The first thing you see as you enter The Fabric of India exhibition at the V&A Museum is a strikingly large floor-spread, hanging behind an almost fluorescent dress. At first glance, these two textile artifacts seem worlds apart, but when you start to unpick and look closer at the details, their pairing makes complete sense.
Together, the 1650 printed floor-spread and Manish Arora's widly embellished dress from his 2007 debut collection embody exactly what this exhibition is all about. Arora's embroidered and printed butterflies use traditional centuries-old techniques to push the boundaries of contemporary design. They illustrate the journey of Indian textiles from delicate hand dyework, embroidery and embellishment to a technological, global industry. Both antique and modern are equally significant in today's design culture. Here, the V&A manages to weave the many strands of what we can call "Indian Textiles" into one very informative, inspiring and memorable exhibition.
You could say colour is key in Indian fabrics, so it is wonderful that so much wall space is given to large piece of rich, hand-dyed fabrics. Each coloured fabric is complimented with videos and samples explaining the dye process and origins of each pigment, or the harvesting of silk threads. It is a great introduction into the technical side of antique textiles. A stand-out piece for me was the 1850 skirt panel with beetle wings, glowing in a myriad of blue and greens.
I could have stood before the Embroidered Map Shawl (c.1870, Srinagar, Kashmir) for hours. The intricacy of this piece is breath-taking, and just imagining the time it took to hand stitch is mind blowing. This is most probably my favourite textile item I have ever seen - what could be better than an embroidered version of old time cartography?! Each intricate tent and window and leaf is stitched in beautifully preserved colours, in cartoonish perspective. Even the fish and birds are included, swooping along the river bank. No wonder this shawl was never intended to be worn - there is simply too much there to admire!
Of course textiles extend much further than dresses and shawls, but as a costume designer I often forget to think of textiles used as outdoor props like tents and flags. There is a fantastic example of an immense flag with many triangles patched together. This particular one was used in religious ceremonies, and it opened my eyes to a whole new world of symbolic textiles. Flags have been used for centuries: in war, on ships, as patriotic emblems or chivalric decoration... I think it would be a very interesting research topic!
Next, pass through a peaceful red corridor to the Royal Courts. Here you get a sense of how these beautiful textiles would have been used in their original contexts. I loved the experience of sitting under a tent roof, listening to music and twittering birds - it really helped to bring everything in the room to life. Just beside the tent are glass cabinets with clothing that can be viewed 360°. Throughout the galleries, the clarity of the displays really allows you to appreciate each and every piece.
Moving along the Indian textile journey, and towards the final rooms of the exhibition, you can start to see how fabrics from across the world, not just India, started to influence each other thanks to emerging trade routes. A bed cover made in India for use in Portugal uses typical Indian quilting and embroidery, however the characters are clearly in European dress.
The way in which the textiles are presented throughout the exhibition echoes their original purpose as traded goods - not pieces to be looked at in museums. Fabrics are draped on rolls or bolts as in fabric shops, and some even retain their original labels.
Finally, the journey ends in the modern day, and there are many examples of contemporary designers using traditional crafts to produce new Indian textiles - for fashion, interiors and as art. An Hermes shawl (2014), much smaller than original Indian shawls, is embellished with classic hand embroidery. Coming full circle, Manish Arora's glistening 2015 beaded top and skirt mirrors the striking beetle wing embellishment from the first gallery. Nothing ever truly becomes outdated in textiles - materials are developed over time, and tried-and-tested techniques are pushed even further by modern machinery and modern hands, to create something just as special as its antique counterpart.
The Fabric of India is on at the V&A Museum in London until January 2016. See here for more information:V&A Website