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.

An Introduction to Kashmiri Art and Craft

Sneha Sikand of Saffronart explores some of the the arts and crafts of Kashmir featured in The Story by Saffronart

New Delhi: Kashmir is considered to be a treasure trove of arts and crafts. While every region tends to have its own distinct specialty, Kashmiri carpets, shawls, papier-mâché objects and silverware are recognized worldwide for their fine quality and craftsmanship.

A Bakhtiari Carpet
Image credit: www.saffronart.com

Carpet weaving is not indigenous to Kashmir and is thought to have been introduced there by Persian settlers. These settlers brought with them the knowledge of patterns and designs distinct to their communities, which is why many Kashmiri carpets carry motifs that are distinctly Persian, with some local variations. The Bakhtiari design, also known as the ‘paneled-garden design’ is named after a region in Iran called Bakhtiar. The field of the Bakhtiari carpet is divided into compartments or panels, containing individual motifs or patterns. Often a set of 3-4 compartments is repeated throughout the field. While the design may have originated in Bakhtiar, it is an often identified design in Kashmiri carpets.

A Paisley woven wool and silk shawl with typical all over design, circa 1860
Image credit: www.meg-andrews.com

The paisley design is said to have got its name from the shawl manufacturing town, Paisley in England. Also known as the Boteh or pine motif, it is believed that it first used in Kashmir during the seventeenth century.

Paisley motif development
Image credit: www.meg-andrews.com

The pattern can be traced back to ancient Babylon, where a tear-drop shape was used as a symbol to represent the growing shoot of a date palm. The palm provided food, drink, clothing (woven fibres) and shelter, and so became regarded as the ‘Tree of Life’. Other theories state that the motif is a stylized depiction of a mango, a fruit commonly found in India. Shawls from Kashmir have always been the most sought after for being woven from hair, and being lighter and smooth with a natural sheen.

Silverware and papier-mâché are two other equally popular items that Kashmir is known for. Local silversmiths incorporated the Chinar-leaf design into silver objects. Called booune in Kashmiri, the chinar tree came to Kashmir in the sixteenth century when Emperor Akbar arranged for the planting of several hundreds near the Hazratbal shrine. It is said that when the leaves on the trees turned red, the emperor saw them from a distance and exclaimed, “Chin-nar!” which means blazing colour.

Sugar bowl with Chinar Decoration, circa. 1890
Image credit: www.silverfromindia1850-1920.blogspot.in

Papier-mâché was also introduced to Kashmiri craftsmen by Persian settlers. Initially used to make boxes to transport expensive shawls to Europe, Kashmiri papier-mâché was so loved in countries such as France, that it started selling on its own. Today, it has become highly stylized with the use of real gold and silver paint, and by adding intricate decorations. The designs and decorations still have a strong Persian influence. Some items like bowls and vases are lined with brass, while some exquisitely carved items are ornamented with gold and silver leaf and depict beautiful landscapes and objects like house boats, that are an integral part of Kashmiri life.

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