The Indian subcontinent is home to some of the world’s most ancient and illustrious textile traditions. This exhibition looks at the development of design and its history in Indian tethrough the use of pattern. On show are works from the Textile Museum’s own collection, supplemented by pieces from the private collection of Karun Thakar, spanning the 8th through to the early 20th century. Spanning time, region, technique and levels of patronage, the fabrics are arranged in three thematic sections that correspond to the predominate ornamental elements traditional used by Indian textile makers: abstract, floral, and figurative.
From simply woven stripes and checks to complex narrative scenes requiring many skilled specialists, the designs on these textiles may impart colour and beauty, communicate personal and group identity, express deeply felt spiritual beliefs, or render fabrics appropriate for a particular person, place, occasion, or market.
Floral Patterns in Indian Textiles
Floral patterns in Indian textiles became increasingly widespread during the 13th century, and artists excelled in adapting them for global markets. By the 1600s, merchant companies from The Netherlands, Britain, Denmark and France were actively trading goods between East and West. The dominant patterns for the West were floral – hybrid inventions, with many of them combining Chinese, Islamic, European and Indian elements to form a new category of textile that appealed to the growing global taste for ‘the exotic’ and rare. An enduring design of this type is The Tree of Life, which was one of the most popular export/trade designs in the 18th and 19th centuries, other floral patterns became known as ‘chintz’ in the West.
These types of goods were created for export mainly near the port of Machilipatnam on the Coromandel Coast. The tree emerged from a rocky mound, or from water, with its serpentine trunk and branches supporting voluptuous leaves and flowers, which sometimes included birds and animals. As the motif’s popularity grew, the design adapted and changed to meet the latest demands and remained the dominant design of painted goods for export until the 19th century.
The first figurative patterns started to become widespread during the Sultanate period (1206-1526), when Islamic cultures began to influence Indian art and design. Floral motifs were particularly popular at the Mughal courts (1526-1857) and this, in turn, led to a dynamism in design. The designs were used in all areas of life, from jewellery, garments, as well as personal items, carpets and in interior decoration. Tent panels (qanat) were formed by joining panels together creating horizontal screens that could be made into a length. Often a combination of figurative and floral panels were used to create a tent. As well as the floral panels, luxurious items such as velvet cushions would also adorn the audience halls and pleasure pavilions of the Mughal palaces, contributing to the overall floral décor. An 18th-century tent panel from Golconda can be seen in the exhibition. Mughal floral styles were used in communities across India and adopted and adapted to continue the development of designs.
Figurative patterns are heavily used in temple and religious textiles and provide a window into the different beliefs across South Asia. This type of textile can include humans, deities, as well as birds and real or mythical animals. Different animals are more commonly found in different areas, for example, the parrot (tota) is seen as a symbol of courtship and passion, often seen in Indian art in the company of Radha and Krishna. In Bengal, the domestic arts made by and for women during the 19th and 20th centuries included intricate embroidered kanthas, using a wealth of local motifs.
Indian Textiles Drawn from a Common Pool of Motifs
Drawn from a common pool of motifs and ideas that reflect the unique environment of the region, these creations provide a rare view into women’s everyday lives and thoughts. Lovingly created from the remnants of worn garments and embroidered with motifs and tales drawn from the rich visual and narrative repertoire of Bengal, these cloths were traditionally stitched by women as gifts to be used in the celebration of weddings and other family occasions. The vast majority of kanthas, whether square or rectangular, large or small, figural or geometric, share certain basic elements of composition. Primary among these is the prominent central roundel, around which other embroidered motifs are orientated. The roundel itself runs the gamut from a naturalistically rendered open lotus, to an abstract blossom or star, to concentric patterned rings, to a circle of interlocking hexagons.
Painted figurative cloths also importantly told the stories of gods and heroes, as well as portraying scenes from courtly life to events in everyday life. The temple cloths were commissioned to serve as screens and canopies in temples or to decorate a deity’s rath (chariot) for grand religious processions and ceremonies. As well as its practical use, the cloth had an important didactic function. Rectangular in format and narrative in style, they illustrated themes and episodes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, as well as other local religious tales.
These types of cloth were originally designed with strong bold lines and simple contours which enabled them to be appreciated and more readily be seen by the audience at the temple. An example of a shrine cloth (kanduri), in the exhibition, is from the early 20th-century coming from Uttar Pradesh that honours Sayyid Salar Mas’ud, a Muslim warrior-saint who was venerated by Muslims and Hindus alike.
Geometric and Abstract Designs
Geometric and abstract designs occur in some of the oldest textiles known from South Asia, and for centuries these were the preferred patterning for dress fabrics. While floral motifs later became the favoured ornament for clothing, particularly in northern India and in the Mughal courts, some local designs became highly abstracted, and in Southern India traditional checked and striped patterns continued to prevail due to local culture and taste. However, geometric patterns based on straight lines are inherent in all textile from the moment they are woven. Vertical stripes, horizontal bands, and check can be created as an integral part of the weaving process.
Although surface decoration techniques such as printing and embroidery more easily allow representational patterning, South Asian printers and embroiderers maintain a rich vocabulary of circles, stripes, zigzags, and other geometric forms. Over the centuries, this has meant that certain styles of these types of pattern have become associated with specific communities on the subcontinent, such as the textiles of Nagaland, seen is this exhibition, and other tribal areas.
Dating from the 9th to the early 20th century, these Indian textiles and their vibrant patterning help tell the story of the craftsmen who made them, the people who used them, and the worlds they inhabited.
Until 4 June, 2022, Indian Textiles at The Textile Museum, Washington DC, museum.gwu.edu. Catalogue available