When my daughter came back from uni for Christmas holidays, I couldn’t wait to dash with her to the V&A with my new membership card plus guest.
The “Fabric of India” exhibition was the main aim of the day, but we ended up seeing the “Al Thani” collection first. It was all about priceless jewels, diamonds as big as peanuts, rubies as big as walnuts and emeralds like hazelnuts. Just the day before I’d toured the centre of my village and popped into the jewellery shop for the first time, the luscious rings and earrings had tiny precious stones and were already very expensive, but the gems from Al Thani collection were from another planet. The first piece, a turban jewel, had seventeen diamonds of the weight of 152.64 carats.
Most of the gems of the exhibition were from in India or in Sri Lanka. Their names quite revealing, sometimes disturbing: Idol’s eye, Mirror of Paradise, the Star of Golconda. There were also precious jade bowls, enamelling works and some spinel necklaces, their stones so big that made me think of pebbles collected on a shore, which they clearly were not.
Interestingly, with the British rule in the middle of the 19th century, the production of jewellery moved out of the palaces and entered the commercial world reaching Europe. Consequently they adapted their style to Western tastes. The Indian manner, to cut and polish the stone aimed to adapt and interpret the gem’s natural shape without changing it drastically, moved to the Western aesthetic of cutting gems into geometrically perfect forms. These angular, regular shapes, captured and refracted light, giving that astonishing, mesmerizing effect that makes gems so attractive, and, I daresay, hypnotizing.
Some photos of Indian aristocrats on display drew my attention: a baby in his father’s arms covered in pearl strings, women with heavy bangles, earrings and nose rings all reminded me of portraits of European queens and kings, with their clothes embroidered with pearls and precious stones. The essence of jewels is evidently linked to power.
The last section was dedicated to large stones carved with deities and inscriptions invoking God. It sounded weird as most, if not all religions preach frugality and charity.
Some of the videos were very interesting, showing how Indian craftsmen made an enamel brooch using traditional tools or how they cut an astounding gem from a rough stone that looked similar to an ordinary piece of rock.
The Fabric of India exhibition was pretty different. It made me realize how much fabrics have always been important in Indian production since ancient times. In Ancient Greece the name ‘India’ meant cotton and the word ‘indigo’ derives from the word India. And still today, India is undoubtedly part of the fabric global trade. Each region of the Indian subcontinent specialized in a particular fabric, e.g. golden silk of Assan, fine cotton of Bengal, red dyes of south-east India. The dyes were originally extracted from plants and roots, like pomegranates rinds, madder root, tinbura root, chay plant, and insects like the lac beetle. To fix the dye they used alum, a mordant, which reminded me of the war between Florence and Volterra under Lorenzo de’ Medici rule caused by Florence greedy aims on alum mines, precious for their fabric production.
India exported fabrics all over the known world, Mediterranean countries, Middle-East, Africa and Europe, then also Japan and the Americas. Interesting videos showed how they hand make wooden blocks to print patterns, how they weave using handlooms and the Ari embroidery technique made by men using hooked tools. Beautiful works that required great skills in craftsmanship.
At the end of the exhibition they explained how the British Empire tried to break this ancient tradition taking the monopoly of the fabric production, producing fabrics in Lancashire mills that were then sold in India. Unemployment spread and only very fine or very rough fabric production survived. From this it’s obvious why Gandhi wanted to inspire people to spin by showing them himself and insisted that everybody had to weave their own clothes. Significantly the spinning wheel is in the Indian flag to highlight the great importance of their fabric production. Today’s Indian fashion design takes into account traditional techniques like mirror work, hand weaving, natural dyes and chikan embroidery, elevating them to a new level using new materials and silhouettes.
A revealing day.