Canopies for the Goddess

Canopy, matani chandarvo, for goddesses
Unknown workshop in Jambusar (India), early 20th century
Cotton fabric, painted and printed, mordant dyed red and black, additionally painted yellow, orange and pink, 210 x 232 cm. Museum Rietberg Zurich.
Gift of Eberhard and Barbara Fischer

Canopies for the Goddess is the name created for this large-scale exhibition of illustrated textiles from Gujarat, India. These textiles mark sacred places used specifically for the veneration of goddesses. These printed or painted cloths tell the deeds of the 20-armed goddess Vihat, the buffalo-killing goddess Khodiyar, or Bahuchara Mata, who is often depicted riding a giant cockerel.  The men of the semi-nomadic community of the Vagri have been producing these beautifully worked illustrated textiles for many generations in the major manufacturing city of Ahmedabad, one of the oldest and most important textile centres in the world.

As rag-pickers, seasonal workers, peddlers and ropemakers, they lead a socially marginalised and precarious life. The buyersof the textiles are also underprivileged groups such as street cleaners, donkey drivers or camel and sheep herders, all people who in former times were excluded from attending orthodox Hindu temples. The ‘temple cloths’ are gifts to their goddesses, offered to obtain well-being, children and success, and protection from illness. The Vagri use them to decorate their simple shrines, made from pounded earth and otherwise devoid of religious images, and to make the canopies and tent walls that mark out the boundary of the sacred district, separating it from its mostly inhospitable surroundings. The cloths also serve as invitations to the goddess to come there to perform her rituals.

This exhibition shows a selection of these extraordinary textiles from an important collection, recently given to the museum by its  former director – Dr Eberhard Fischer.  It is an unique opportunity to explore   the techniques and production processes, the religious iconography and ritual use of these important cloths.

Until 14 April at Museum Rietberg, Gablerstrasse 15,
CH-8002 Zürich, www.rietberg.ch. Catalogue in German, or English, available.