Flipping through the recently published “Sacred Textiles of India”, you can’t help thinking that it certainly has the force to propel a reader to look within. Within one’s culture and customs, one’s own growing-up days, the previous generations, the things around the place of worship and the house. In other words, things that constitute us as a social being.
The over-100 pager, just launched by Marg Foundation in New Delhi and edited by one of the best known Indian names in the field of textiles — Jasleen Dhamija — is a wonderful window to the tradition of fabrics, the creation of which was once considered an act of worship.
Fabric has evolved to reach the fashion ramps and designer stores today but at its fount lay sacredness, a divine purpose, that we generally tend to look at in isolation. That fabrics did play an important role and continue to do so in rituals and ceremonies that mark every stage of religious, cultural and social life is at the core of the idea behind the coffee-table book.
For New Delhi-based Dhamija, the journey of training her lens over the sacredness of our textiles is but a part of a long linear journey. Dhamija, known worldwide for her pioneering research on the handloom and handicraft industry, aptly underlines the point here. “Textiles are closely linked with rituals and rites of passage, from birth to the final journey. Therefore, any study of textiles will lead to the study of their symbolic significance.” Textile terminology, like jantar, granth, sut, has been used from the earliest times to express Indian philosophical concepts. After all, in the Rig Veda, “the concept of time is conveyed as the weaving of warp and weft and thus the creation of day and night.”
To convey the ritual importance of textiles, the book begins with an overview of the concept through major religions of India and culture-specific articles penned by a host of experts. While Dhamija herself throws light on the cult of Ikat, a tradition common to many cultures of the world including India, Monisha Ahmed shares with readers the sacred aspects of Islamic and Buddhist textiles of Ladakh. Shernaz Cama and Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala take a peek at the ritual garments of Parsis, while Paola Manfredi focuses on the depiction of sacred trees in the Kantha work of Bengal and Bangladesh.
Yet another interesting piece is by Wendel Roddricks, on Goa’s sacred textiles and vestments including the unique use of carved ivory with embroidery. A part of the book also explains the significance of the torans or door-hangings of Rajasthan and Gujarat (by Victoria Z Rivers) besides devoting a chapter on the checked and plaid Madras cloth used by the Kalabaris of Nigeria (by Joanne B. Eicher).
Since ancient times, trade has played an important role in the spread of textiles, some of which went on to become sacred for a community. The popularity of Madras among the Kalabaris, imported from southern India, is one such example. Indian Madras is worn by a new mother going through the period of sequestration after delivery of her child. The spread of Ikat to different parts of India also has its apparent roots in trade, for example Patola in Kerala.
“Textiles have been an important trade for India and money used to pour in from all over the world. The beginnings of colonisation began by trying to control the textile trade,” Dhamija reminds us. Also that India was known for woven cottons and dyes. “The discovery of a large number of spindle and dye vats at Lothal, the Harappan port, in 2000 B.C., indicates that India was exporting dyed textiles to many parts of the world.” And then, “the Romans had great love for the fine quality muslin which they called Nebula Venti or woven clouds.”