongoing exhibition in Mumbai, about 200 weavers, textile revivalists and designers from across the country take the story of such crafts forward. Sutr Santati – Then.Now.Next, opened in August 2022, at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) Delhi, travelled to the Melbourne Museum in Australia, and is now at NGMA Mumbai until January 7.
“Sutr means thread in Sanskrit; santati is continuity. This is an exploration of the continuity of yarn,” says curator and textiles revivalist Lavina Baldota. The exhibition seeks to answer the questions: What more can textiles be? How else can they become part of our lives, today and in the future?
A wall hanging by architect and designer Ashiesh Shah reimagines the familiar red threads of the moli, tied around the wrist by Hindus to ward off evil. He uses the red thread to create a form of Ganesha, in a wall hanging titled Manka Moli Ganesh that also incorporates the red beads made of wood and lacquer used by the toy-makers of Channapatna village in Karnataka.
In all, 200 such exhibits showcase processes such as hand weaving, embroidery, resist-dyeing, printing, painting and appliqué, and a range of fibres that include mulberry and other wild silks; camel and sheep’s wool; goat and yak hair; and lotus, banana and water-hyacinth fibres.
Baldota’s brief to the participants was simple: use natural, Indian yarns, harness indigenous fibres and techniques, and create a language that’s contemporary. “Ultimately, it’s the younger generations who will be custodians of our textile heritage,” she says. “And only if they connect with these textiles can they realise their significance, and take their narrative forward.”