A home for fabulous fabrics

A home for fabulous fabrics

textile museum

A home for fabulous fabrics

Entering the portals of the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad is like entering a biosphere reserve. Sunlight struggles to pass through the dense green canopy above, casting dappled shadows on the gravel beneath, surrounded by innumerable plants and bushes.

Peacocks and other birds serenade the visitors along the walkway leading to a stately building, where visitors are welcomed inside a warmly-lit porch by a staff member dressed in traditional Gujarati attire. This institution, regarded as one of the finest textile museums in the world, calls for a peep into the origins of this national cultural heritage.

It was sometime during the 1940s that the renowned art scholar and multifaceted personality Ananda Coomaraswamy, while talking to industrialist and aesthete Gautam Sarabhai, suggested that a textile institute be founded in Ahmedabad, the city of textile industries. Thus came into existence the Calico collection.

What started as “a modest collection of traditional Indian textiles, mainly with a view to acquainting and exposing contemporary textile designers to the richness of India’s cultural heritage in this field” as the museum’s handout says, grew over the years into a vast collection from all parts of the country, in all its variegated finishes, designs, colours and backgrounds, representing all the major periods in Indian history.

This was displayed inside the compound of the Calico Mills. A formal museum named the Calico Museum of Textiles was then inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949. The collection continued to grow for nearly 30 years after this, during which period the reputation of the museum as a centre of excellence in all aspects of textile science, including publishing books on art and textile design, attained great heights. This attracted scholars, even from abroad.

Financial constraints resulted in the taking over of the museum by the Sarabhai Foundation in 1982. The foundation was set up in 1959 by the industrialist and textile magnate Ambalal Sarabhai and Sarladevi Sarabhai as a non-profit, charitable foundation which, among other things, has mainly concerned itself with preserving Indian cultural heritage, particularly textiles and religious artefacts.

The Calico Museum was shifted to its present location within the sprawling, picturesque expanse of the Sarabhai residence in Ahmedabad. The munificence of the Sarabhai family echoes in the words of the great Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta, who says “...the cultured spectator, whose heart, by constant aesthetic experience is rendered pure like a mirror and can readily respond is a necessary complement to the creative imagination of the artist.”

The entire collection of textiles is housed in a structure called ‘Chauk’. Painstakingly recreated by collecting pillars, beams, facades and other structural members from dilapidated residential buildings of Gujarat, the ambience of Chauk conditions the mind for the visual extravaganza inside.

Kalamkari block prints belonging to 18th century South India greet the viewers first. Then one can see a range of textile products — sarees, bedspreads, scarves, curtains, shawls, overcoats, headgear — which is vast. Paithani weaves of Maharashtra; double Ikats from Orissa, hand-painted Kalamkari work from Andhra depicting mythological themes using vegetable dyes; Kashmiri shawls with intricate floral creepers — the range is indeed vast.

The display is imaginatively curated using subdued illumination to protect it from deleterious effects of harsh lighting. The cow dung-finished walls and flooring add to the mystique and charm of the exposition. The embroidery on torans, lehengas, blouses and cushion covers on silk and cotton from Kutch and Bhuj as well as that from the Saurashtra regions of Rajkot, Junagadh and Bhavnagar captivate the onlooker with the sheer intensity of colour, breathtaking creativity of the rural womenfolk and their sense of geometric proportion.

Applique work from Orissa; Madhubani work from Mithila (Bihar); Phulkari work of Punjab; Kantha stitch work of Bengal; tie-dye of Gujarat and Rajasthan with Bandhini prints; prints of Chamba in Himachal Pradesh; Patolas of Gujarat; Pochampallis of Andhra — it is an oeuvre from the endless depths of the Indian artistic psyche.

A separate section deals with the technical aspects of embroidery, fabric decoration, dyeing and finishing techniques as well as a large collection of wooden blocks used in hand-printing. The second gallery is designated as ‘Haveli’. It houses artefacts associated with religious rites, icons used in worship etc. A realistic recreation of the famed Nathdwara shrine of Rajasthan with the image of Lord Shrinathji sets the tone for further viewing.

The Vallabh Sampradaya propounded by Saint Vallabhacharya in the 19th century, with Lord Krishna as Shrinathji as the deity of adoration, has been the inspiration for this fascinating school of painting. Nathdwara is synonymous with Pichwai paintings, usually hung as a backdrop to the main idol, depicting Shrinathji holding aloft the Govardhana mountain in his left hand.

Adorning Haveli are many Pichwai paintings on cloth and silk, depicting celebrations like Sharad Purnima, Nandamahotsava and the like.

Unhurried viewing of Indian miniature paintings, including those of the Mughal period with fine Urdu calligraphy from the Sarabhai family collection; a recreated Jain Haveli with its unique latticed doors and screens; bronze icons of Mahavira and other Tirthankaras and  Jain miniature paper folios with sacred writings of the Kalpasutras and Kalakakatha affords an unforgettable experience.

Sacred bronzes from South India constitute the final section, with some rare Pallava and Chola bronzes. Lord Nataraja of Chidambaram with his consort Matangi (Shivakamasundari) and Lord Shiva as Tripurantaka are some of the gems here.

The significance of the words of polymath V Raghavan — The perception and enjoyment of beauty is as difficult as the creation of beauty — now becomes clear.

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