Fabric of India:ReviewOctober 30, 2015
The title Fabric of India conjures up for me hot pink, burnt orange and saffron yellow silk, glowing and gleaming; white fabric stiff with mirrors and gold embroidery: and a general joyous jamboree of colour, sequins, beads, tinsel and all the magic of a huge subcontinent with a historic love of applied decoration.
The Fabric of India
3 Oct – 10 Jan
The exhibition starts well: as you enter, a contemporary full length Manish Arora evening gown encrusted with hundreds of laser cut plastic butterflies stands against an ancient hanging decorated with vivid red poppies, perfectly illustrating the scope of the exhibition, which covers handmade textiles from India from the 3rd to the 21st century. (The word “India” here is used in its historic sense, covering modern day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh).
But as you turn the corner, all descends to an unremarkable beige-ness. It’s all very, very educational, from dusty cotton bolls in the display cases to little black and white videos explaining how the fabrics were produced. In amongst this were examples of historical fabrics, mostly every day examples in the first rooms.
I both understand and applaud the archiving and showcasing of every day craft techniques, but to be honest, the UK I’ve grown up in is awash with imported mirrored hangings and hats, batiks and pretty chain stitch embroideries, and it was hard to get excited about these particular versions. Even when the displays progressed to a Tipu’s tent, and rarer and more delicate creations, it all looked too much like a hippy’s hangout for me, with little visual flair in the presentation to stimulate excitement.
Bollywood Glory (or not)
Even when I found what I had wished for all along, a gleaming gold mirrored outfit created especially for a contemporary Bollywood production which was apparently so heavily encrusted the actress couldn’t dance in it but could only wear it for publicity shots I felt let down.
Crouching wearily in a corner, the anodyne dummy did not convey lavish Bollywood spectacle, and the publicity shots mentioned weren’t displayed. Perhaps a Bollywood poster or two would brighten the place up a bit?
I understand the need to keep lighting levels low to preserve delicate materials, but perhaps my disappointment was the keener because the show took place in the same galleries that the brilliant Alexander McQueen exhibition had been held in earlier in the year – that exhibition wasn’t afraid of some clever lighting and dramatic set pieces.
Contemporary Street Style
Only toward the end when all hope feels lost does the Fabric of India show perk up a bit with a video of contemporary street style and some examples of how contemporary South East Asian designers are making saris relevant to younger generations again. But by then I was tired and jaded.
The V & A already has an excellent South East Asian gallery, in which fine historical textiles and artefacts are available to view for free. They need to offer something more than Fabric of India for what they deem “The highlight of the V&A’s India Festival”.
Room hanging, Gujarat, 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum
Group of silk skeins © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Rabari child’s jacket, 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum
Coverlet, , C.1600-1625. Museum no. 438-1882 © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Ceremonial cloth, Ahmedabad 19th century.
Moon sari 2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London