Every garment has a story to tell. Pose the right questions, and it will reveal the political mood, socio-economic conditions and the very zeitgeist of its period and place of origin. New Traditions: The influences and inspirations in Indian Textile, 1947-2017, an exhibition at the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, is asking such questions of handmade textiles in independent India.

Curated by textile designer Mayank Mansingh Kaul, New Traditions tracks developments in politics, art, culture, and design through handmade textiles from the 1930s till present day. On display are tapestries, sculptures, garments, a multimedia installation, contemporary art works and even an experiential embroidered pavilion.

“Past exhibitions have looked at textiles that go back hundreds of years,” said Kaul. “This show is about more recent traditions in textile and how we experience them today. That’s why we called it New Traditions.”

"The Hexacon Dress" by Rahul Mishra, Spring Summer 2016 Collection. The hand-embroidered dress is made with wool (felted), organza and PU leather. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

Chapter Zero

New Traditions is divided into six key sections, and while the show primarily focuses on the post-independence period, at least two exhibits hark back to the pre-1947 era. Charles Correa, the architect of Jawahar Kala Kendra, often spoke about the idea of a chapter zero – the thing that comes before the book or thesis and explains the context. Playing that role here are a Banarasi silk lehenga skirt and a blue silk sari with an elegant if unusual border. Woven in the 1930s, the two garments set the tone for what follows in New Traditions – an engagement with textile traditions after independence, in a way that appreciates them as both repositories of trends and registers of protest.

The Banarasi lehenga skirt has large floral motifs made with silver zari amidst which is a row of Ashok Chakras – a revolutionary symbol of the 1930s when the call for self-rule was gaining momentum in India. The question it seems to ask is: what is your politics, and do you wear it on your sleeve?

Designer Aneeth Arora's embroidery pavilion, "Link/Interlink" (2014), is inspired by Mughal architecture. The designer used dissolvable plastic and machine embroidery to achieve the lacy effect. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

As for the blue sari, the brocade border has an aeroplane motif. According to Kaul, the aeroplanes were a relic of World War II, which was covered in some detail by the Indian newspapers. Distinctive from the more traditional flower and temple borders, the aeroplane motif probes whether we are curious enough to notice when textiles discard caste and regional markers to forge a new visual identity.

Design structure

The first section of New Traditions looks at textiles from the 1930s and 1940s. These include khadi, silks from Tussar and Muga to Banarasi saris, woollen shawls and blankets, and finally artworks that use khadi as medium and subject.

The second section, in Gallery Two, is about India’s response to Modernism in the 1950s and ’60s. Starting with Le Corbusier’s tapestry for Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex to a 1980s Piet Mondrian-inspired bedsheet with a geometrical design, the exhibits here present an ambition to carve out a new aesthetic.

Rimzim Dadu's "Jamdani Sari" (2014) is handwoven with silicon yarn. It begs the question: how far can you push the limits and still call something textile? Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

The revival of Indian textile traditions in the 1970s and ’80s is the focus in Gallery 3. There are contemporary pieces here that resurrect lost arts, like Renuka Reddy’s chintz fabric, that uses a technique (wax resist) that had been lost for 200 years. There are also historic pieces that weave their own story of resilience, evolution and challenge, like a 1980s Tanchoi sari designed by Jadunath Supakar.

The two floors of the Contemporary Gallery are devoted to the 1990s and 2000s, and the most recent experiments in fabrics, respectively. On the one hand, these contain art experiments like a Jamdani sari made with silicon yarn that may leave some wondering if it’s even textile. On the other hand, they showcase a minimalist design aesthetic that though made in India, could belong anywhere in the world. And finally, the foyer pays tribute to the city of Jaipur, with Sanganer designs juxtaposed with iconic block prints by Anokhi, like the Waterlily.

"Ombre" (2006-07) is a minimalist woollen rug by Jigisha Patel. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

Stories and timelines

A black silk sari, a part of many wardrobes today, was unheard of until legendary designer Jadunath Supakar and master weaver Haji Moinuddin Girast made a black tanchoi sari in Varanasi in the early 1980s, challenging a whole system of unwritten rules.

