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

The weaving and embroidery techniques seen in Indian textiles open windows into the symbolic, cultural and ritual beliefs of the people who created them.

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Why You Should Consider a Textiles Course

Rumal from Kashmir, Featured at Saffronart, November 2012

Rumal from Kashmir, Featured at Saffronart, November 2012

London: When was the last time you walked into a store and marvelled at an intricately designed shawl, or a beautiful saree? Those delicate threads intertwining, forming pleasing patterns that you know would instantly uplift you. Or perhaps you walked in and decided there was nothing to your liking, and you’d rather design your own shawl. Or salwar. Did you ever think, I’d love to create something like that if only I had the time? Or the talent? Or both time and talent, but patience? All of the above?

Then your solution is here, packed compactly into two short courses on Indian Textiles and Asian Arts at the Morley College in London. And you may thank Jasleen Kandhari for that.

The Indian Textiles course will focus on India’s rich textile traditions. You will learn about regional variations of Indian textiles from the Punjab and Gujarat to Bengal and the Coromandel Coast, understand and appreciate the designs, patterns and techniques of stitching as well as the stylistic development of the designs like the boteh or paisley design in Kashmir shawls and discover Indian trade textiles to the west like chintz and to the east in South east Asia.

The Asian Art course will examine the vibrant arts of China, Japan, Korea, South Asia, South-east Asia and Tibet during visits to museums, galleries and temples in London and Oxford. You get to  explore a range of designs, artistic techniques and materials including paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, textiles and decorative arts in tutor led discussions and object study sessions.

Sign up while you have time.The courses begin soon, so drop an email to  Jasleen Kandhari or visit the Morley College website.

Romance of the Running Stitch

In conjunction with the beautiful collection of textiles featured on The Story, Romance of the Running Stitch: Nagaland, guest blogger, Minhazz Majumdar shares some insights on the embroidery traditions of India

New Delhi: India has a long and enduring relationship with embroidered textiles and presents a dizzying array of embroidery traditions. The first needles discovered in the Indian sub-continent are from the Indus Valley civilization in Mohenjodaro and date back to 2000 BC. Examining the statuary and other material culture of that era, we can conclude that richly embroidered textiles were in vogue even then. By the 16th Century, the embroidery traditions of India were known as some of the finest in the world.

Dandelion Series I by Ajungla ImchenA silk stole embroidered using Kantha embroidery style77 x 20.5 in (195.5 x 52 cms)

Dandelion Series I (detail) by Ajungla Imchen
A silk stole embroidered using Kantha embroidery style
77 x 20.5 in (195.5 x 52 cms)
Image credit: Saffronart

Kantha  and Sujuni are embroidery traditions from eastern India from  the states of West Bengal and Bihar respectively . Both embroideries are based on the simple running or quilting stitch and are great expressions of women’s thrift as they originated as magical recreations of a beautiful new textile from old used fabrics.  The term Kantha refers to rags and alludes to the fact that worn out clothing such as old saris and dhotis were layered and stitched with running stitch to create anew. Colored threads painstakingly drawn from the borders were used for embroidery.  Some believe that the tradition of Kantha originated from the patched up robes of Buddhist monks as they went around seeking alms, their faith promoting austere habits and re-use.


Basket Series II (detail) by Ajungla Imchen
A silk stole embroidered using Kantha embroidery style
77 x 20.5 in (195.5 x 52 cms)
Image credit: Saffronart

Whatever be the origin, Kantha in the greater Bengal area (present day Bangladesh and West Bengal)  evolved into a women’s activity wherein the women magically transformed the old and discarded into new objects of beauty , creating wraps, quilts,  pillow-cases, bedspreads, book-covers, make-up bags, prayer mats and much more. The running stitch was used to great effect – by varying the length of the stitch and by either aligning (jod) or not aligning (bejod), different  effects and textures were created.  Themes in the Kanthas of yore where a mix of symbols ( the multi-petalled lotus drawn from the floor drawings alpona signifying the cosmos, the parrot, the messenger of the God of Love, peacocks for virility and so on) as well as scenes from daily life and historical facts such as British soldiers in their uniforms.

