A century-old detachable Chinese collar with intricate needlework that could dress up an understated outfit. A Pakistani bridal kurta with characteristic embroidery. A stunning black Afghan trousseau piece with decorative flourishes. A resplendent Issey Miyake stole that's contemporary in its appeal...

Knitted or knotted, pleated or pin-tucked, sewn or appliqued, woven or dyed, block-printed or hand-painted, textiles talk culture. Whenever gallery owner-art curator Sharan Apparao and contemporary-classicist, dancer Anita Ratnam meet at social dos, their conversation starters are usually their unusual choice of clothing. “Like modern nomads, we travel a lot collecting quaint textiles. All the time, we are looking out for things that are optically interesting and have a sense of timelessness about them. Some of the pieces I've collected are versatile and can be worn to special occasions or used in my performances. Sharan being a curator has collected stuff that dates back to the early part of the 20th Century. Frivolous conversation about textiles and adornments gradually became serious as both of us seemed to gravitate towards the topic. The more we thought about it, the more we wanted to put together an exhibition showcasing our personal collection,” says Anita.

‘The Sartorial World: Marking the visuality of adornment' at Apparao Galleries is a cross-disciplinary art show exploring the ‘body as a museum.' Says Sharan, “Since we've collected quite a lot over the years, it was difficult to curate the exhibition. To make things simple and logical, we decided to bring it down to four colours. Gold spells aspiration, red is auspicious in the Indian context, blue is the colour of indigo, the oldest dye, and black is fashionable in today's world. This is a show in which the five senses are elevated by the ritual of adornment.”

With both sharing a deep passion for culture, the common thread that runs through the collection is craft. “I call it wearable art because each is painstakingly created and talks about a certain culture, time and place. Today, things travel at an amazing speed. You no longer have to go to the country of origin to get a specific kind of attire. You can look for it at quaint little stores and flea markets across the world,” smiles Anita.

The collection comprising kurtas, robes, coats, stoles and jackets is displayed tastefully alongside artefacts such as meditation mirrors, wooden sculptures from ancient folk temples, glass objets d'art and paintings that are in sync with the theme.

Whether it's old or new, ethnic or contemporary, from the East or the West, from dingy weaving units or swanky fashion studios, the pieces echo the role of textiles as cultural narrators. Though there are no explanatory notes, a discerning eye can experience the tradition, dexterity and creative process that make textile art so engaging. The consummate craftsmanship on an Uzbek coat, the signature weave of Benares in a dupatta, the refined imagination of the Warli artist as translated onto a free-flowing silhouette, the delicate stitches in subtle colours on a diagonally body-wrapping, loose-sleeved Chinese silk robe or the Phulkari work on a Pakistani kurta… all express the cloth-culture connection.

The ‘Black' room, though a tribute to the ever-so-fashionable colour, features some of the most ethnic attire. Besides, of course, a stunning Victorian dress stiffened to stand like an installation and a modest collection of iconic sun glasses that grabs the eyeballs at the entrance. Anita's flair for style is evident in the way she's converted three traditional red-and-black Naga shawls into a contemporary overcoat and commissioned designer Sonam Dubal to use Tamil calligraphy to create a jacket. “This is the kind of stuff I like wearing while travelling. It's like carrying a piece of your culture, your mozhi wherever you go.”

‘The Sartorial World', Sharan hopes, will be a stepping stone to a larger goal of setting up a textile museum. “Traditional attire and costumes are still alive in some countries such as India that believes in festivities and rituals. It's imperative that we document varied textile traditions as they mirror their socio-cultural identities,” explains Sharan. “It's particularly important in today's world where everyone wants to be seen in frocks!” rues Anita.

Keywords: Anita Ratnam

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Krithika ReddyMay 11, 2012