Banarasi brocades are the epitome of the hand weaving tradition of the subcontinent. For generations artisans have been interlacing the warp and weft with an amalgamation of diverse influences, patterns and designs. Woven in intricate patterns, the brocades in silk and cotton embody the spirit and ingenuity of the weaver.
The exhibition features a hundred objects - 42 from the museum’s own collection and 58 on loan from private collections. The National Museum has a vast collection of brocade fabrics and stitched garments representing different parts of the subcontinent. In this collection are a prominent number of Banarasi saris which form the central core of this exhibit. Banarasi saris are considered among the finest in India, known for their rich gold and silver brocade, zari work, fine silk and opulent 'embroidery on the loom' - a reflection of the rich cultural history of the region. The collection also features a few mass produced modern imitations, designer interpretations and their influence on popular culture. The exhibition is an attempt to initiate a discourse on the need to rediscover, revive and preserve this living tradition.
The exhibition has been divided into six sections, the first focuses on brocade traditions from Gujarat, Assam, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu displaying an array of exquisite pieces. While crossing this section a maroon and gold Kanjeevaram sari will grab your attention, the layout seems traditional but a discerning eye can notice the contemporary motif of a gramophone woven in brocade in the pallu. Another striking sari from this section is a traditional Ashavali from Gujarat, characterised by a gold medallion placed at the beginning of the pallu and a pair of stylised lions leaping in from the corners. The gilded design is so dense it leaves hardly any background visible, but the slight red ground that can be seen only highlights the ornate gold pattern.
The second section displays the textile treasures woven by the master craftsmen from Banaras; their repertoire does not only consist of saris but also rich yardage, light turban fabrics and furnishings. These were possibly created for the Mughal and Avadhi patrons who were extremely fond of luxurious fabrics and their taste had definitely influenced the technique and design of the time. A bidri ware chair with brocade upholstery from Hyderabad is an example of the inventiveness and collaborations among the crafts of this period.
The large selection of luminous jewel toned Banarasi saris in phulwar, butidar, shikargah and geometric patterns forms the third part of the exhibition. The curvilinear pattern of the shikargah or the hunting scene is characteristic of the weaving tradition of Banaras. Also on view is a large shikargah wall spread (15X15ft), a contemporary rendition designed by Sribhas Chandra Supakar and woven by artisans from Pilikhoti in Varanasi (2008-2009). The information card along with the display mentions each of the weavers’ names - Junaid, Salman, Ajit, Babu, Ahad, Javed and Belal, the addition of this information emphasises the handmade quality of the craft and is in sync with the recent global phenomenon of crediting the craftsman and lifting him out of his anonymity. "These weaves and textiles are the most haute couture of all. Banaras weaves are almost like a monument worth preserving, like no other in the world. I am happy to support and be a part of the revivalist projects centred round the traditional crafts and textiles of India," says fashionista Ritu Kumar. Kumar, who has loaned two of her designs for the exhibition also comments on the element of bespoke that hand woven textiles have to offer. In India the customisation process can begin from the selection of yarn and go on to designing each and every component of the finished garment. Ritu Kumar’s contemporary interpretation of a rani pink and gold Banarsi gethua sari where the drape has been tailored into a ready to wear garment takes centre stage in the next section. Also featured is a Parsi gara embroidery inspired deep purple brocade sari by Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala, and Rahul Mishra’s black and antique gold brocade bomber jacket along with a dress, representing a modern take on the textile by transforming it into silhouettes that are young and exude power.
The remaining sections display objects from personal archives and private collectors. A white and gold Christian wedding sari purchased in Bangalore in 1972 by Patricia Ann Jeyasingh is displayed along with a black and white photograph from her wedding day, giving the viewer a glimpse of the history that the fabric holds.
Three posters of the Hindi feature film ‘Tapasya’ (1976) are interspersed with the collection of brocades, the Banarasi sari in this instance is symbolic of the sacrifice made by the protagonist for the sake of her younger siblings. The exhibition also features a Barbie doll as an Indian bride in a red and gold Banarasi inspired attire, re-iterating its iconic status in popular culture. A work from Pushpamala’s ‘Motherland’ series, where the artist is photographed as Mother India wearing a red and green Banarasi sari while seated on a lion, is included.
While the rich textiles were able to weave a tale of the age old tradition, and the place that this khandaani (heirloom) holds in the family, the exhibition itself was not engaging enough, lacking the experiential factor of touch and feel or the sound of the loom. Further, in the somewhat removed space of the museum, the actual conditions of the weavers of Banaras, of the states neglect of basic hygiene in areas like Pilikothi and the general conditions of handloom fabric - of the threat from powerloom, and cheap imitations from distant China need to be addressed.
The exhibition is co-curated by Abeer Gupta, Suchitra Balasubramanyan (IFA fellows) and Anamika Pathak (Curator, Decorative Arts gallery at the National Museum). The exhibition is in collaboration with India Foundation for the Arts on view from 25th February to 25th April at the National Museum, New Delhi.