Between the early Eighties and Nineties, Visvakarma, a prolific series of exhibitions on Indian textiles were developed as part of the Indian government’s cultural diplomacy initiatives - The Festivals of India. Presented in cities within India, and numerous other countries, these shows galvanised a massive network of designers, craftspeople and technicians under the artistic direction of Martand Singh . Attempting to revive hand-skills facing the danger of being lost, they stimulated new ideas on how these skills could be seen as contemporary resources for emerging urban markets. Indian textiles, historically, have ranged from being revered ritual and religious objects, commerical products for intercontinental trade, and as materials for a variety of everyday uses . All these aspects came together through astonishingly fresh interventions here, continuing traditions of the hand-made in Indian textiles.
Since then, textile designers -makers continue to draw inspiration from , and are directly or indirectly influenced hugely by the main aesthetic and conceptual thrusts of this period . Their vocabulary of transformed materials and techniques have contributed to textiles remaining one of the most prominent aspect of India’s artistic culture today. But the playing out of their negotiations vis-à-vis stylistic evolution, technological changes and creative expression within ‘market forces’ largely - perhaps - has prevented consistent curatorial and theoretical work on the subject from such a recent past? FRACTURE: Indian Textiles, New Conversations, remains primarily an exercise in such reflection. The exhibition brings together work, largely commissioned over the last three years, through an intense curatorial exercise between scholar Rahul Jain, designer Sanjay Garg and myself, facilitated by the Devi Art Foundation.
An immediate question arises - why now? Devi Art Foundation’s own repertory of creative projects since 2008 has presented visual art addressing broadly the last fifteen years. Its exhibitions have represented a mainly urban perspective, mirroring the rise of India as a major economic force post liberalization . Resonant with the kind of political issues that artists are concerned with in today’s global network, this has embraced work from other Asian countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It would seem natural then that the Foundation would chose to explore a new territory within making in such urban contexts, which has in the past included the genres of video art, sculpture and installation, folk and tribal art, from what is suggested as ‘contemporary’.
A significant number of works from this exhibition were commissioned based on a ‘Call for Proposals’ sent out to close to a hundred fashion, design, art, architecture institutions and cultural organisations across the country. These invited ideas for textile projects which would suggest a use of hand-traditions, while enquiring into what innovation could mean in them. They also allowed non-textile practitioners to send in concepts, which would be mentored through processes of technical know-how. From close to two hundred proposals received, almost forty went through a process of sampling and a first set of explorations. About twenty of them were selected for the exhibition, and towards finalisation.
Most of the concepts received were from studio practices in urban contexts, and the practitioners tended to come from diasporic pedagogies: many of them had studied abroad, aspired to a certain universal expression of the techniques they had chosen to work with, and in many cases trained in educational frameworks with origins in the West. These form a bulk of the exhibition. A few remaining came in from earlier commissions. In one case from a series of efforts in the early to mid-nineties, aimed at reviving excellence in woven brocades from the Mughal period. And another few, suggested the exploration of new visual themes in traditional Indian textiles, executed by mastercrafts people.
The resulting body of work over archingly alludes to a certain visuality that has become a mark of textiles from this period - neutral to monochromatic colour palettes, and an avoidance of decorative motifs-patterns commonly associated with more historical Indian textiles. These choices negate a certain immediate identification of these textiles as ‘ethnic’, or belonging to particular geographies, even if most of them are rooted in very specific skills and techniques of such physical location. They favour a visual-material language that is at once legible, viserally, for the tactile emotions they evoke in viewers. As also for a certain abstraction of their designs, that would make them easy to receive universally, without much explanation of their originally associated meanings.
In this way, the works culminate an important aspect of the Visvakarma series of interventions: post-independence efforts to create ‘secular’ references in many of the historically religious Indian textiles were transformed into decorative art that could be used without their ritual connotations. This was the mood of the period politically, as the Indian government sustained a national programme to emerge a secular praxis towards its diverse ethnic communities. But along with this, inherited vocabularies in Indian textiles had to be made flexible enough to be offered as resources for multitudes of new applications. Fashion and interior design, emerging professions then, were seen to be aids in this re-invigoration of Indian hand-craft and rural livelihoods.
