Why textiles are a part of our National Heritage By: K. Radharaman, Founder , CEO & Design Head, House of Angadi

Original post available at the Angadi Galleria’s Blog here

Why Textiles are a part of our National Heritage

By: K.Radharaman, Founder, CEO & Design Head, House of Angadi

The rich cultural heritage that has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors is a source of great strength and pride to each one of us. I have always held that our cultural values were the source of our greatness as a civilization and shall remain at the core of our future progress as a nation.

The Heritage that we speak of consists of numerous intangible and tangible components many of which represent the zenith of human achievement.

Our great monuments and texts are representative of the knowledge and know how that was intrinsic to our society and signify the scientific and material wealth of our country. Our myriad schools of dance and music coupled with our varied art forms are a testament to the richness of our cultural legacy. And of course, the multitude of linguistic and culinary traditions lend this great nation of ours an unsurpassed color and flavor.

Dancing girl in Ajanta fresco, a 2012 photograph (left) and Robert Gill's copy in 19th-century.

It shall therefore be no surprise that we should enjoy such an imponderable variety of textiles and crafts that have been passed on to us as part of our cultural inheritance.

To me textiles are an art form – and symbols of our rich and varied heritage. From the vibrant colors of the Rajasthani Bandhej to the intricate embroideries of Kashmir, from the somewhat capriciously hued Patolas of Gujarat to the glamor of the eternal Kanjivarams of the South, – our textiles are a palimpsest of our great civilization.

Styles of Sari by Artist MV M. V. Dhurandhar, 1928

The journey of our civilization is one that is mirrored by the evolution of our attire. The antecedents of our textile heritage can be traced to a multitude of sources. The earliest forms of textiles that were evidenced by the finds at the Indus Valley indicate a most advanced culture of textile usage in what has long been called the cradle of human civilization.

There is a large body of evidence that has since been unearthed which clearly point to the Indian subcontinent as being the very seat of cotton agriculture and weaving in Ancient times. From here, this knowledge spread east to China and Southeast Asia and westwards to Persia and the rest of West Asia.

Textile fragment, made in India, found in Egypt, Fustat, 18th century. The Textile Museum, acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1950

The fame of India’s cotton textiles were widespread and have been extensively chronicled by travelers such as Marco Polo and others in vivid detail. So treasured in fact were the cottons of India that they fuelled vast expeditions from lands as far removed as Europe in search of Muslins and other forms of cotton.

A great divide persists among textile scholars to this day about the origins and prevalence of sericulture and the weaving of silk. One school of thought argues that the earliest use of Silk filament in textile was pioneered by empress Hsi Ling Shi of China, from where it is said to have spread to other parts of the world including India.

There are however many references to the extensive use of silk in India’s vedic literature that far predate the Han Dynasty and hence lends itself to alternative interpretations on the earliest use of Silk Filaments in textile.

An excerpt highlight quoted from The Kishkinta Khandam, mentioning Silk Fabrics

Over time, Indian textiles have assimilated a variety of techniques, which have borne the stamp of its indigenous people as much as the outside world.

While weaving and knitting have been practiced since time immemorial many of the current schools of embroidery and weaving were introduced to India by a combination of trade, migration and conquest.

Trade with other ancient civilzations such as Persia and China introduced techniques such as Ajrakh, Tanchoi and Zorastrian Embroidery, while the Mughal imprint can be found in the Carpets of Kashmir and the textiles of Benares.

Further South, in lands once populated by the earliest forms of cotton weaving, along the Coromandel Coast, newer and more majestic traditions arose. Under the influence of the triumvirate of the Chola – Chera – Pandya empires – India’s love affair with silk was accorded much patronage.

Portrait of Uma Maheshwar with his consort, decked in auspicious fabrics (Silk). Murals in the Thanjavur Brihadeeswarar temple, popularly known as The Big Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. It was built by Chola King Raja Raja 1 in 985-1012 A.D.

The references to textile adornments in Sangam literature further lend credence to the belief that a succession of Dravidian dynasties used textile as an expression of their cultural and civilizational values.

That textiles have been a part of our evolution as a society is beyond doubt – but one feels obliged to emphasize their role in our cultural mores.

The practice of using uncut cloth as a form of attire has been in prevalence since the earliest days of our civilization. The ritual importance attributed to uncut cloth was further driven by the ancient belief that the Universe itself is a vast unending fabric woven by God, the Ultimate Master Weaver.

Sage Markandeya, who, aeons ago, wove tissue from lotus fibre for the gods, is said to be the ancestor of Kanjivaram's weavers

The most recent chapter of this incredible saga of textiles is marked by the advent of the British Raj. The British efficiently extended their principles of Divide & Rule to the textile Trade – knowing full well that cultural subjugation would be the only means for them to suppress a population that far outnumbered them. While the onset of the Industrial Revolution saw the economic exploitation of India take on an altogether different dimension it was ultimately the principles laid out by Lord Macaulay that would leave an indelible impression on India.

Macaulay’s beliefs, founded by what he termed as “progress” were and remain the very foundation of many of the fashion choices that govern the “progressive elites” of India today. Thus the idea of clothing as a representation of economic and therefore metaphorically, cultural superiority is one that has continued to hold sway on the subconscious minds of peoples in this part of the world.

Probably 1890s, Lady styled in Victorian looking Saree blouse with Cotton Saree.

With the shifting sands of Global economic power, we are I believe witnessing the end of an era. As the Brief hegemony of the West subsides, the East shall once again assume the role of economic leadership that was entirely ours till recently. That India shall play a vital role in the future of the world – is a given. With it – one would assume there ought to be a revival of her great cultural traditions, her textiles included. There can be few better representations of India’s inordinate “soft power” than her vast and varied textiles. On the evidence of recent events, I am inclined to believe that many of these textiles are enjoying a revival of the sort not witnessed since the early rushes of Independence. At soirees, and galas, fashion weeks and weddings it is clearly no longer fashionable to remain ignorant of Indian textiles. This I believe is only the beginning.

With the rising tide of India’s economic power I am happy to report that notwithstanding the fact that we are all in some measure Macaulay’s children – the idea of India has endured and so will her textiles.

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