The Commonwealth Games bring an extraordinary show of textiles from 22 countries to the city. Among the exhibits is Nehru's jacket and Mandela's silk shirt.
When a foot bridge collapses, headlines scream and scams stare us in the face, it takes a mighty heart (and a solid reason) to stand up and say something good about the Commonwealth Games. So far a showcase for spectacular ignominy, the occasion has brought a fascinating exhibition featuring textiles from 22 countries across five continents to the Capital. For that at least, we must thank the Commonwealth Games.
The origin of Powercloths of the Commonwealth lies in a similar show organised for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. And like the Games itself, the show too is an exercise in complex logistical organisation and international cooperation. Almost 18 months in the making, the exhibition has been organised by the Australian High Commission in collaboration with the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi and involves the participation and aid of a number of governments, museums and private collections.
The curators are Suzanne Davies of RMIT University, Australia, and Jasleen Dhamija, an internationally recognised specialist on Indian textiles. Thematically, they have structured the show around three broad notions: cloth that is made powerful by the wearer, such as Nehru's jacket or Mandela's silk shirt; textiles that are of value because of the tremendous technique involved in weaving or creating them, such as the sheer muslin of Bangladesh or the exquisite shawls of Kashmir; and finally, textiles that are of ritual or symbolic importance such as the masquerade costumes worn by the ethnic Yoruba people of Nigeria.
The most interesting section (and the one that is likely to draw the most people) is the clothes rack of the famous and powerful. Call it the power wardrobe. An uber stylish, hand-painted, Madiba silk shirt worn by Nelson Mandela sits diagonally opposite a surprisingly well-maintained jacket belonging to Jawaharlal Nehru. Beige in colour with the coarse khadi weave leaving an uneven yet elegant pattern, this then is the real McCoy. The personalised garment that became an eponymous style statement, the must-have of our Fab India winter wardrobe.
There's also a robust, ridged, cream-coloured shawl draped by M K Gandhi and a pair of gloves belonging to Queen Victoria, dating back to 1897. The gloves are engraved 'VR', which stands for 'Victoria's Reign'. A handsome khadi blanket woven at the Sabarmati Ashram and gifted by Gandhi to Regina Reynolds in 1929 occupies an enclosed glass counter. Gandhi appointed Reynolds the primary spokesperson to the Viceroy to explain the reasons for the mutiny against the British.
Stand warned, though, that Powercloths... is not for the lazy viewer. The celeb section is possibly the only one with an obvious, easy appeal. The sections on artistic technique and ritual/symbolic significance are complex entities, where narratives of culture, history, anthropology and art come together. It's intellectually demanding, yet some of the works stand out by virtue of their sheer visual appeal. Like the delightfully over-the-top Yoruba masquerade costumes or the spectacular Mata Hari (yes, that's what it's called). And some which leap to the eye for historical value, such as the exquisite Kalamkari textile woven by Gujarati artisans dating back to the fourteenth or 16th century. Dhamija, however, insists that it probably dates back to the 12th century.
One work, however, falls outside these neat categories. Textile artist Kay Lawrence's No Work for a White Man, made of an old cream blanket, cotton thread, cotton tapes and brimming with mother-of-pearl buttons and tongue-in-cheek humour, is more contemporary art than textile exhibit. Dhamija agrees, saying, "True, this is more arty really, but we chose this because it embeds the postcolonial discourse. After all, this is a Commonwealth exhibition. The colonial powers deprived the mother-of-pearls shell of the sacred value they held for the Aboriginals and exploited the native people for the commercial value of it."
Clearly, this is a show with much thought and planning and that's reflected in the modes of display as well. Some of the exhibits are in glass counters, some mounted on mannequins and some are allowed to hang wonderfully, tantalisingly loose. "We kept the most fragile pieces in glass. But for the rest, we wanted to offer a visceral experience, rather than just a visual one," says curator Suzanne Davies. "But you're not supposed to touch the exhibits," she adds hastily. Her haste is well directed. With their rich, vibrant textures, many of the exhibits invite you to run your fingers through them. Particularly irresistible is a magnificent Ngatuk cloak from south-east Australia, made of 27 possum skins. (Give in, however, and a sharp rap follows swiftly from the otherwise polite, helpful staff.)
The effect is part handicraft bazaar, part museum hall. And this gives the impression of connecting the vibrant textiles that may catch your eye in, say a Dilli Haat, with the cultural and historical narratives behind them. The show makes ample use of text, at times even overusing it, but this is welcome. A textile show of this magnitude and ambition is rare here and the text helps overcome our unfamiliarity.
Logistically speaking, the textile show must have meant a lot of sleepless nights and tearing out of hair, what with governments, institutions and private collections involved. "We had an idea of how much work it would be, which is why we started out a year and a half ago. But even then, we had one last-minute disappointment: we had our hearts set on a dress worn by Queen Victoria, which is the property of the West Australia Museum. That didn't happen." But perhaps, Dhamija puts it best when she says, "It was Murphy's Law all the way. Whatever could go wrong, did."
Are you reading this, Mr Suresh Kalmadi?
Powercloths of the Commonwealth will show at the National Crafts Museum, Bhairon Marg, New Delhi, till October 20.