Textiles of India. red velvet gold embroidery

Powerhouse’s new exhibition presenting highlights from the museum’s expansive collection of Indian textiles opened on 13 August. Taking its title from charkha (spinning wheel) and kargha (loom), this latest exhibition in Sydney features over 100 textiles that date back to the foundational collections of the museum acquired since the 1880s. The exhibition coincides with the 75th anniversary of India’s independence and demonstrates the role that textiles played in India’s movement towards independence from colonial rule.

The 2nd of October marks the anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi (1868-assassinated 1948). He once said, in regard to the rise of the textile factories in Britain, ‘It is difficult to measure the harm that Manchester has done to us’. The consequences of colonisation by cloth provoked a resistance movement in which textiles played an important role in the development of Indian nationhood and identity. Gandhi went on to say: ‘Foreign cloth must be totally banished from the Indian market, if India is to become an economically free nation, if her peasantry to be freed from chronic pauperism… Protection of her staple industry is her birthright’. He called on his people to wear khadi (handspun and handwoven cloth) and ‘Gandhi’ caps that became a powerful tool of protest, and a spinning wheel was incorporated into the design of the flag for the nationalist movement and holds a special place in India’s history of freedom and independence.

Mahatma Gandhi

In 1918, Mahatma Gandhi used khadi cloth as a key part of the Swadeshi Movement, formed to boycott the use of imported products and materials. It was believed that this would help to lift India out of poverty by creating industry and local jobs. It would also free India from its reliance on expensive, imported goods which were being imported into the country from Britain – even though the raw materials often originated in India. Khadi became the heart of this strategy when Gandhi asked every man and woman to plant and harvest their own materials for the yarn needed to create khadi fabric. He also asked the nation, from all levels of society, to spend time each day spinning khadi.

Marking Indian Independence Day (15 August) this year, the museum announced a major donation by the Indian Government to the Powerhouse collection. The donation from the Indian Government’s Ministry of Textiles included 60 examples of handwoven sarees, turban cloths and other textiles from across India, two handlooms from Hyderabad and Varanasi and two charkha models. In addition, 62 documentary films about textile production were also donated by the Indian Government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for the museum’s archives.

Pedram Khosronejad, the curator of the exhibition, explains. ‘Textile production has always occupied an important place in India and among its craftspeople and weavers. Charkha and Kargha highlights a selection of unique Indian textiles collected by Powerhouse, shedding light on the diverse techniques of textile craft, design and production. These include botanical specimens used for dying, spinning wheels and loom; woodblock prints; and diverse Indian textiles and garments’.

Fustat Fragments

On show for the first time in many years are important fustat fragments (so-called as these fragments were found in Fustat, or Old Cairo, Egypt) from the block-printed textile collection, believed to have been made in Gujarat in the 1400s. A traditional pashmina shawl, woven in Kashmir between 1840-60, exemplifies the double-interlock twill tapestry weave kani, which was considered almost impossible for Europeans to neither replicate the complex patterns nor match the extreme softness of these shawls. This particular example also reflects the reciprocal influence of French jacquard-woven shawls of the early to mid-1800s.

Another highlight of this exhibition of textiles of India is a textile embellished with iridescent jewel-like beetle wings, likely made in Madras or Hyderabad in the 1800s. It is indicative of India’s successful export trade in dress panels, muslin stoles, flounces and table linen. By the 18th century, muslin had become a worldwide commodity with many different kinds of muslin put to many uses. With the East India Company monopolising this trade, they initially used the cloth to trade for spices, subsequently creating a market in the West for muslin, chintzes and other fashionable Indian fabrics.

Traditional men’s clothing on display includes a hand sewn silk coat with brocaded floral designs, made between 1900–25, and a silk and velvet vest featuring zardozi (gold work embroidery), including salma (densely set small coils) and sequins made in the Punjab region during the 1800s.

The contemporary section includes a recently acquired work by artist Sangeeta Sandrasegar, What falls From View (2019). The work features Khadi and silk pieces, hand-dyed in Indian indigo and Australian native cherry. Anu Kumar’s medium format photographs that document the Australian-Indian diaspora are also on show in this section.

This exhibition exploring the textiles of India runs until 15 January, 2023, Powerhouse Ultimo, Sydney, maas.org

On 20 October, for Diwali (24 October), there is a late-night programme featuring fashion, textile classes and Indian cuisine, and talks related to the exhibition. Additional live demonstrations of spinning and weaving will take place during the exhibition, along with other planned events