It’s all in the Detail: Exploring India’s Textile Traditions



Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Museum of Art launched its exhibition, Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab, drawing attention to one of India’s most vibrant textile traditions. The history of textiles in India is as rich, intricate and varied as the textiles themselves. Some of the most comprehensive textile collections in the country reveal the cross-cultural influences that have impacted the diversity of these traditions. Our upcoming auction of Folk and Tribal art features exquisite kantha from West Bengal and Bangladesh, bagh from Punjab, and chamba from Himachal Pradesh. The weaving and embroidery open windows into the symbolic, cultural and ritual beliefs of the people who created them.

Kantha: Rags to Riches

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Kantha gets its name from old or used textiles that were transformed into works of art. The natural world and the cosmos are imagined through the running or quilting stitch seen in kantha. Locally available cotton and tassar silk is traditionally used. British and Portuguese merchants from the 16th century were enthusiastic buyers of kantha textiles, and they often commissioned bed covers and other embroidered fabrics to take on their journeys. In an older blog post, guest contributor and curator Minhazz Majumdar explored Bengal’s kantha tradition in depth.

Bagh: Embroidered Gardens

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The phulkari or bagh tradition was largely practised in Punjab. Bagh, literally meaning ‘garden’, is characterised by intricate and heavily embroidered motifs that cover the surface entirely. The fabric is darned on the reverse and is typically done using gold and silver threads on khaddar, a variety of cotton. A single piece often took years to complete. The technique called for great skill and incredible attention to detail. Bagh cloths are prized family heirlooms in Punjab, where mothers bequeath these exquisite textiles to their daughters. The embroidery was originally begun by the grandmother when a daughter was born. The bagh was to be completed by the time of the daughter’s marriage and would form part of her trousseau.

Chamba: Celebratory Stitches

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Chamba embroidery thrived in parts of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu which were important centres of Pahari painting. This art form draws inspiration from scenes from the Ras Lila as bright and celebratory scenes of Krishna dancing with the gopis, or the Krishna Lila, narrating Krishna’s exploits. The details of the scenes are realised using untwisted silk thread on handspun cloth.

The process of designing and embroidering a chamba rumal is beautifully captured in this film:

Exhibitions showing Indian textiles have been held at the CSMVS MuseumParamparik Karigar, the Crafts Council of India, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum, among others.

Living Traditions: Folk and Tribal Art will take place online on 19 – 20 April 2017.

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