Luxury silks woven over 25 years

In November 1616, Sir Thomas Roe, the English Ambassador to the Mughal Court presented a coach to emperor Jahangir from the East India Company. Jahangir was so disgusted with his gift, lined with ‘poor quality crimson China velvet’ that he ordered it to be dismantled and replaced the fabric with a richly patterned luxury silk, “the ground of it gold, mingled...with silk flowers, and the nails silver and double gilt.”

W. Foster (ed.) Sir Thomas Roe’s Embassy, 1899

At a time when the demands of a capricious marketplace have made fashion props of art, design and craft, a show opens at the National Museum in New Delhi which is uncompromising in its rejection of trends and commerce.

Pra-Kashi: Silk, Gold and Silver from the City of Light, produced by weaving specialist, Rahul Jain, curated by Pramod KG and sponsored by the Government of India and the Devi Art Foundation, presents 48 masterpieces in ‘luxury silk’ woven at the ASHA workshop in Varanasi over 25 years.

‘Luxury silk’, was a term coined to describe a historic group of patterned silks, interwoven with gold and silver thread, manufactured, using the velvet, lampas, samite, and taquete techniques. “By the 19th century, these techniques had become extinct in India. ASHA could not revive them, so in an on-going unique experiment, it reinvented the skills and tools involved in the weaving process,” says Jain who set up the workshop in 1993.

Hand-woven on traditional Indian draw-looms the artworks on display in Pra-Kashi... are replete with depictions of birds and beasts, images of animal hunts, floral motifs and the human figure. Together, these textiles, represent the full range of ‘luxury silks’ woven for 2,000 years along the old Silk Road stretching from eastern China to southern Spain.

The industry is believed to have put down roots in India around the 12th or 13th century, towards the end of the Sultanate rule, but peaked only in the Mughal period. Abu’l Fazl (1551-1602) the author of Ain-I-Akbari described the imperial karkhanas or factories during Emperor Akbar’s reign, as places which “turn out many masterpieces of workmanship and the figures and patterns, knots and fashions, astonish experienced travellers.”

The idea of ASHA, modelled on the royal karkhanas of the pre-industrial era, came to Jain after he saw a Mughal Patka (a silk-and-gold sash tied at the waist) for the first time in the early 1990s. “I was convinced that the Patka belonged to a class of handmade objects that had been processed to the point of extinction through such intense engagement, that it had surpassed nearly all its defining material characteristics. Instead of looking like it had been woven from textile yarns, the Patka appeared to have mutated into a painting on gilded paper or an enamelled jewel.”

Over the next few years, Jain, who learnt hand-weaving in Washington D.C. after quitting his job as an economist at the World Bank, trained 15 young, underprivileged weavers to create the textiles for ASHA’s first outing, Minakar, in 1997.

Whether it was garments, shawls, fabric lengths, borders, or royal tents, articles of luxury silk were designed and manufactured for the exclusive use of royal families, the temples, or for the purpose of gifting.

With the decline of the Mughal empire, following Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the imperial karkhanas lost their benefactors and began to shut down.

“ASHA has been fortunate for the support of textile connoisseur Martand Singh and industrialist Suresh Neotia, who breathed and lived the role of the peerless patron,” says Jain. Pra-Kashi... is a celebration of their lives and of an art, which belongs as much to the past as it does to the future.

At the National Museum, Janpath, September 9 to October 8

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 7:42:48 PM |

Next Story