The Hunter and the Hunted by Archana Kumari An embroidered cotton panel with Sujuni embroidery

The Hunter and the Hunted by Archana Kumari
An embroidered cotton panel with Sujuni embroidery
Image credit: Saffronart

Women in the Bihar region have made Sujunis for quite a few centuries. As in Kantha old fabric were sewn together to make little quilts to place under small babies and to cover them.  In Sujuni, chain stitch is used for the outlines and running stitch for filling in the motifs.  In Sujuni, the ground or base on which the motifs appear is covered with running stitch done in straight lines while in Kantha, the ground may be covered in running stitch done more sinuously in circles, spirals, triangles etc as well as straight lines.

View the first collection of textiles Romance of the Running Stitch: Nagaland here.

Guest blogger, Minhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art and a craft promoter. She is the co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization that promotes arts and crafts as livelihood.

Tarun Tahiliani on Shawls and Textiles

In conjunction with Saffronart’s Auction of Carpets, Rugs & Textiles and the collection Woven in Kashmir on The Story by SaffronartYamini Telkar of Saffronart speaks with designer Tarun Tahiliani about his collection and design aesthetics

Tarun Tahiliani

New Delhi:  Renowned fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani has always been popular for the way his traditional outfits are draped. Noted for his use of historic Indian textiles and motifs, he goes over Saffronart’s auction catalogue of Carpets, Rugs and Textiles, talking about his love for shawls and their popularity in contemporary designs.

Q. Can you tell us a little about your collection of shawls? What drew you to them, and do you have any particular favourite pieces?

My first beautiful shawl is something I inherited from my mother. It was an agonizing decision for her because it was a men’s size and being a naval wife, she had limited resources, so a huge kanni jamewar was something extraordinary – however I do not think except for very old families, the taste for these wonderful Indian heirlooms was overtly developed yet.

Subsequently while living in Delhi one got more exposed to the world of these shawls and seeing the Calico Museum’s collection really sealed this passion – for colours, motifs and finesse I have not seen much in this caliber and I particularly love the matte feeling of the wools being as they are in wool. For complex pattern and colours some of the shawls are literally greater works of art than much that is merely conceptual today.  So I started to collect them – often finding amazing pieces in the New York and French flea markets.  Before treating, they must have been necessary accessories but now can sometimes, however beautiful, feel a little cumbersome to manage.  Oh to find something that looked like a jamewar but felt like a shahtoosh!

Q. You incorporate the rich history of Indian textiles in your contemporary creations in several ways. What motivated you to do this?

I have always loved the rich Indian textile history and eye of colour, and of course motif.  However since most of our fashions were woven to be draped, we had issues with more sculpted fashion which embroidery allowed us to do.  I have done jamewar saris on chiffon and used it as a basis for my digital prints as well. Next season, we are doing jamewar inspired embroideries with dull sequined borders.  The permutations and combinations are endless.

Kanni Badam Palla Shawl – Kashmir
Circa 1930’s
Image courtesy Saffronart

Q. To own and wear a shawl from Kashmir was a ‘fashion statement’ in 18th century Europe, and Empress Josephine is believed to have had an extensive collection. As a designer today, do you think traditional Indian textiles and techniques can be fashion forward?

Of course heritage can be fashion forward if worn in a contemporary way.  It is as much how you wear something as what you wear.  Attitude is so important.  We once cut up and draped a shawl from Punjab on Isabella Blow to make an asymmetrical draped shawl dress which looked amazing.  It’s how you pair things as well.  We find our own fashion forward.

Q. What are some of your favourite motifs from traditional Indian textiles?

Paisleys, florals and jaalis.  All incredible when layered.

Q. Which is your favourite Shawl from the November Carpets, Rugs and Textiles Auction?

I love the Kanni Jamewar – lot 66.  It is really beautiful with almost a tribal feel to the colours and the long central medallion motif.

