In Merriam-Webster the first definition of “fabric” is “structure, building, or framework.” The word traces back to the French fabrique, “the created world.” It isn’t until the fourth definition that we get to the word’s most common usage, “cloth.” So a double meaning plays in “The Fabric of India,” a sumptuous exhibition mounted at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2015 and now at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where it’s been remounted in two facing galleries. India has been exporting textiles since 4000 B.C. (in ancient cultures the word “India” was shorthand for cotton) and this is the loom upon which India wove its economy. To this day, by law, the country’s flag must be made of khadi—Indian cloth of natural fibers, hand spun and hand woven.
The Fabric of India
Cincinnati Art Museum
Through Jan. 6, 2019
Unbelievably, “The Fabric of India” is the first major exhibition to explore this subject. Rosemary Crill, V&A senior curator, Asian Department, was nearing retirement and thought it high time to dive into the museum’s vast holdings from the Indian subcontinent, much of it inherited when England’s India Museum disbanded in 1879. It’s a large exhibition, with over 170 handmade objects on display, and yet it is organized with such clarity and flow that the viewing experience is not only captivating but moving.
The first gallery is devoted to Indian textile production and artistry, and it begins with a section called “Nature & Making.” In tutorial fashion we move from “Raw” to “Dye” to “Weave” to “Print” to “Stitch,” each process supported by a short video as well as vivid examples of the craft embodied in goods both everyday and exquisite: cottons so sheer they were known as “woven winds”; silks of rapturous color (saffron, magenta); a bolt of golden weave cloth from 1855, spun of gilded silver warp and silk weft, as if in a myth.
“Raw,” particularly wonderful, presents silkworm cocoons that look like felted eggs; shimmering skeins of silk, unicorn-white; and a “hank” of pashmina, the fine underhair of the Changthangi goat. “Dye” acquaints us with the indigo plant, concentrated in dried cakes that bloom into the world’s inkiest blue; with the reds of chay roots and stick lac (a resin secreted by the scale insect Kerria lacca); and with turmeric’s gift of egg-yolk yellow. India’s textile industry grew out of sophisticated husbandry and deeply artisanal handling of its bountiful flora and fauna. In “Stitch,” for instance, marquise-shaped ornaments of glittering green, sewn into the decorative border of a dress (c. 1850), aren’t gems; they’re the shell-casings of jewel beetles. Not to be outdone by those native beetles, a huge pashmina shawl embroidered with a map (c. 1870) offers a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Srinagar in Kashmir, its perspective charmingly naive, yet all landmarks scrupulously included.
From here a stately procession of coverlets and wall hangings, jackets and robes, takes us from “Sacred” to “Splendid,” from textile artworks that incorporate the spiritual imagery of many faiths—Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Christians—to those that celebrate the imperial patronage of Islamic Sultanates and Mughal emperors. Some of these are very old. Miraculously intact is a “Talismanic Shirt” (1480-1520), meant to be worn, we’re told, “under battle dress and during illness.” Made of paper-thin starched cotton, it is covered with the entire text of the Quran, handwritten in ink in Lilliputian calligraphy. And when it comes to the royal silver spoon, enchanting is a “Prince’s Coat” of glistening silver weave (1850-1900), sized for a toddler.
“A Global Trade” bridges the show’s two galleries. We leave the first through a section that focuses on affordable and utilitarian exports like madras-checked and resist-dyed handkerchief fabric. The second gallery begins with “European Trade,” a collection of the luxury chintzes and gloriously embroidered work prized in Western Europe.
The exhibition grows darker with “Textiles in a Changing World,” which addresses the shock to the country when the British, in the late 1800s, began selling their machine-made cloth in India, threatening the national economy of the very people it ruled. “This sparked mass protest,” the wall text tells us, “and galvanized a political movement to liberate India from British control.” A video of news clips on the leader Gandhi lays out his inspired use of Indian cotton and native dress as symbols of nationhood.
From crisis we move to modernity—a finale of 16 recent ensembles. Western brands such as Hermès, here represented by an embroidered shawl from 2014 (it took 500 hours to complete), still call on Indian artisans to bring elaborate handwork to life. But it’s a new generation of Indian fashion designers who are pulling inherited techniques into cutting-edge visions of beauty. The “Moon Sari,” designed by brothers Aziz and Suleman Khatri in 2012, required folding, clamping, hand painting and indigo dye to create its cloth of full moons with haunting halos. One thinks of lines from E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India,” when old Mrs. Moore is alone in the dark in a roofless mosque: “She watched the moon, whose radiance stained with primrose the purple of the surrounding sky. In England the moon had seemed dead and alien; here she was caught in the shawl of night together with earth and all the other stars.”
—Ms. Jacobs writes about culture and fashion for the Journal.