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 Indian pizzas in San Francisco to bhangra competitions in Boston

A guide to the Indian heart of these American cities.

The United States of America has for long been more than a tourist destination for Indians. With Indians making up the second largest immigrant group in the USA, North American cities have a lot to offer to the travel weary Indian tourist. There are umpteen reasons for an Indian to visit vibrant education and cultural hubs like Boston and San Francisco. But if you don’t have a well-adjusted cousin to guide you through the well-kept Indian secrets, this guide to the Indian heart of Boston and San Francisco should suffice for when you crave your fix.

Boston

If you aren’t easily spooked, Boston is the best place to be at in October due to its proximity to Salem. You can visit the Salem Witch Village to learn about present-day wiccans and authentic witchcraft, or attend séances and Halloween parades with ghosts, ghouls and other frightening creatures giving you a true glimpse of America during Halloween. But the macabre spirit soon gives way to a dazzling array of Christmas lighting for the next two months. The famed big Christmas trees are accompanied by festive celebrations and traditions. Don’t miss The Nutcracker, the sugar-laced Christmas adventure.

While it upholds its traditions, Boston is a highly inclusive and experimental university town. It welcomes scores of Indian students every year. Its inclusiveness can be gauged from the fact that Berklee College of Music released a well-received cover of AR Rahman’s Jiya Jale. The group, called the Berklee Indian Ensemble, creates compositions inspired by Indian musical styles like the Carnatic thillana and qawwali.

Boston’s Bollywood craze is quite widespread beyond the campuses too. Apple Cinemas in Cambridge and Regal Fenway Cinemas in Fenway can be your weekly fix as they screen all the major upcoming Bollywood movies. Boston tends to be the fighting ground for South Asian Showdowns in which teams from all over the North-Eastern coast gather for Bollywood-themed dance offs. The Bhangra competitions, especially, are held with the same energy and vigour as back home and are open to locals and tourists alike. If nothing else, there are always Bollywood flash mob projects you can take part in to feel proudly desi in a foreign land.

While travellers love to experiment with food, most Indian travellers will agree that they need their spice fix in the middle of any foreign trip. In that respect, Boston has enough to satisfy cravings for Indian food. North Indian cuisine is popular and widely available, but delicious South Indian fare can also be found at Udupi Bhavan. At Punjab Palace, you can dig into a typical North Indian meal while catching a Bollywood flick on one of their TVs. Head to Barbecue International for cross-continental fusion experiments, like fire-roasted Punjabi-style wings with mint and chilli sauce.

Boston is prominent on the radar of Indian parents scouting for universities abroad and the admission season especially sees a lot of prospective students and parents looking for campus tours and visits. To plan your visit, click here.

San Francisco

San Francisco is an art lover’s delight. The admission-free Trolley Dances, performed in October, focus on engaging with the communities via site-specific choreographies that reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Literature lovers can experience a Dickensian Christmas and a Victorian holiday party at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a month-long gala affair starting in November.

As an Indian, you’ll be spoilt for choice in San Francisco, especially with regards to food. San Francisco’s sizeable Indian population, for example, has several aces hidden up its sleeve. Take this video by Eater, which claims that the ‘Indian’ pizza at Zante’s Restaurant is the city’s best kept secret that needs outing. Desi citizens of San Francisco are big on culinary innovation, as is evident from the popularity of the food truck Curry Up Now. With a vibrant menu featuring Itsy Bitsy Naan Bits and Bunty Burrito and more, it’s not hard to see why it is a favourite among locals. Sunnyvale, with its large concentration of Indians also has quirky food on offer. If you wish to sample Veer Zaara Pizza, Dabangg Pizza or Agneepath Pizza, head to Tasty Subs & Pizza.

There are several Indian temples in Sunnyvale, Fremont and San Jose that also act as effective community spaces for gatherings. Apart from cultural events, they even hold free-for-all feasts that you can attend. A little-known haven of peace is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Their Anjaneya World Cafe serves delicious mango lassi; the beverage is a big hit among the local population.

If you’re looking for an Indian movie fix during your travels, the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival’s theme this year is Bollywood and Beyond. Indian film enthusiasts are in for a treat with indie projects, art-house classics, documentaries and other notable films from the subcontinent being screened.

San Francisco’s autumn has been described as ‘Indian summer’ by the locals and is another good season to consider while planning a trip. The weather lends more vigour to an already vibrant cultural scene. To plan your trip, click here.

An Indian traveller is indeed spoilt for choice in Boston and San Francisco as an Indian fix is usually available just around the corner. Offering connectivity to both these cities, Lufthansa too provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its India-bound flights and flights departing from India. You 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 internalized 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.