Fashion and Style

From saris to T-shirts: A Google project has brought millennia of fashion online

Zoom into pictures of a Patola or a chiffon sari until you can see the threads of the weave.

On June 8, an approximately 3,000-year-old world history of fashion emerged when 183 cultural institutions around the globe simultaneously published 30,000 photographs depicting fabrics, their histories and the stories they tell about human civilisation on the Google Arts and Culture platform, as part of the We Wear Culture project.

Some of the artefacts displayed are so fragile that they leave the safety of their protective covers only for conservation work at museums. In the instant the photographs went up, it became possible to search for these artefacts across museums and cultural institutes, and to organise them by timeline and colour.

“We were thinking about how to make these stories accessible,” said Simon Rein, programme manager at the Google Cultural Institute, in a video call from London. “You could look up fashion of the 1920s or the 1960s, or look at fashion that’s yellow. It’s a starting point. Then you can say, ‘Show me more from India or Germany.’”

Museums understand the significance of clothes as repositories of histories. Massive shows have been organised in recent years, as a hat-tip to the importance of fabrics as a way of stitching together stories of trade, culture, science and globalisation. In 2015, for instance, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London mounted a huge show on the Fabrics of India. Unlike the We Wear Culture project though, one had to travel to the UK to see it.

Image credit: We Wear Culture/Google Arts & Culture
Image credit: We Wear Culture/Google Arts & Culture

Virtual possibilities

The Google Art Project began in 2011 with the aim of making fine art accessible to internet users around the world. It started with 17 museum partners sharing 1,061 high-resolution images of works by 486 artists. In 2017, the art project has been subsumed under the Google Cultural Institute, which includes sections on cultural heritage, museum views, natural history, history, and now fashion.

The Google Cultural Institute is not the only body trying to create such an online repository of knowledge. Museums have been slowly integrating more technology and interactivity into their displays and digitising their collections, since the 1990s. The British Library worked with a technology company in 1997 to develop a tool to scan and upload rare books and manuscripts online. Called Turning the Pages, it made it possible for The British Library in the UK and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai to digitally unite the sections of the Mewar Ramayana in their respective collections in 2014.

However, the Google Cultural Institute is an important cog in this wheel because of its size, reach and the way that it is thinking about technology and culture.

Image credit: We Wear Culture/Google Arts & Culture
Image credit: We Wear Culture/Google Arts & Culture

“Google brings a global audience,” said Nilanjana Som, assistant curator at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and key coordinator for the museum with Google Arts and Culture platform on projects like Museum View and the Natural History project, as well as on the latest We Wear Culture shows. “It weaves a global story with a common thread. It is a huge platform with a wide reach and network that helps share knowledge. Today, using GAC someone in another corner of the world can look at our collection, listen to our story which is probably not very different from his or hers.”

The logistics of high art

Partly because of the way the Google Books project ended (mired in copyright litigation, the project was finally shelved in 2011 after digitising some 25 million books) and partly because Google Arts and Culture’s programme managers acknowledge that they are not experts in culture but at technology, the curation of the We Wear Culture projects was left up to partner institutions, which also reserved the right to take down their material at any time.

That means that though Google Arts and Culture came up with the broad theme of clothes as culture, it was up to the partner institutions to interpret it in their own way – pick the artefacts they wanted to showcase and tell the stories they wanted. Most partners even photographed their own exhibits. What Google provided was a format for organising the content and technical support as per the museum’s requirements.

Image credit: We Wear Culture/Google Arts & Culture
Image credit: We Wear Culture/Google Arts & Culture

“We have our own photographer who takes the pictures,” said Jayanta Sengupta, director of the Indian Museum in Kolkata. “Yet somehow they look better on the Google Arts and Culture website.”

Rein said the technical requirements of cultural partners varied. Some wanted to digitise their collection so they could become visible and searchable online, others were interested in making collections accessible on mobile phones and tablets.

In some cases, GAC also sent their own photographers when partners asked. Some 700 photographs in the first phase of We Wear Culture (it is an ongoing project) were shot on the Google Art Camera that uses a robotic system to click hundreds of high-resolution closeups and then stitches them to together to make gigapixel photos. “For this project, we helped Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum and Border&Fall digitise in ultra-high resolution some of their textile collections,” said Rein.

The result – viewers can zoom into pictures of a Patola sari in the BDL collection and a chiffon sari in the Border & Fall show till they actually see the threads of the weave.

Interwoven stories

According to Dr Sengupta of the Indian Museum, it is the job of museums and cultural institutions to unpack an object and tell the stories it contains. In a phone interview, he gave the example of a shard of pottery from the Indus Valley Civilisation as a keeper of stories about contemporary agriculture, food security, and human settlement.

The stories woven into the 22 virtual shows put up by the 10 Indian institutions, run the gamut from the production of Himalayan indigo to men’s fashion in Hyderabad from the 16th to the 20th century. There are also stories about saris, from the Bengali Baluchari to Paithanis from Maharashtra and Eri silk in Assam.

Each show has a cohesive narrative running through it. For instance, CSMVS’ Humsafar – The Companion show looks at the significance of clothing in life events from birth to death.

Paithani Sari. Photo courtesy: Courtesy Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.
Paithani Sari. Photo courtesy: Courtesy Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.

“We begin with childbirth, the rituals a child goes through in its growing years and the costumes associated with it,” explained Som. “Then we move to the life of the householder and celebrate this long journey with some fabulous examples of saris from across India. Textiles are also important in various religious functions. If we go back a century fashion was very different. Textiles were expensive. The trend was decided by the rich patron. So we have one section dedicated to these patron who fashioned an array to costumes, shawls, sash, turban, shoes, tents, cushions to name a few that are lost today.”

Sitting in London, Rein is also interested in the stories these fabrics and clothes can tell. But his perspective is more global, and interconnected. For this project, he met the producers of indigo dye in India and researchers working on the first synthetic dyes made in Germany. “I got to see how difficult it is to work with natural dyes, understand how synthetic dyes changed fashion, and made it affordable,” Rein said. “But how many people get such opportunities?”

Rein hopes that through these virtual shows and the content that GCA is creating with partners like YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen (who takes short excursions into the history of fashionable items including ripped jeans), We Wear Culture will become a medium for many such discoveries around fashion and its cross-cultural influences.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.