For centuries, the city of Kashi (Varanasi) has been celebrated for it’s textiles. Take a dip into the treasure chest of the most exquisite, resplendent contemporary textiles from one of the world’s oldest cities at the on-going ‘Pra-Kashi’ exhibition at Delhi’s National Museum (being held in collaboration with Eka Archiving Services and Devi Art Foundation).
The exhibition is a reflection of textile historian and aficionado, Rahul Jain’s near 25-year old journey and engagement with weaving. He quit his job at the World Bank, to set up ‘ASHA‘ – a weaving workshop in Varanasi with 15 underprivileged weavers. Today, textiles woven at the workshop are part of collections at major museums around the world – the British Museum, Musee Guimet (Paris), the Art Institute of Chicago, to name a few.
But why should YOU go to see this exhibition at the National Museum?
Explore Cultural Connections
The forty-three textiles on display have been woven on drawlooms, recreated and re-imagined from historic examples from the courts of Mughal India, Safavid Iran and Ottoman Turkey. The contemporary textiles have been juxtaposed with historic textiles, miniature paintings and jewellery from the collection of the National Museum, to situate them within the era of patronage where such luxury art by royal courts was popular.
The textiles from the Mughal and Safavid courts in the 17th and 18th centuries were inspired from the art of enamel jewellery, and were essentially ‘cloths of gold’, woven in the samite technique. The recreated textiles from the ASHA workshop, look more like sheets of metal, than free-flowing, fluid textiles. Meenakari jewellery from the museum’s collection, alongside these textiles, speaks of the story that these splendid art forms were not being practiced in isolation, but the artisans actually worked together in the imperial workshops or karkhanas, to create these textiles.
Be stunned by the contemporary twist to traditional practices
The second section of the exhibition leads to the weaving of velvets and voided velvets, which have been woven so finely that when one sees them from the front, they look two-dimensional, but when seen from the side, they have a beautiful three-dimensionality to them. The contemporary recreation of the popular Mughal chevron pattern, floral motifs, and Ottoman influence, is beautifully presented in examples of carpet styles inspired from the Jaipur Palace Collection, and stitched textiles.
Witness the rare, and the extraordinary
ASHA’s exploration of the lampas weaving technique, which was used to create larger tapestries, is beautifully presented from an example of a qanat or tent, which is the only exact copy at the exhibition, a historic example from the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad. The lampas technique enabled the weaver to create huge patterns, which were less detailed than the textiles that were woven in the samite and the taquete weaving techniques, but serves the purpose of creating textiles that could be used for tents and furnishings.
The exhibition traces ASHA’s evolution of its design vocabulary, and we move from stunning floral and geometric patterns, to the weaving of animal and even human figures. Animal figures in the Indian textile tradition became most popular in the Shikargah patterns, which was as the name suggests, a representation of a hunting scene, where essentially smaller animals get attacked by bigger animals, and the circle continues. Like the circle of life, the Shikargah was woven in circular patterns, and stunning examples from the 19th and 20th century give a backdrop to the contemporary examples, woven at the ASHA workshop.
The five contemporary Shikargahs were definitely my favourite at the exhibition, with remarkable details and endangered animals, insects, and birds from India deftly woven in gold and silver.
Celebrate Indian Artisans and Craftsmanship
The most exquisite experiment of ASHA’s weaving is seen in woven human motifs. Exhibited alongside an Iranian example and a Kalamkari rumal from the Coromandel Coast where human figures were woven and painted on textiles, is ASHA’s piece de resistance, Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement, woven so finely, that there is a painterly quality to the textiles, and it is absolutely hard to believe that these were woven. The meeting of the two religions, with spirits going to heaven and Kashi’s Hindu connection with the liberation of soul, is almost poetic.
The ASHA workshop’s academic experiment in the recreation of these royal textiles is a testament to the exceptional skill of the weavers, who are no less than artists. Visit the exhibition to discover a new way of looking at historic techniques, designs and patterns.