India’s Sumptuously Beautiful Textiles Reveal Painful Histories

Alina Cohen
Sep 13, 2018 5:47PM

India has been producing coveted textiles since at least 4000 B.C.E. Egypt was an early trading partner, purchasing cotton fabrics and dyed threads. When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama established a trade route from Europe to India in 1498, local fabrics became a kind of currency: After stopping at the subcontinent, seafaring merchants journeyed on to Indonesia, where they swapped textiles for spices. By the 17th century, Dutch and English traders were exporting clothing and home decorations from Indian merchants, which became highly sought-after throughout Europe.

While textiles have played a major role in India’s economy, they also offer insight into how the country’s craftsmanship and style have developed. While an eye for beauty and careful attention to detail characterize everything from exquisitely embroidered riding coats to floral-patterned cloth, such traditional values have also proven timeless: Contemporary Indian designers are riffing on bold, luxurious garments in vibrant new ways.

The history of Indian textiles also crucially reflects the legacy of colonialism. According to Cynthia Amnéus, chief curator and curator of fashion arts and textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), in the 1600s, the dominant British East India Company began requesting that craftsmen swap out traditional red-dyed grounds—called “sad” by Europeans—for white to better suit European consumer tastes. Indian cloth makers also started producing chintzes (glazed and printed multicolored cotton fabrics) with motifs inspired by English trends.


“When the Europeans came to India,” Amnéus told Artsy, “they were amazed by the colors of Indian textiles and the fastness and permanence of the dye.” Europeans were so enamored with chintzes that governments began restricting their import. In particular, the British Calico Acts of the early 18th century imposed heavy tariffs on Indian cotton with the hope of invigorating domestic manufacturing instead. Still, according to Amnéus, the textiles were so valued for their color and quality that Europeans found loopholes.

India’s climatic and ecological diversity contributed to the impressive range of hues found in the country’s textiles. Craftsmen used turmeric (a plant in the ginger family) to formulate bold yellows; vivid blues derived from indigo flowers. To ensure that their colors didn’t fade, weavers developed a process called “mordanting,” which fixes dyes to fabrics.

This October, Amnéus will mount an exhibition at CAM entitled “The Fabric of India” (organized by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and first shown at that institution in 2015). Through displays of wedding outfits, saris, men’s jackets, and khadi fabrics (handwoven, often of cotton or silk) spanning the 15th century to today, the show investigates, among other themes, how Indian textiles became symbols of national identity and power.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Female Wedding Outfit, 2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Hitesh Rawat and Avanish Kumar for Jiyo!, Ikat Sari, Pochampally, Telangana, 2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Beyond floral motifs, Indian textiles also illustrate larger narratives. Amnéus mentioned a group of 18th- and 19th-century fabrics (which will be on view in the exhibition) woven with graphics that tell epic stories and religious scenes. For instance, one textile depicts the goddess Gangamma, multi-armed and wide-eyed, amidst warriors, ladies in waiting, and other courtly figures. Displayed like tapestries, such fabrics integrated history, legend, and Hindu belief into art—and were more portable than enormous stone sculptures.

Amnéus explained that Indian textiles adopted a particularly political meaning in the early 20th century. In 1858, Britain officially established its rule over India. At the same time, the Industrial Age was underway in Britain, as factories and new technologies transformed the country. Suddenly, British textiles were being produced more quickly and cheaply than in India. The British began to sell their fabrics to India, destroying the latter’s own weaving economy as local craftsmen competed with foreign machines.

The situation became so dire that activist Mahatma Gandhi integrated a crafts revival plan into his liberation platform. Other national leaders called for a boycott of British goods, but Gandhi went further, entreating the country to reject industrialization entirely and return to traditional craftsmanship. “I am convinced that swaraj [self-rule] cannot come so long as the tens of millions of our brothers and sisters do not take to the charkha [spinning wheel], do not spin, do not make khadi and wear it,” he said in a 1924 speech. Gandhi himself took up weaving and wore khadi cloth. Though perhaps imbued with backward-looking nostalgia, his efforts suggested just how integral craftsmanship, and textile-making in particular, were to Indian identity.

In 1947, India won independence from Britain. Jawaharlal Nehru became the country’s first prime minister, and decided to welcome industrialization. Though national designers used up-to-date machines, they retained centuries-old techniques to celebrate the craft’s rich history.

For example, according to Amnéus, designers still use bandhani, a tie-dye technique that creates intricate patterns. In saris, or traditional draped and wrapped garments, some designers now integrate modern facets such as zippers, or create blouses to go along with them. “We see designers like Manish Arora,” Amnéus said, “who utilizes artisans in India to create his very heavily embellished garments, but they have a Western silhouette.” NGOs have also begun empowering Indian artisans (mostly women) by offering financial assistance and providing opportunities for global projects.

Contemporary designers such as Anita Dongre and Sabyasachi Mukherjee update customary silhouettes with new patterns, and vice versa. Specializing in statement jewelry and ornate, embroidered floral patterns (sometimes studded with uncut diamonds, rose quartz, jade, and other stones), Mukherjee has transformed traditional Indian textiles into a sleek global brand. Dongre makes lehengas (long skirts) and bandis (mens’ coats) in addition to culottes and more casual dresses. On their Instagram accounts, both designers capture models in palaces: Royalty and national history underlie their campaigns, through digital-savvy filters. Sumptuous and expressive, their strikingly modern garments honor age-old craftsmanship while bringing it into the 21st century.

Alina Cohen