Interestingly, the chief designers of Visvakarma, came as fresh graduates and professionals from the National Institute of Design (NID). Dashrath Patel, Rakesh Thakore, Romanie Jaitly and Archana Shah, among many others who led many of these projects, had been trained in a pedagogy which had, from the early Sixties, borrowed from West-centric design movements like The Bauhaus and Ulm in Germany and the Basel School of Design in Switzerland. In the case of textiles, Finnish designer Helena Perheentupa, who led the NID’s textile departments curriculum herself from the late sixties to the early eighties, could be seen to have influenced a certain way of looking at Indian textiles from a Scandinavian perspective: A pre-dominance of geometrical forms, the use of paired-down primary colours, and an essentialising of textile techniques for the generation of abstract textures rather than decorative motifs, are all part of a certain Indian Modernism in textiles which emerged in these early years of India’s independence.
This brief history needs to be studied in-depth, both in relation to developments in Indian architecture and other design fields during this period, as well as independently. As does the work of people like Gira Sarabhai and Shona Ray, who were instrumental in the early stages of the development of institutions like the NID, Calico Mills and The Calico Museum of Textiles, all in Ahmedabad. But the exhibition does not only pick up threads from this period, linking it to present practices. There has been a certain dynamism in the field of textiles in the last twenty years, which is new to such trajectories.
The prolific nature of experimentation here has included new developments in mechanization, street-art as a source for design ideas, the availability of cheap replicas of Indian traditional textiles from China, and the entry of international brands in a big way. All of these have created a complex scenario, where the nature of diversity is amplified to significant extents . Notions of the classical, folk and tribal, of the art noveau to th e Memphis, cannot be applied in any specific way to its understanding. One way to capture this is through the lens of innovation, and what factors contribute to newness in any idiom of making. This has been attempted in FRACTURE, by inviting apart from textile and fashion designers here, a mix of non-textile practitioners to work with textiles. They include graphic designers, visual artists, a graphic novelist and writer, and a film-maker.
Their perspectives explore a new universe of materials and motifs, suggesting a certain present for them. It is also important to see this exhibition as beginning a new journey of considered questions on Indian textiles, where their showcasing in such non-commercial spaces enables thinking about the continuing relevance of the hand-made. As the world’s only such collection of specially-commissioned textiles from India from this period, this is an important message, and it reaffirms their validity as a powerful global resource for their future.
 Such artistic direction might be seen, under present practices in art and design within the prism of ‘curatorship’. This would have involved supervision of the broad conceptual framework of the exhibitions, choice of textile traditions and designers-artists-craftspeople-artisans, design display and execution, and generating/ guiding related text for the catalogue.
 The term ‘Indian Textiles’, as has been written so far, is applied to a wide range of textiles made in the geographical region of present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This covers a wide range of stylistic and cultural contexts of making-usage of such textiles, and can also be seen within some common over-arching influence of themes and narratives. This includes textiles made both for consumption by regions where they are made, for trade with other regions within the subcontinent, and for export to the North Americas, Europe, Africa, West and Central Asia, China, Japan and South East Asia.
 One impact of these exhibitions has been the rise of the phenomena of urban studio practises and Export Houses, where designers have addressed the need for India-referenced and India-made products which have resonance globally. Another, is a vibrant craft sector, functioning through NGOs and grassroot-level organisations, which has kept alive a relevance for handlooms in Indian cities, through independent formats such as Craft Bazaars. A third, and hugely impactful area has been that of fashion, where a mix of established names and brands, along with bourgeoning chains of retail stores, have begun to create a quintessential Indian design identity through the use of such hand-made fabrics.
 One exception here could be seen as The Vernacular in the Contemporary, a two-part exhibition on folk and tribal at The Devi Art Foundation between 2010-11. Curated by Jackfruit Design and Research, led by Annapurna Garimella, this brought to together the work of several artistans-artists working in rural locations.
 The creative enthusiasm of this period can only be matched, in a small measure, to a brief period in the Seventies to early Eighties, when foreign inspirations like Pop Art found themselves being adapted to Indian tastes and products, echoing global fascinations for the music and fashion of this time.
Swati Kalsi, SHE LL, Sujuni, Cotton and metallic thread on silk, New Delhi / Bihar, 2014, Artisans: Anu Kumari , Rupa Kumari, Poonam Kumari, Komal Kumari, Kajal Kumari, Neha Kumari, Asmita Kumari, Amrita Kumari, Shalu Kumari, Sudhira Devi, Anita Devi, Juli Kumari