SARASOTA — Colorful, intricately beaded, elaborate fabrics spring to mind when it comes to Indian textiles. “The Fabric of India” exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is heavy on those, but it’s also a history lesson going back centuries.
Organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the exhibition contains 140 objects detailing the history of Indian textiles. From the silkworms used for thread to contemporary works of high fashion, textiles are explored through historical, technical and cultural angles organized into six sections.
Fabrics show the differing yields of various breeds of silkworms. Indigo and other plant-based dyes comprise labor-intensive processes and rich color ranges produced going back hundreds of years. The skills of the textilemakers are celebrated here: the weavers, dyers and embroiderers. The use of metallic threads is explored on the bejeweled border of a dress from the 19th century, embroidered with luminous green beetle wings.
Tucked into a small room in the gallery, there hangs a vibrant wedding tent with an unusual provenance. It was discovered rolled up on a New York City sidewalk in the 1990s. After a fruitless search for its owner, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s restorers cleaned it up and patched it. It depicts some kind of ritual with a central devil figure flanked by a parade of animals. It’s likely about 100 years old.
India has been home to a wide variety of religions including Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism and Christianity, which all incorporated textiles into rituals. One remarkable piece dating back to the 15th or 16th century is a Talismanic shirt inscribed with verses from the Koran in ink and gold paint. Calligraphic medallions adorn the shoulders. It’s cotton, but has been so pressed and starched that it looks like paper. Sweat stains in the armpits confirm that the garment was worn.
The elaborate, intricate textiles created for royal courts were passed down for generations. A particular stunner is a 19th century embroidered shawl from Kashmir with a pictorial map of Srinagar, made with pashmina, wool from the undercoat of a specific goat. Every square inch is covered with scenes of fortresses, palaces and a parade, right down to fish swimming through the canals. This section also features exquisitely embroidered riding coats, tent hangings and traditional styles of clothing.
Indian textiles were exported to the Middle East, Mediterranean, Africa and Asia for centuries before European traders got involved in the 15th century. But once the Dutch, Portuguese and especially the British began dominating trade with India, a shift in the patterns of the textiles reflects those tastes. The British were especially fond of chintz, cotton fabric printed with floral patterns, like the 18th century women’s jacket and petticoat on display. The fabric was originally imported for wall hangings but was repurposed as attire worn by servants. The style spread to the upper classes and a trend was born.
And then industrialization happened, a detriment to India’s textile trade. By the late 19th century, British factories were producing enough of their own fabrics to stop importing from India, which was then under British rule. Textiles produced in Britain in cheaper fabrics were sold back to India, which meant more people could wear things once reserved for the upper class. But the influx of foreign fabrics was destroying India’s textile industry, sparking protest and a movement to gain independence from Britain. The movement, at which Mahatma Gandhi was central, called for a boycott of foreign cloth. People were being encouraged to weave and wear traditional cotton Khadi cloth; an image of a spinning wheel adorns flags of the early independence movement. India gained independence in 1947.
Now, India is home to a thriving fashion and art culture. These artists and designers continue to push the boundaries of textiles. Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s spectacular wedding ensemble is on display. The bride’s silk and cotton, gold thread and bead embroidered gown is a marvel, and the groom’s coordinating outfit is equally high fashion. Designers’ updated take on the traditional sari includes one in chic houndstooth and another with combat boot prints. Manish Arora, India’s most renowned designer, pushes the ancient practice of hand embroidery with his over-the-top jewel-encrusted sweater and beaded skirt. He calls it “Dramatizing the Traditional.”
IF YOU GO
“The Fabric of India” remains on display through Oct. 13. $25, $23 seniors, $15 active duty military, $10 Florida teachers, $5 college students and ages 6-17, free for 5 and younger and select college students. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and until 8 p.m. Thursdays. 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 359-5700. ringling.org.