The Registry of Sarees puts on a new iteration of khadi with the exhibition, Meanings, Metaphors
The history of fashion is a tapestry of stories, of glorious rises and steep falls. And if there was one person who understood the cyclic nature of the industry, it was conservationist and advocate of Indian textiles, Martand Singh. Remembered for championing the cause of textiles through grassroots level interventions and documentation, the royal-born Martand ‘Mapu’ Singh brought together the weaver and designer and thus inspired a generation of Prasad Bidapas, Abraham & Thakores among others.
Stripping away the jargon of motif, colour and silhouette, Mapu saw handwoven fabric as an amalgamation of design, skill and technique — its sum total amounting to textile as a form of art — and thus instituted the Vishwakarma in the 1980s. Curated as a series of seven Master Weavers' exhibitions that were part of the Festivals of India abroad, Mapu’s greatest legacy — the Vishwakarma initiative, was a revival of sorts for the lost and languishing weaving and dyeing traditions of the country and marked a turning point in the history of Indian textiles. It is in this context that Coimbatore’s textile heritage gains relevance as the first city to publicly showcase Khadi: The Fabric of Freedom ( the finale of the Vishwakarma series) after it found a new home at the resource centre of The Registry of Sarees in 2018.
Echoing the luminary’s sentiment of how the mills of India were the greatest backers of Gandhi and his symbolism of khadi, Ahalya Matthan, co-founder of The Registry of Sarees, cannot help but smile at the fact that the city’s oldest textile mill — a now fully mechanised Lakshmi Mills, will be instrumental in displaying handwoven khadi saris and swatches as part of a weeklong exhibition. “Besides being a textile city at the heart of the cotton belt in South India, Coimbatore was also very involved in the freedom struggle. It was with this in mind that we decided that the first public showcase would start here.”
How far weave come
Initially conceived and commissioned by Mapu in 2001-2002, the original exhibit, Khadi: The Fabric of Freedom was a collection of 108 varieties of handspun and handwoven cotton fabric and 108 sari designs sourced from across nine states — including West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. This decade-old showcase consisted of textiles catalogued according to count, region and the charka used. Seeking to understand the relevance of khadi in today’s India, textile historian Mayank Mansingh Kaul in collaboration with The Registry of Sarees began retrieving the original fabrics commissioned and thus created a new iteration of Mapu’s showcase that has been rechristened Meanings, Metaphors — Handspun and Handwoven in the 21st Century. “The original saris and the fabrics were fabricated as a set of two of the same design, of which most of the designs from one set were procured by us,” explains Ahalya.
Spinning a new tale
Displayed as an interactive installation designed by Sandeep Sangaru, Meanings, Metaphors was first privately showcased at Chirala, Andhra Pradesh last year where master weavers from across the country were allowed to interact with it. “We had weavers from Kashmir and Telangana and Tamil Nadu, none of who knew a common tongue and to watch the way they communicated with each other and the fabrics was a great experience. The language in which they related to each other was not that of words, but of the loom,” she says. Hoping to engage people in similar dialogue, a series of talks and workshops have been planned in Coimbatore as collateral events, while the exhibition will remain on view to the public from January 21 to 27. At The Lakshmi Mills. 10.30 am to 6 pm.
Additional excerpts from the interview with Mayank Kaul:
1. The exhibition was initially titled khadi - The Fabric of Freedom. What spurred the rechristening?
Khadi in the context of Gandhi and the Indian National Movement referred primarily to hand-spun and hand-woven cotton which could be accessed by all sections of Indian society. As a result, it became synonymous through its associations with thick and coarse qualities of fabric. More than a century later, today, hand-spinning of cotton survives as a niche, artisanal skill lending itself to hand-woven cloth which is relatively more expensive and used for high-end luxury. I feel it is necessary for us to revisit Gandhi's symbolic and economic use of hand-spun hand-woven fabric today by highlighting its aesthetic and material qualities. Also, Khadi has in recent years evolved into a generic broad government owned brand which includes not just textiles, but a range of another home, food, and self-care product made by a mix of rural and urban manufacturers. I would like to, therefore, suggest that we need a new vocabulary for hand-spun and hand-woven textiles for today's time.
2. Have there been any additions or changes to the original exhibit as commissioned by Martand Singh?
No, only its presentation and curatorial premise has been revisited. The collection of textiles exhibited remains the same.
3. In today’s day and age where sustainability and local weaves have dedicated days during fashion week, how does this project gain relevance?
In my observation, a majority of what is being communicated and showcased at such formats has little to do with truly sustainable practices. No Indian designers in my purview have transparency in whether they are paying fair wages to the weaver, tailors and other craftspeople; nor do most of them have certifications of whether they are using organic cloth in their collections and so on. In this scenario, handlooms using harmful chemical dyes are being sold as sustainable. I think we need a very serious conversation which can lead to the establishment of credible standards of sustainability before designers and brands can self-proclaim themselves to be so. When the present collection in the exhibition was commissioned between 2000-2001, there was a tremendous amount of research done on how ecologically harmful cotton cultivation using new varieties of seeds is. This critique pre-empted the present euphoria around sustainability, by several years. Therefore, the exhibition in both its original and present formats can be seen as a harsh criticism of the present contemporary fashion and textile design ecology, which is quick to jump onto trendy bandwagons without supporting it with truly ethical practices and consumer engagement.
4. How important are documentation and archival of textile traditions?
India like many other south Asian cultures has had long traditions of transmitting knowledge systems and wisdom orally. As a result, before we engage with words like archiving and documentation, we need to emerge an Indian approach which is not borrowed from west-centric standards. So while I think it is important for textiles to be studied and discussed, I also think it is important to develop authentic and relevant ways of doing this which are culturally sensitive. A traditional saree, for instance, is in itself an archive. If only, we are sensitively pointed to see it like this. To produce countless text and words to "define" it, can often miss some of the nuances which the verbal sharing of such a saree's design secrets can enable when verbally or anecdotally passed on from one generation to the other.