- To introduce learners to the rich plethora of initiatives that took place in the textile/handicraft sphere just after India’s independence and subsequent partition.
- Introduce learners to the idea that changes/ideas/developments that came during this period have shaped the way Indian textiles are perceived today.
- Talk about the fusion of design and art that came about in this period through the introduction of Weavers Service Centres and artists involved in the textile sphere.
Textiles have played a significant role in India’s nationalist movement. Initiatives we discussed in previous lessons like the Champaran movement and Gandhi’s emphasis on Khadi, cemented the status of textiles as a tool for colonial resistance. During this time, textiles also started to be regarded as objects of India’s ‘authentic’ pre-colonial identity. This renewed reverence for India’s vast textile traditions — as we will find out in this lesson — grew into India’s postcolonial attempt to revive textiles, forging a new path of national identity after its independence in 1947. We will start by learning about important figures like Kamaladevi Chattopadyay and Pupul Jayakar and important institutions like the Weavers Service Centres set up throughout the country. We will then learn about the confluences of arts, crafts, and design that were happening in the country at this time.
The period right after India’s independence in 1947 was incredibly difficult for all sectors of the Indian economy. Informal and decentralised sectors like India’s handlooms and handicrafts in particular faced challenges. As we discussed in the previous section, craftspeople across the country became isolated from their communities due to partition. They also lost their patronage because of the abolishment of the zamindari system. Under such circumstances, it became increasingly difficult for craftspeople to connect with new buyers for their products.
To add to their plight, people’s choices and preferences were changing. There was a crisis of identity amongst many Indians that lay between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. On the one hand, Gandhi promoted long-established values for tradition, which he propagated through Indian handlooms and khadi. On the other hand, the newly appointed Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, pushed for a “modern” India, which he aimed to achieve through India’s rapid mechanisation and industrialisation. In the midst of this, it became increasingly difficult for weavers and craftspeople — who were isolated — to reach any form of technological advancements to compete with the organised mill sector.
It’s interesting to note that during the post-colonial era, female leaders of the Congress party such as Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Rukmini Devi Arundale began wearing traditional sarees. These sarees, which made use of mill produced yarn and handloom weaving methods, were seen as a unique way of marrying the two sectors of textile production and reviving traditional genres of the saree such as the Banrasi, Baluchari, Kanjeevaram, Patola and Paithani. As a result, many popular mills such as Ahmedabad Laxmi Cotton Mills, Aryodaya Spinning Mills, and Maneklal Harilal Mills in Ahmedabad, began featuring images of female Congress leaders on their products as a form of publicity — similar, in fact, to the textile labels we learnt about in Bombay Cotton Mills.
Individuals and organisations started to make concerted efforts to preserve and revive India’s handloom and crafts. It’s important to look at the efforts of specific individuals and organisations because they helped in regenerating an appreciation for the skilled work of India’s artisans and shaped the way we see Indian textiles today. Additionally, these efforts not just relinquished languishing traditions, but also acted as a means of financially empowering these communities. In this lesson we will trace some of the crucial innovations that came out of this period and consider the sheer number of forces at play and the complex interactions between them.
Important individuals and organisations
Soon after independence, initiatives like the All India Handicrafts Board (AIHB, 1952) were set up to advise the Government. These boards formulated development programs for the handloom and handicrafts sector inorder to reduce unemployment and make it an effective economic instrument. There were many prominent figures who chaired these initiatives. We will start by discussing Kamladevi Chattopadhyay’s work in the revival and reinitiation of Indian textiles and handlooms.
A staunch Gandhian, Kamladevi’s initiation into public life was through politics as a member of the Indian National Congress. At her time there, among other things, she worked closely with Gandhi for the Swadeshi movement — which you learnt about in the previous lesson. Shortly after India’s independence and partition, Chattopadhyay shifted her focus to the revival of indigenous crafts. At first, she worked closely with refugees in Delhi who migrated from a divided Punjab. Eventually, she was heading the Central Cottage Industries emporium in 1952. This “cottage” became an essential institution for developing and marketing of handicrafts. In 1952, Kamladevi became a chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board (AIHB), where she served until 1967. Her hands-on approach to the organisation’s work included field visits to handicraft centres across the country. Travelling across the diverse regions of the country required much rigour. Still, it was essential to visit artisans on the ground to understand the problems they faced and represent them fairly.
Her rigorous travels across the country helped discover and revive many textiles from varied geographical regions such as the Chamba rumals of Himachal Pradesh, Ikats of Pochampalli, and traditional sarees of South India such as Arni and Kanjivaram. Her numerous field visits led to a massive personal collection of rare artifacts from the most remote parts of the country, which contributed to the establishment of the Crafts Museum. The museum, run by the Ministry of textiles, was founded in 1952 in Delhi by AIHB. We will discuss the museum at length later in the course.