New Traditions is replete with such stories. If Suparkar’s Shikargah Tanchoi sari, on display in Gallery 3, shows the potential of textiles to challenge the system in one stroke, other stories span decades. One such example is the trajectory of the Parsi Gara – the show traces it through three saris. The first is a traditional Aakho Gara from the early 1900s, that was inspired by Chinese embroidery. The second represents a revivalist attempt in India in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and has a very specific design called the China-Chini (Chinaman and Chinawoman). The third is a contemporary sari by Gara designer and author Ashdeen Lilaowala.

This Patachitra work by Bhikari Moharana is hand-painted using mineral pigments in the traditional way. Yet the theme and look of the artwork are contemporary. Visitors to the show are encouraged to look for the man hidden in the design. (Hint: He's in the upper, left quadrant). Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

In a phone interview, Lilaowala explained that the story of the Gara goes back centuries, to the Indo-China trade. “The Parsis traded with China in the 18th and 19th centuries,” he said. “Gara saris were originally made in China, for Parsis living in India. They had a Chinese, Parsi and an Indian influence. As trade with China closed, other fabrics like Chiffon became popular.”

In the 1970s and ’80s, a revivalist trend took up many Indian textile traditions, including Gara saris. This resulted in experiments like the China-Chini sari. Lilaowala has, over the last decade, given Gara a more contemporary look and feel. The final Gara sari on display is one of his designs – it has a crane motif and colours that are true to the original aesthetic, but also in sync with contemporary sensibilities.

Detail of Nebula Short Dress with three-dimensional hand-embroidery design by Rahul Mishra, Spring-Summer 2016 collection shown at Paris Fashion Week. Photo credit: Jawahar Kala Kendra.

The processes

Processes are a key part of the narrative of New Traditions. While some processes, like that of making khadi denim, are laid out in detail, others like the simple descriptor next to artist Reddy’s chintz fabric in Gallery 3 give just enough information to pique the interest: “Cotton, Hand-Painted, Mordant and Resist-Dyed with Pomegranate and Fermented Iron.”

Visitors will also encounter new processes and new materials that invite them to engage with, and expand their, definition of textiles. For example, there’s a sari made with bottle caps. And while it can’t be worn, it raises an interesting query: is it still a textile product if it isn’t made with fabric and does not carry out its conventional role?

Used bottle caps and metal shackles went into creating Sharmila Samant's "Factory-Made Sari". Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

There’s a Flying Carpet sculpture that was woven on a special circular loom. Taken off its aerial frame, it would still remain wavy unlike other rectangular rugs. Does it still qualify as a textile product, even though it looks different from any rug possibly ever seen?

There is also a Mughal architecture-inspired embroidery pavilion by designer Aneeth Arora. “It just looks like lace,” said Kaul. “But it was embroidered on dissolvable plastic. It even has the lattice windows typical of a Mughal palace.” Manisha Parekh’s A Secret Within, while made of jute – traditionally a supple material – has been twisted in a manner that leaves it rigid. “It makes you think how far you can push the boundaries of what is textile,” said Kaul.

(Clockwise from top left) Designer Rajesh Pratap Singh's "Copper Suit" (Autumn Winter 2015) is made with zari and fabric woven in Neemrana, Rajasthan; "Flying Rug" (2014) by Chadrashekhar Bheda and Mahender Singh was woven on a circular loom; and artist Manisha Parekh's "A Secret Within" (2008) is made with jute rope and acrylic paint. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

Minimalist ideals

The final set of displays, on the first floor of Contemporary Gallery at JKK, feature ideas in minimalism. There are tapestries that use Indian techniques like Mukaish embroidery to produce a global, minimalist aesthetic. “The Hexacon Dress by Rahul Mishra could have been made in Scandinavia,” said Kaul. “Amit Aggarwal has used Chanderi fabric, recycled materials like polythene, and hand applique to make a dress that is rooted in Indian technique, but the aesthetic is global.”

Indeed, the exhibition comes full circle. From explorations of khadi and the nationalist movement, to stories about identity-formation, textiles revival and textile art, New Traditions is likely to reveal different answers to different visitors, depending on the questions they ask.