The image of a piece of textile, with striking red poppies picked out in vegetable dye and gold, sits in a photo frame. It was once part of an elaborately printed cloth tent used by the Mughal armies as a travelling palace. Such panels, referred to as kanaat , also formed walls, screens, garden pavilions and sacred spaces. Another photograph shows a wall hanging, hand-painted with the Tree of Life motif, sometime in the 17th or 18th century (a popular export to Europe as home furnishings).
These images are part of Kanaat: A Brief History of Painted and Printed Indian Textiles , a one-day showcase curated by fashion designer and textile revivalist Ritu Kumar, with scenography and text by curator-designer Mayank Mansingh Kaul. “We exported these textiles across the world. But once the British began to replicate them with machines in Lancashire, many crafts died in India. Our own designs are now called ‘chintz’, a term given by the Europeans,” says Kumar, who has been studying historical Indian textiles for over five decades.
Lost and found
Though the exhibition has been brewing in her mind for 20 years, it took shape a few months ago, after the designer diversified into home furnishings. From cushions to tableware, the contemporary pieces of Ritu Kumar Home are steeped in traditional Indian designs. “But not many from the younger generation are aware of what a fustat fabric or pichhwai is. I realised that an entire directory of textiles has escaped this generation,” she says. “So, the exhibition aims to reintroduce us to our own heritage
On display are images of archival prints sourced from French and British museums, and recreations from a book titled Calico Painting and Printing in the East Indies in the 17th and 18th Centuries “that I bought 30 years ago”. The motifs include flora and fauna, royal court scenes and imagery from epics such as the Ramayana.
Collectively, the show is a glimpse into various design schools, including the centuries-old ajrakh printing technique, block printing traditions from Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh and Sanganer in Rajasthan, and a genre of Jahanamaz (Islamic prayer rugs) from the 18th century, that were hand painted and block printed in Machilipatnam (formerly Masulipatnam), a port town on the eastern Andhra coast. “This fabric doesn’t last long. I was fortunate to have an image and I’m reproducing it here,” says Kumar, adding that she’s also making a nine-foot wall hanging featuring a collage of patterns using old wooden hand blocks from Bagru in Rajasthan.
Kanaat is on view from 11 am to 5 pm on December 13, at Ritu Kumar, South Extension - Part II, Delhi.