Important Figures: Pupul Jayakar and the Weavers Service Centres
Moving on, we shall now discuss Pupul Jayakar, another seminal figure intricately linked to India’s handicraft revival. In 1952, she instituted an advisory board in the form of All India Handicrafts Board which we discussed earlier. Her work with the board was integral in setting up Weavers Service Centres (WSC) across various cities in 1956. These centres provided technical advice and assistance to weavers through applied research centres within the organisation. These research centres worked closely in tandem to weaving sheds that invited weavers from all parts of the country. The Weavers Service Centres fulfilled the goal of integrating separate but interrelated sectors of textile production, research and marketing.
Protegees: Training a whole generation ahead
Kamaladevi and Pupul Jayakar trained a second generation of revivalists and promoters of Indian textiles. Important names to note under them are Jasleen Dhamija, Suraiya Hassan Bose and Martand Singh. Jasleen Dhamija — a familiar name that you have encountered in the course — trained under Kamaladevi, and later went onto being a pioneer in textile research and education. Suraiya Hassan Bose initially worked with Pupal Jayakar in Delhi. She later plunged headlong into textile revival in her hometown Hyderabad, where she revived local handloom traditions of Himru, Mashru and Paithani. Martand Singh was one of India’s best known textile revivalists. He served as a director of the Calico Museum — which you will learn about later in the course — for 10 years. He organised the seminal Viswakarma exhibitions which worked with Weavers Service Centres across the country. These exhibitions gained international recognition for their in-depth look into Indian textiles. We will learn more about the Vishwakarma exhibitions later in the course.
Confluence of Art and Craft
The Weavers Service Centres initiated an important confluence of “art” and “craft” through their provision for artists studios. These studios invited talented artists, designers, naksha bandhas and master weavers from across the country to work in close conjunction with weavers. They worked on and designing fabrics and innovating hybrid patterns and prints for which they received gainful employment along with exposure to India’s richest crafts in return for their contributions.
Modern and Contemporary visual artists such as Jeram Patel, Ambadas, Harkishen Lal, P. Mansaram, Prabhakar Barwe, Jogen Chowdhury, Manu Parekh, Haku Shah, Meera Mukherjee, Arpita Singh, Praful Dave, Himmat Shah, Amrut Patel and Reddeppa Naidu among others, have been affiliated to the Weavers Service Center at some point in their career.
At the time these confluences of art and craft were taking place throughout the country, artist Vivan Sundaram (b.1943) started an artist run workshop and residency program in Kasauli — a small hill station in India. The Kasauli Arts Centre developed as an interdisciplinary space allowing artists, architects, directors, and creators of all types to gather together and contribute to the field. In 1977, the Weavers Service Centre sent over a weaver to set up a pit-loom in the space, allowing artists to experiment with it and work directly with a professional weaver. This image here captures the artist Mrinalini Mukherjee with her work at the Kasauli Artists Centre. Her work, which we will discuss at length shortly, was intrinsically linked to the use of textile fragments. Other known artists who worked here included Bhupen Khakhar, Jogen Chowdhury, and A. Ramachandran, to name a few.
In the early 20th century, art colleges and universities started to include textile practices in their academic curriculum. Kala Bhavan, an art school in Shantiniketan was an important center of textile revival focusing on Batik practices and weaving. The artist Nandalal Bose was integral in spearheading this. Similarly in Baroda, KG Subramanyan, one of India’s most celebrated modern artists introduced a whole generation of artists to the exciting world of India’s textile traditions at the Faculty of Fine Arts at The Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU). KG Subramanyan’s own work spanned across several mediums including his fiber works, often referred to as “Living Traditions”, and other works that used textiles and weaving. He was also the first generation of artists to be associated with the Weavers Service Center.
The generation of students in these institutions started to incorporate materials inspired by India’s craft and textile traditions — rejecting Western modernism and looking inwards to create India’s modernism instead. It is particularly fascinating to look at the materiality and the use of texture through the works of Mrinalini Mukherjee — an eminent artist who learned under KG Subramanyan. Her sculptures of rope, made of fibres such as hemp and sisal or agave, draw our attention to these fibers’ tactility and strength, created through defty tied knots. Another artist Monika Correa is considered as one of India’s earliest weaver-artists. Having learned by American weaver and textile artist Marianne Strengell in Boston, upon her return to India she started taking weaving lessons at the WSC in Mumbai. She came into close contact with K.G. Subramnayan at the WSC, who made a deep and lasting impact on her practice. Her work incorporates weaving with cotton and handspun wool and works primarily with twill weave. She uses rough, bulky, handspun wool for the weft and cotton for the warp of her tapestries, leaving tiny spaces between thin wool to create a three dimensional effect. Another artist and weaver Jadunath Supakar — who learned under Nandalal Bose at Shantiniketan — changed the way Banarasi Brocades were perceived. He worked as the Director at the Weavers Service Centre in Benaras, and later worked closely with Martand Singh to present his creations in the Vishwakarma exhibitions, where they gained global recognition.
