PRAMOD KUMAR K.G.
To most of us, it would be a great surprise if we were told that a group of 16th and 17th century Bengali artisans from the tiny fishing village of Satagaon rendered some of the most powerful depictions of the Old Testament and Greco-Roman mythology as embroidery on cloth for the Portuguese and English markets. The surviving Satgaon quilts are now museum pieces and no trace remains of how traditional mythological Hindu stories and scenes gave way to biblical and classical themes.
Elsewhere, a horse is in mid gallop with its rider holding a spear poised to charge, the caparisoned elephant tears away in fear while the merry deer is leading the snarling tiger further and further away into the forest. Improbable scenes in today’s world one might say, but if we were to visit the lanes populated by the naqshabandhi weavers of Benares, the Shikargah (hunting scene) pattern continues to be woven, inch by inch, painstakingly assuming the form of a sari or a length of brocade. The origins of these patterns are supposedly Persian though they are also seen in Chinese brocade and, over the centuries, have been successfully woven across the country, from the Paithani weaves of Maharashtra to the Kanchipuram saris of south India. However, the beginnings of the story depicted in these textiles have been lost to the looms of time and therein lies a poignant tale, the origin of the narrative in Indian textiles.
Indian textiles have evolved with the development of civilisation and its significance is hallowed by tradition. According to the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, the universe is a continuous fabric with a grid pattern upon which cycles of life are painted. In the Atharva Veda, day and night are said to spread light and darkness over the earth as weavers throw a shuttle on the loom. Amidst the thousands of different fabrics woven, printed, embroidered, and painted across the length and breadth of India, there are a small but significant number of textiles that clearly depict a narrative, a story in them. These vary from the rarefied Chamba Rumal in Himachal to the more accessible Phulkari from the Punjab. Religious textiles like the painted Kalamkaris from Andhra, the Pichwais of Krishna as Srinathji, and the Tankha paintings of the Buddhist are amongst other textiles which depict myths and legends associated with the gods. Other textiles like the womb loom shawls of Northeastern India are mantles of merit depicting valorous deeds performed by the wearer of these shawls. These shawls tell the tale of men and their prowess but are recorded into popular myth by the woven skills of the women across several tribes.
In their contemporary form, some of these textiles, often created by poor marginalised women in remote communities, show shockingly accurate portrayal of the trials and tribulation of the girl child in India. Depictions of female infanticide, dreams of education and the wish to empower themselves come across clearly in Phulkari from Punjab. The Sujni and Khatwa embroidered textiles of Bihar and Bengal depict contemporary themes on textiles, as women are exposed to wider markets and have greater independence in their lives. These artists thrive on new experiences and have discovered the ability to draw a story; a story of the change in their lives as they become literate, gain independence and grapple with the social and material demands of changing times, causing a change in one’s sense of identity when narrating one’s story.
Story of a civilisation
The history of a civilisation is essentially the sum of several parallel registries of history. Narratives transformed as oral traditions, songs, rituals, objects and in the performing arts are commonly understood and explored in India. However stories, myths and legends as seen in the narrative textiles of India are often consigned to the realm of decorative material culture. The focus now moves to the narratives depicted in Indian textiles. These textiles have evolved with the development of civilisation and often have social, religious and ritual value and carry narratives of our origins and legends of our ancestors and gods.
Their lack of public visibility does not mean that serious study has not been made in the depiction of these stories, though very often they have escaped the mainstream discussion of history. Siyahi’s Mantles of Myth: The Narrative in Indian Textiles (December 13-15, 2008, www.siyahi.in ) is a conference focusing on the origins of the stories depicted in these textiles from their evolution to their current, contemporary form. From the mythology of the cloth to the role of Khadi as the narrative of India’s freedom struggle to the evolution of the first Indo-Western garment brought about by the Portuguese inquisition in Goa, this conference brings together some of the world’s leading textile experts, art historians, performers, authors, fashion designers, musicians and narrators who celebrate India’s story telling tradition as seen in its glorious narrative textiles and help the cause of preservation and perpetuation of these textiles narratives.
Filling in gaps
Narrative textiles remind us of the riches of material culture in traditional communities and the wealth of accumulated knowledge which is generally ignored. They augment the existing verbal and oral literary traditions that record and map cultures. Understanding and translating this is an important step, possible only by fathoming its multiple histories in myriad tongues and forms. “Mantles of Myth” is an attempt to understand, learn and share our varied and rich cultural patrimony.
The writer has conceived and curated Mantles of Myth, and is the Founder-Director of the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing at Jaipur. He is currently Associate Director at the Alkazi Foundation at Delhi and Curator, City Palace Museum, Udaipur.