India has always had a love affair with textiles. Weaving, printing, dyeing – these arts are experimented with, refined, combined and elevated until they yield the base fabric for our intricately detailed garments. This connection dates all the way back to the Indus Valley civilization, when India had the monopoly on indigo and was a pioneer in printing and dyeing. It flourished until colonialism forced us to adopt mill-made cloth and our indigenous textile art was forced into a kind of a semi-retirement. But a few determined individuals made sure that our textile heritage didn’t die altogether. Martand Singh was one of them. One year after his death, the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum, in collaboration with Devi Arts Foundation, is holding an exhibition commemorating Singh’s efforts to revive our textile culture. It is not only a tribute to Martand Singh, or ‘Mapu’ as he was fondly called, but to all the weavers and artists that he worked hard to bring into the limelight.
Heart of It
Martand Singh was born a prince of Kapurthala and his royal background was further honed by education at the Doon School, Dehradun and St. Stephen’s college in Delhi. After college, he started out with a posh boutique in The Oberoi, Delhi but a visit to rural Rajasthan changed his perception of fashion and design. He became interested in India’s vast repository of textile art. His extensive research in the area and his interactions with weavers from all over the country later qualified him as a textile expert and curator. He found a mentor in cultural activist Pupul Jayakar and later helped her curate the Festivals of India exhibitions that had the seal of approval from Indira Gandhi, then the Prime Minister of the country. Between 1981 and 1991, Singh displayed the rich heritage of India’s textiles all over the world as the Vishwakarma exhibitions under the Festivals of India initiative, a passion that earned him a Padma Bhushan award 25 years ago.
Singh was one of India’s last renaissance icons. He was elegant, fastidious, and had a sense of style that all of Delhi tried to imitate. He was a designer, a curator, a teacher, a visionary and a trendsetter who was in his element anywhere – at a high society gathering or at a village workshop. But mostly, he was a heritage revivalist. He decolonized Indian textile culture and played a key role in making khadi popular again. His efforts in the revival of Indian textiles led to the re-employment of weavers and artisans. But Singh was also a humble man. He didn’t shy away from the spotlight but he preferred that it shone on the real stars – the weavers and the craftspeople who painstakingly created magic out of threads.
This exhibition, aptly named A Search in Five Directions, once again turns the spotlight to our invaluable textile traditions. The ‘five directions’ are the five techniques that form the foundation for art in textiles – pigment painting (kalamkari), dye painting (block printing), resist dyeing (patola), printing (ikat) and weaving (banarsi).
The exhibition is curated by stalwarts of the design and textile industry – Rahul Jain, Rta Kapoor Chishti and Rakesh Thakore, of Abraham & Thakore fame. Each of the pieces in the exhibition has a unique story of tradition, heritage and loving labor – both the weavers’ and Singh’s – attached to it. The curators have taken the best of the Vishwakarma exhibitions and put it on display for us to see, ponder over and be inspired.
Though each piece in the exhibition is different and showcases a different technique, there are some one-of-a-kind pieces that you will not get to see anywhere else. There is a sari from Odisha which has calligraphy along the entire length of it. Another must see is an exquisite Kodalikaruppur sari that combines the techniques of jamdani and kalamkari, a combination that is extremely rare and valuable; made from a technique that was dead until Martand Singh traced it to Thanjavur and worked with the craftspeople to revive it. Each beautiful piece of textile on display contributes towards the story of India’s textile heritage – a story that Martand Singh ensured wouldn’t be lost in the cacophony of the modern world.
If you’re in the design, fashion or textile industry or are even mildly interested in the history of the block prints that populate your wardrobe, then this is one exhibition that you should not miss.
What: A Search in Five Directions
Where: Crafts Museum, Bhairon Marg, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi.
When: Through March 31, 10:00 hrs – 17:00 hrs; Mondays closed.
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