When talking about India’s revival efforts, it would be pertinent to talk about the Bengal Home Industry Association (1916, Calcutta), considered as one of India’s foremost NGOs. The association appointed the artist Gaganendranath Tagore, one of India’s pioneering modern artists, as their first honorary secretary. It attempted to bolster the use of Indian made textiles and handicrafts, through mobilising craft communities by providing raw materials to artisans, marketing their products, and promoting and exhibiting their work, efforts it makes till date. Having artists on the board allowed the association to incorporate newer designs into their handicrafts allowing them to reach a wider clientele.
It would also be enriching to learn about alternative practices developed by practitioners like Toofai Rai who developed a rich oeuvre working with natural dyes and printing. A staunch Gandhian, Rai serendipitously found himself at the JJ School of Art, a prestigious art school in Mumbai. Having had a financially difficult past, there was a time when he shared a room with the artist M.F Husain in the red light district of Mumbai. Although he trained as an artist, Rai is most well known for his extensive research into natural Indian dyes. He was affiliated with the Weavers Service Centre for 17 years after being introduced to Pupul Jayakar. During his time at the WSC, he researched natural dyeing and printing methods.
After retiring from the WSC, Rai came across Gandhi’s rare book on Indian dyes Vanaspatiyon nu rang, in which Gandhi discusses the myriad naturally occuring colours (image). This beautifully illustrated book, as you can see here, opened a new avenue for Rai. He started his personal search into developing a palette of natural dyes from organic “waste” of flowers, pomegranate seeds, onion peels, and other barks and leaves. Rai went on to develop more than 300 shades of dyes, aided by his technical knowledge of colour and tone from his days at JJ School of Art.
Rai found immense success in his endeavour. He conducted workshops all over India in institutions like Shantiniketan, Banaras Hindu University, and later internationally, when he represented India’s contingent at the Moscow edition of the Festivals of India — which we will learn about in a later topic. His reputation preceded him and he developed printed sarees with natural dyes he presented to Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India. Rai made similar sarees for other personalities that were pioneers in the handicrafts space like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Mrinalini Sarabhai.
Fusion of Design and Craft in India
Amidst all these confluences of art and craft, India saw the formation of its first formal institution focusing on design. The National Institute of Design (NID) formed in 1961. Its founding principles were based on a report made by renowned American designer Charles Eames (1907 – 1978) and his wife Ray Eames (1912 – 1988) who travelled throughout the country, meeting creatives such as artists, architects, and other thinkers of the time. It was finally established through financial help from the Government of India, the Ford Foundation and the Gira and Gautam Sarabhai (who started the Calico Museum a few years later), with advice from noted cultural figures like Pupul Jayakar. Although the initial educational program at NID focused on Industrial design, most students and faculty were interested in grass-root issues faced by the Indian crafts. For example, students worked closely with the Gujarat state Handicrafts board, and often conducted field visits informing artisans about larger markets for their products and promoting the use of indiginous techniques which were at the brink of existence. A number of national fashion institutions (NIFT, est. 1986) also opened through the country soon after the conception of NID, changing the way design was perceived. NID and NIFT spearheaded many craft documentation projects in collaboration with state and national governments, creating a substantial archive of research on India’s textile traditions.
Broader Context: Similar confluences of art and craft were happening globally initiated through the Bauhaus Movement that started Weimar in Germany in 1919. Founded by architect Walter Groupius, the movement focused on reversing the divide between art production and crafts. According to Groupius’ “Proclamation of the Bauhaus”, the movement was “a utopian craft guild combining architecture, sculpture, and painting into a single creative expression.” The ultimate goal of the Bauhaus movement was to create “artisans and designers capable of creating useful and beautiful objects” that would be appropriate to a new system of life in Post World War I (1914-1918) Germany.
The Bauhaus movement was based on a crafts-based curriculum, with specialised workshops focusing on weaving, pottery, metalwork and typography, to name a few. Textile artists like Annie Albers, who trained in the textile workshop later gained global recognition for her work. The movement became global when its founders and members spread across the globe due to the troubles faced by them during World War II. It’s fascinating to note that Marianne Strengell who introduced Monica Correa to the world of weaving was one such emigree from World War II Germany, who graduated along with textile artists Anni Albers and Trude Guermonprez in the Bauhaus weaving workshops.