Jamewar Kanni Shawl

Lot 66 – A JAMAVAR KANNI SHAWL, Early 20th Century, Approx. 10ft 6in x 4ft 4in (325.1 x 134.6 cms), Pashmina wool
Image courtesy Saffronart

The TAPI Collection of Indian Textiles: An Interview with Shilpa Shah

In conjunction with Saffronart’s Auction of Carpets, Rugs & Textiles and the collection Woven in Kashmir on The Story by SaffronartNishad Avari of Saffronart speaks with textile collector Shilpa Shah about the TAPI collection of Indian textiles, one of the finest in the world

Mumbai: India has always been a regarded as one of the most important centres of textile art and production in the world. Treasured by royalty in India and exported to countries ranging from Western Europe to South East Asia, India’s textile traditions date back almost 3000 years.

The TAPI Collection of Indian textiles, put together by collectors Shilpa and Praful Shah, was initially envisioned as a resource for design and a celebration of the rich heritage of textile traditions in India. Since the 1980s, when it was started, it has grown into one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of historic Indian textiles in the world.

Praful & Shilpa Shah

Textile collectors Praful & Shilpa Shah

TAPI is an acronym that stands for ‘Textiles & Art of the People of India’, but also pays homage to the Tapi River, which serves as the ‘life force’ of the textile town of Surat in Gujarat, where the collection is based. The TAPI collection includes textiles from Mughal and provincial royal courts, textiles from the 15th to 19th centuries that were specifically produced for export markets, folk textiles, historic regional embroidery, and important religious textiles. Exhibitions of select pieces from the collection have been held at the National Museum in Delhi, the Birla Academy of Fine Art in Kolkata, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya  in Mumbai (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), among other institutions. The collection has also collaborated on several seminal publications on Indian textile art.

I recently got the opportunity to speak with Shilpa Shah about the TAPI Collection, and specifically about its holdings of Kashmiri shawls, on which the collection’s most recent publication is based.

NA: Could you tell us a little about the origins of the TAPI Collection? What drew you and Praful to begin this journey, and what are some of the most initial pieces you acquired?

SS: Praful hails from a textile making family, so it was not very surprising that we were drawn to the distinctive and vastly diverse textile traditions of our country, whether woven or dyed, printed, painted, tie-dyed or ikat. Every region of India had – and still has – its own unique textile tradition. When Praful returned from Stanford University to join the family textile factory in the late 1960s, his first step was to set up the textile design studio and printery. I was a history buff so when we got married, our interest naturally developed into a curiosity about our textile past. This may seem ironical because we were otherwise involved in making modern, machine-made, non-traditional textiles for the contemporary, urban consumer. But these designs helped as inspiration to the textile artists.

Our first acquisitions in fact were Kashmir shawls. We began collecting shawls in the 1970s. Kashmir’s ‘kani’ shawl weaving had virtually come to an end by the 1870s, so by the 1970s, the shawls already represented over a hundred-year old antiquity.

One of the first few Kashmir shawls acquired by Praful & Shilpa in the 1970’s (TAPI COLLECTION)

One of the first few Kashmir shawls acquired by Praful & Shilpa in the 1970’s (TAPI COLLECTION)

Kashmir Shawl butas are an unending source of inspiration for textile designers (TAPI COLLECTION)
Kashmir Shawl butas are an unending source of inspiration for textile designers (TAPI COLLECTION)

NA: The core of the collection comprises Indian textiles produced specifically for various export markets. What are some of the interesting cultural and economic exchanges that these textiles reveal?

SS: From earliest times, Indian textiles have been an essential medium of exchange in east-west trade. The earliest textiles in our collection were made in Gujarat for export to South-East Asia for trade with the spice islands of Indonesia. Several of these remarkable cloths date to the 14th and 15th century, with a few as early as the 13th century. This means that they were imported into maritime South-East Asia well before the arrival of the European travellers and merchant companies in the Indian Ocean world. As such early textiles have not survived in India, these cloths represent a particular strength of the TAPI collection. Cloths made in India for export were made with native skills catering to foreign taste. This resulted in textiles and patterns that were quite different from those made for the domestic markets in India. Among these we have examples of 16th century embroidered quilts from Bengal made for the Portuguese market, 17th century embroideries from Cambay for the English market and chintzes from the Coromandel Coast made for the Dutch, English and French markets.

