Seriously splendid: Indian textiles and society

Floorspread, painted and dyed cotton, Coromandel Coast
India’s love of metaphoric language of flowers and trees can be seen in its textiles Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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With 6,000 years of textile history to boast of, India’s production of beautiful fabrics stretches back into its ancient past. The first Mughal emperor, Babur, who reigned from 1526-1530, loved the graceful shape of plants and created gardens in many new regions.

Generations of emperors followed his tradition, especially Jahangir (1605-1627) who had the artist Mansur paint more than 100 spring flowers.

Mansur’s naturalistic style evolved into a stylised fashion under Shah Jahan, establishing the long tradition of flowers as a distinctive decorative motif.

Although influenced by Europe and China, India’s love of the aesthetic and metaphoric language of flowers and trees could be seen in textiles of the 17th and 18th centuries, with many 18th-century chintz palampores (bed coverings) featuring a flowering tree as a central image, even if the design’s original meaning – as a tree of life or wish fulfillment – had never been known to its buyer.

India has been home to numerous religions over many thousands of years. Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Christians all use textiles in worship.

Worn for rituals, as offerings by pilgrims at shrines and temples, or as decorations for sacred spaces, fabric plays a pivotal role in every one of India’s religious practices.

Scenes representing the epic poem, the Ramayana, images from the life of Krishna or tales of Jesus are often embroidered onto cloth, while the Buddhist lotus is often seen woven into temple textiles.

Some pieces of clothing worn by Muslims were decorated with words from the Qur’an as extra protection for its wearer, an example of which is the startlingly beautiful talismanic shirt on display at the V&A’s The Fabric of India exhibition.

Made in North India circa 1480-1520, this simple starched cotton garment was inscribed with ink then illuminated with red and gold paint.

Of course, India’s rulers enjoyed sumptuous lifestyles that benefitted from the finest craft skills of the time. Then as now, fine clothing was a mark of wealth and status in Indian court life.

With wealthy aristocrats as patrons, great artists produced exceptional work. Indeed, the surviving garments from the 15th century onward are some of the very finest textiles ever made, in India or the world.

Every region had its speciality and noted style. Gujarat’s royal workshops wove elaborate silks into human, animal or floral designs. In the Deccan, hand-drawn precision and superbly dyed cottons were used for clothing of the court and for palace furnishing.

A Muslin border embroidered with beetle wings, probably Hyderaba Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The imperial workshops of the later Mughal emperors were famed for their exquisite fabrics, needed for the Mughal courtiers’ standard attire of long gowns, heavily decorated sashes and turbans.

Women, separated by Muslim tradition, also wore a similar dress of a long gown over tight trousers. Whether luxurious garments or segments of fine weaving, textiles played a vital role at court as gifts from the emperor or from nobles to the emperor.

The Mughal court valued opulent wall decorations based on floral and figurative shapes, sometimes inspired by European or Iranian designs. Mughal velvets are instantly recognisable, but the embroideries and cotton prints used as tents and furnishings are also of superior workmanship.

In this vein, The Fabric of India exhibition’s “Court” room features a remaining jewel of this time – a hunting jacket, though not highly coloured as one might expect. Originally rejected – twice – by the V&A, the Mughal embroidered coat is now one of the most famous articles – and one of the finest surviving pieces – of Indian court attire, so much so that it has often been on display since its acquisition in 1947.

Its fine chain-stitch embroidery features a landscape teeming with lions, peacocks, ducks and flowers. In 1947, renowned Indian archaeologist and art historian Kenneth de Burgh Codrington, the V&A’s Keeper of the Indian Department, said: “This coat is of Jahangir’s reign and is among the few surviving early Mughal textiles. It illustrates the work [Thomas] Roe [James I’s ambassador to the Mughal court] writes about and is probably about 1610.”

Of course, later works were also impressive, as is the woman’s peshwaz, a pleasingly fancy cotton blouse decorated with gathers, coloured metal foil, gilded silver strips and sequins that was crafted in north India sometime between 1800 and 1850.

The story of ancient regal India cannot be told without its textiles and the V&A’s The Fabric of India exhibition, part of the V&A’s India Festival, features 200 exquisite pieces of historic fabric, many of which have never been displayed, making it an exceptional exhibition of the world’s finest textiles, past, present and future.

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