At the time when Indian art schools were battling their very own fight against British realism espoused by the colonial government, Calcutta saw its very first Bauhuas exhibition titled “Bauhaus in Calcutta” held in 1922, and organised by art historian Stella Kramrisch who at the time was teaching Indian and European Art history at the Vishwa Bharati University in Shantiniketan. Although there was no direct correspondence between Bauhaus practices and India’s post-colonial textile traditions, the Bauhaus movement was pertinent for the founding principles for Indian design institutions like the National Institute of Design (NID). Contemporary fashion designers like Abharam and Thakore who are textile design graduates from NID have been inspired by Bauhaus influences in their work.
The 1970s saw a huge influx of private retailers such as Anokhi, Bandhej, Tulsi started designers like Nelly Sethna, who was integral in reviving the art of Kalamkari, who you learnt about in Painted Textiles. Neeru Kumar experimented with textile traditions of kantha, khadi, jamdani and ikat to name a few, through her label Tulsi, and Archana Shah, who works with handcrafted styles of embroidery, badla and appliqué through her stores Bandhej that started in Ahmedabad, all three of them graduated from NID. In order to create more work opportunities for craftspeople, this period of revival saw an interesting transition into making household fabrics like curtains, bed-covers, drapery, and room dividers that incorporated handicraft techniques. This was previously not the norm, as a lot of textile traditions had very specific functions relating to them. Ajrakh for example, was only made for cloth to be worn by men. Entrepreneurs started to employed designers and artists to incorporate new renditions to Indian designs for their apparel and homeware collections such as in the case of Riten Mozumdar, an artist and collaborator who trained in Shantiniketan, and then later under a master craftsman in Nepal, and worked prolifically with designing handblocks and working in calligraphy into the realm of Indian saris, often collaborating with artists like Monica Correa. He was invited by FabIndia — an eminent store selling handicraft furnishings and fabrics — to design a collection with them.
As we’ve seen through this case study, the participation of government institutions, private organisations and individuals came a long way in giving agency to craftspeople and their work.
In 1999, with the introduction of a Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, handicrafts (but also other agricultural and industrial products) are awarded the Geographical Indication tags providing the work with intellectual property rights which become essential in promoting and sustaining regional crafts, giving them a special status distinct to the region. Textiles we have learnt through the length of this course, such as Balaramapuram Handloom, Banarasi Brocade Sarees, Kani Shawls from Jammu and Kashmir, and many more have GI tags.
It’s impossible to ignore the importance of this period of revival in providing meaningful employment and sustaining many crafts practices which were at the brink of existence. There is still a persisting need for promoting crafts in India, especially in light of the abolition of the AIHB in 2020. In times such as these, there are still a number of private organisations and individuals who are working tirelessly to provide employment opportunities and also connect craftspeople to clientele in cities. Chief among them would be Laila Tyabji who runs Dastkar, a crafts foundation in India. Other individuals worth mentioning would be Ritu Sethi who is the chair of the Crafts Revival Trust, a non-for profit open educational resource for India’s rich textile and cultural practices and practitioners started in 1999, Sari historian Rta Chisti Kapoor and textile designer and Rahul Jain, who founded ASHA workshops in 1993, that promoted drawloom weaving amongst women in Benaras. It would be amiss if we did not mention a team of dedicated foreign revivalists like Jenny Housego, Paula Manfredi, Judy Frater, John Bissell, and Bridgette Singh, who we have encountered earlier in the course, and will look at in depth in the Textiles and Fashion lesson.
In the recent past, there have also been several publications that have taken on the extensive task of mapping, documenting and illustrating India’s myriad textile and craft histories like the Craft Atlas of India published in 2012 authored by Jaya Jaitly; Handmade in India published in 2019 by textile designer and NID graduate Aditi Rajan, and Saris of India: Tradition and beyond (2010), authored by Rta Chisti Kapur and edited by Martand Singh, who we will learn more about in a later lesson. Other initiatives like the Marg Magazine — a quarterly publication with a focus on Indian Arts — has invited many textile revivalists throughout its foundation in 1946. It’s because of these revival efforts and rigorous documentation projects that we have the current database of knowledge on Indian textiles traditions and the artisans that make them. There have also been a flurry of newer publications like Border and Fall, a digital publication aimed at documenting the development of India’s textile industry through visual documentations, interviews and articles. In 2017, the publication released a “Sari Series”, a series that documents over 80 regional saree drapes from India inspired by the work of the likes of Rta Chishti Kapur, who was their advisor, and Chantal Boulanger who published ‘Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping’ in 1997, with over 80 different saree drapes.