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Beyond threads and yarns

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

The textile exhibition at CSMVS in Mumbai is a true celebration of the rich history of fabric in India.

Words by: Sukanya Sharma

Photo courtesy: CSMVS

As I stroll through the corridors of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), formerly known as Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, and enter the exhibit titled ‘Textiles and Costumes of India’, I was expecting a history lesson on threads and yarns. Fully prepared to know the chronological journey of Indian textiles, I prepared my mind to be a sponge, ready to absorb all the information at disposal. But, as I walked towards the beautiful display of colourful threads, I was pleasantly surprised at how immersive the entire experience was. It’s not merely a showcase on the evolution of Indian textiles, and its timeline; the team instead displays an emotional connect to fabric, and clothing. Building human stories around textile history is what makes this exhibit a distinctive experience.

Even today we attach memories to inanimate objects in our everyday life. They may seem trivial to another person who has grown up with different experiences, but we are touched by everything around us. In a heterogeneous country like India, the textile history is just as varied. Basic need, geography and even social requirements dictate the choice and aesthetic of textiles used. In the Indian context; how and what a person wears indicates their social identity, marital status, occupation, religion, and often in the past, caste.

It is also to be understood that while textile fashion and trends are changing very fast, there is still a section that is deeply connected to their textile heritage. The handicrafts industry is a great example of that. The handmade textile manufacturing in India is based solely on an art that is transferred from one generation to the other, making it a long family tradition. It’s a legacy that still remains alive.

I spoke to the Director of Galleries and General Administration, Manisha Nene to get an insight into this unique exhibit. She has been with CSMVS since 1989 and is responsible for the management of the entire collection and has also reorganised the collection storages. She has curated several exhibitions on varied subjects at the Museum and co-curated several galleries in the Museum.

Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about the vision for this exhibition. I personally loved how it wasn’t merely a commercial history of textiles, but had an emotional connect.

The museum has a small but significant collection of textiles. The idea behind the approach of the theme is to connect the visitors with the textiles displayed. They play a vital role in everyone’s life, regardless of where you come from; textiles are there with us in the journey of life from birth to death.

In India, where there is a rich tradition of heirlooms. There is an emotional attachment with the textiles. It may be a zabla (costume for a newborn), a wedding saree or a shela (stole) given by a mother-in-law to her daughter-in-law. There are some textiles which are passed on from one generation to the other. It is believed that positive vibes as well as the values of the family are passed on from one generation to other through these heirloom textiles.

Usually textiles displayed in a gallery are projected narrating their technique, its province etc., and while this information is important, we wanted to present this in a different way. In our display, the emphasis is on role of different textiles in our journey of life, as a part of social history. Our observation is that this approach is successful in connecting the visitors to the displayed textiles by reviving their memories. Adding photo albums, images of people wearing the traditional costumes has made this gallery lively.

Why do we need to know more about the history of Indian textiles?

We need to know the history of Indian textiles, first of all to know our glorious past, and to induce our generations to come, to preserve this glorious past. These textiles should not just remain as museum pieces, but efforts need to be taken to preserve these textile traditions, and revive the traditions which have faded.

Clothing which was associated with a story before, has become just a materialistic piece today, how true is this?

Yes, to a large extent the textiles have become just materialistic today. For example, in the olden days clothes for the newborn were stitched, woven and embroidered by elderly women in the family. Now there is trend to get ready made clothes available in the market.

How do you think the textile industry has changed over the years? How does this affect local artisans?

Over the years the textile industry has changed. Many of the traditional textile forms are vanishing. Change in fashion as per the need of time is one of the reasons for this, which has to a great extent affected local artists. However, efforts are being made by the government as well as several individuals and non-governmental organisations to revive faded textile traditions and to help in the survival and flourishing of traditional textile forms. Museums also have to play a positive role in this by presenting the glorious textile traditions through its display and galleries.

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