Inspired by the city of lights, Kashi, the National Museum in collaboration with Devi Art Foundation inaugurated the exhibition, Pra-Kashi, on the continuing traditions of silk weaving and their dogged survival in urban karkhanas (workshops) in contemporary India. While museums and private collectors across the world have acquired Indian textiles and royal dress made of brocade, zari, muslin, and silk, there is a growing concern about the loss of textile histories and the corresponding need to record these in the 21st century. Focussing on a historically valuable tradition, while highlighting the threat to its survival in the present day, Pra-Kashi weaves together a contemporary take on old riches in new forms. The exhibition, curated by Pramod KG of Eka Archiving Services, brings together fabrics and textiles from the collections of famous patrons, and savants of Indian textiles - the late Suresh Neotia and Shri Martand Singh; Devi Art Foundation; and Rahul Jain.
The exhibition unveils a unique contemporary experiment carried on forty-six textiles, hand-woven by silk weavers at the ASHA workshop in Varanasi, under the mentorship of Rahul Jain, the noted textile historian. The ASHA fabrics on display have been skilfully cultured and engineered through traditional drawlooms, for over twenty-five years, in a bid to champion the lost art of silk weaving from the Mughal, Safavid, and the Ottoman cultures. Over the years, ASHA has contributed to promoting a global weaving tradition inspired by the cosmopolitan cultures of India, Afghanistan, Iran, and Italy. Through the time-honoured patronage of textile connoisseurs such as the late Suresh Neotia and Martand Singh, ASHA continues to produce luxury silk fabrics, which are an exclusive part of the exhibition. ASHA’s fabrics are part of significant museum collections including the British Museum, Museé Guimet, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Textile Museum in Washington DC. The exhibition also includes twenty-one objects of rare historical value from the reserve collection of the National Museum, including textiles, miniature paintings, decorative arts, and jewellery.
The exhibition title, Pra-Kashi, is an etymological play upon the Sanskrit word prakash (light), where word ‘pra’ stands for ‘forth’ and ‘kash’ stands for ‘light’, in a witty take on the city of Kashi. On display are the manufactured fabrics of patterned silks, interwoven with gold and silver thread, using velvet, lampas, samite, and taquete techniques. Pra-Kashi focuses on the glorious history of Indian textiles and costumes; woven with striking colours, embellished with gold and silver, and crested with the choicest gems. It shines a light on the historic city of Varanasi, or Kashi, which continues to be a thriving centre for silk trade and export in India and abroad. In ancient times, silk from Kashi was a sacred commodity worthy of gifts to monks or donations to monasteries and temples. As inheritors of this ancient tradition, the weavers and artisans of Varanasi are considered the gate-keepers of a now-remote tradition of silk weaving and textile design. Today, the laborious work of the master-weaver with a lower rate of productivity is no match for the higher profits guaranteed by the mechanised powerloom. As a result, the weavers’ community at large has been absorbed into a new industrial set-up, retreating from the pre-modern drawloom weave. The exhibition, however, fails to address the socio-economic sustenance of the weavers and artisans of Varanasi, presenting instead, a proposal for the revival of old artistry with a view to the creation of luxury goods, facilitated through government-private partnerships.
Historically, it was the Mughals who introduced the concept of luxury clothes or fabrics in India. During the Mughal period, different clothing styles were fashioned in the royal ateliers under the scrutiny of the emperors. A unique system for the inventory and storage of embroidered royal textiles was introduced through the toshkhana or jamakhana (treasure house), and is documented in period accounts like the Baburnama, Humayunama, Ain-e-Akbari, Akbarnama, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, among others. The exhibition also displays a range of luxury silks that have been manufactured modelled on lost historical styles.
The layout of the exhibition focuses on five prominent traditions of weaving explored through the repertory of Minakari (enamelled), Florilegia of natural designs, Velvet, Qanats (tent panels), and the Shikargah (hunting scenes) weaves and designs. The minakars, through enamelled textiles, have created a fabric like gold, with jewel-like polychrome patterns against metallic grounds. Floral designs including jaal, buta, bel, ashrafi, are explored through a variety of fabrics and weaves including silk, cotton, metallic yarn, velvet, voided-velvet along with brocaded double weave, taffeta extended samite weave and twill tissue.
A brocaded shawl in the Suresh Neotia and Family Collection, with silk and silver threads, silver end-panels and borders with a yellow twill-damask field is inspired by the floral end-panels of a Mughal patka (sash) from the Bharat Kala Bhavan collection in Varanasi. Similar to this design, a reversible coat of white silk twill brocaded with silk, lined with red silk-and-cotton taffeta brocaded with sliver-gilt thread, resembles a floral motif borrowed from an end-panel of a 17th century Kashmiri shawl in the collection of the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad. Also on display is a fabric length of silk and silver thread in extended samite weave from Varanasi, manufactured in 2017. The flower motif for this textile is borrowed from the border of a Mughal miniature painting dated to c. 1660. The exhibition also displays two distinct kinds of velvet - voided velvet and solid-pile velvet. These are juxtaposed with a rare Iranian figural panel from the National Museum collection woven with silk and silver-gilt thread of multiple colours. The ASHA has created velvet jackets drawing from the chevron patterns and imperial Ottoman style of the specimens in the possession of the museum. These are covered with a plush, two-colour silk pile.
The garments display contrasting texture and colour. From smaller floral designs of irises, tulips, damask roses, poppies, and lilies, to more elaborate and extensive floral creations used for qanats and shamianas (marquee) as portable tents, the exhibition presents an array of royal regalia. The ruby-red qanat on display, woven in lampas weave with a prominent floral design in green and gold stretching under cusped arches, takes inspiration from Mughal botanical studies. The five panels, identically woven, are inspired from a mid 17th-century Mughal artefact from the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad.
Apart from these, the hashiya (borders) of Mughal miniature painting as well as the shikargah (hunting scene) turned up often in the costumes, fabrics, and paintings included in the present show. Woven using older samite-weaving techniques and using silk and silver thread, the shikargah fabrics in the exhibition depict several species of birds and animals including the Tree Pie, Paradise Flycatcher, Siberian crane, Wild Ass of Kutch, Snow Leopard, Asiatic Lion, mountain goat, among others. The piece de resistance of the exhibition is ‘Triptych’, a silk fabric in three panels with silver and silver-gilt thread in samite weave created in 2017-19 for the Suresh Neotia collection. The work includes figural representations from Michelangelo's ‘The Last Judgement’ (dated to c. 1534), in the Vatican City. The fabric represents a confluence of old themes and new methods, mirroring the gesture manifest in the larger exhibition.
The exhibition contextualises historic cultures from India and Central Asia as it seeks inspiration from museum collections in India and abroad. The fabrics on display address contemporary concerns of a commercialised tradition through the luxury weaves of silk, gold, and silver produced in Varanasi. The dedicated efforts of traditional weavers and production houses strive to transform the physical qualities of silk yarn into artefacts of creative expression.