The elephant patolu from Gujarat was among the most prized textiles exported to South-East Asia. (TAPI COLLECTION)

The elephant patolu from Gujarat was among the most prized textiles exported to South-East Asia. (TAPI COLLECTION)

NA: The latest publication that you have collaborated on focuses on Kashimiri shawls, another strength of the collection. What is the significance of these shawls in India’s textile history? Were they also exported?

SS: From Mughal emperors to the aristocracy of northern India, Bengal and the Deccan, the Kashmir shawl remained a coveted article of male winter fashion till the 19th century. By the 20th century, many of these shawls were cut up to make fashionable ladies’ shawls. The love of shawls runs in the veins of all northerners, an aspect which escapes most of us warm-weather west-coasters. Kashmir shawls have been recognised the world over as the single most prized textile from the Indian subcontinent. The exquisite delicacy of design and lightness, warmth and softness of the pashmina wool has given the Kashmir shawl the cachet it has.

Qatraaz or striped shawls were in high demand in Persia, (TAPI COLLECTION)

Qatraaz or striped shawls were in high demand in Persia, (TAPI COLLECTION)

From the second half of the 18th century, Kashmir shawls became fashionable as shoulder mantles in Western Europe. Queen Victoria owned a fair number for her personal use and for presenting as gifts. Empress Josephine, records tell us, is said to have possessed about sixty Kashmir shawls. Emperor Napoleon I  gave 17 shawls to his bride Marie-Louise. Attempts to imitate the Kashmir shawl’s patterns and textures began both in England and France. Within fifty years, the jacquard loom shawl rode the market and threatened the export of Kashmir shawl to Europe altogether. What survived of this trade is the immortal, unforgotten motif called the ‘paisley’, the buta’s international avatar, indispensably sought-after by silk-designers the world over.

‘Madame Panckoucke’ by Ingres, 1811, draped with a striped Kashmir shawl. (Photo courtesy: Musée du Louvre, Paris)

‘Madame Panckoucke’ by Ingres, 1811, draped with a striped Kashmir shawl. (Photo courtesy: Musée du Louvre, Paris)

NA: What are some of the other strengths of the TAPI Collection? Can you share some of your personal favourites from the collection?

SS: That is a difficult question for a collector. One cannot be honest about it. Each object has its own place in the collection. When a particular piece is acquired, it attaches itself strongly upon the collector – till the next great piece comes along. Each specimen has its moment as a favourite.

Palledar Shawl, c. 1720 (detail) (TAPI COLLECTION)

Palledar Shawl, c. 1720 (detail) (TAPI COLLECTION)

NA: The TAPI Collection was initially founded as a resource for design. Can you tell us about how the collection has influenced current textile art in India? Are there any specific projects that highlight such exchanges between the traditional and the contemporary?

SS: The marriage of the two – the past and the new – takes place on a day to day basis. Motifs like a particular paisley from the past serves only as an inspiration. The form the paisley buta takes may be enlarged many times over, or elongated or twisted with the addition of other floral element into it to make it modern and contemporary. It is not how radically the motif has morphed but how it has remained as a source of inspiration to the textile design. When we see a textile of the past, don’t forget that it too was considered modern at that time. Conversely, motifs from Mohenjo-Daro appear modern to us today.

Reversible ‘Dorukha’ shawls were coveted by the elite of India. (TAPI COLLECTION)

Reversible ‘Dorukha’ shawls were coveted by the elite of India. (TAPI COLLECTION)

The book, Kashmir Shawls – The TAPI Collection, authored by internationally reputed textile scholars Steven Cohen, Rosemary Crill, Monique Lévi-Strauss and Jeffrey B. Spurr, will be released by fashion designer and author Wendell Rodricks at Saffronart on December 7, 2012.

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