Even before David Cameron had dreamt up UK’s 2017 year long program of events to mark cultural ties between the UK and India, the Victoria and Albert Museum were planning their own Festival of India. The V&A is probably the world’s authority on decorative arts and to mark the 25th anniversary of the V&A’s Nehru Gallery, a series of eight exhibitions showcasing India’s ancient and modern creative skills and diversity is already under way.
Nothing can prepare one for the brilliance of the diamonds on display in Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection, presenting more than a hundred glittering objects from the private collection of Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al Thani (Qatar), alongside three important loans from the Royal Collection lent by Her Majesty The Queen. The exhibition is sponsored by Wartski, the family goldsmith’s business specialising in antique jewellery and Russian works of art, especially those of Carl Fabergé.
From the time when India had the only diamonds in the world, giant diamonds of every cut and shape, from the Nawab of Arcot’s Golconda mines near Hyderabad, are represented by the dazzling Idol’s Eye with its exceptional blueish hue and the impeccable rosy transparency of the Agra Diamond. Rubies and enormous spinels from Badakhshan of such a size they look like sweets strung into necklaces loaded with pearls. In the C16th emeralds came from Egypt to India but these were replaced when the Spanish galleons sailed into Goa with outrageously huge Columbian emeralds to tempt the bejewelled classes and their craftsmen. The exhibition measures the gems in carats often reaching three figures and the pieces travel through time starting with a rare Colombian emerald engraved in 1602 with Persian verses supplicating for the six bounties from the Beloved One. There are love tokens such as the enamel peacock brooch that Maharaja Jagajit Singh of Kapurthala State gave to his Spanish dancer wife Anita Degado, which she wore as a hair ornament.
Many treasures and stunning turban decorations from the Mughal era have been collected in addition to Jahangir’s wine cup, Shah Jahan’s bejewelled nephrite jade dagger, Tipu Sultan’s throne finial and throne bird. Other interesting designs include bracelets with fighting “makura” (water creatures from Varanasi) heads, silk velvet “zardozi” sashes embroidered with gold and encrusted with sequins; the most unusual jewel is a recent emerald turban jewel with exquisite double sided carving, the front side depicting a scene from the Ramayana with Rama, Sita and Hanuman in the forest while the reverse is carved with a flowering plant.
An exhibition of vintage photographs with Royals wearing their finest decorations, including the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad holding his baby daughter literally wrapped in pearls, puts the context into many of these ornaments. This show concludes with contemporary pieces from Cartier, Bulgari and Mauboussin that have all been inspired by the artistry and history of “Incredible India”.
The other concurrent exhibition is The Fabric of India, which in effect symbolises the fabric of Indian society. The entirely handmade woven, stitched and printed examples are gathered from the wood blocks of the North West to the pen work (Kalamkari) of the South. The oldest cotton thread example in the word dates from 4000BC in India. In Babylon and Greece the colloquial word for cotton was “India”. The print shown first is a glorious poppy printed summer carpet dated 1650, poppies being the perpetual theme of Shah Jahan; an embroidered pashmina, belonging to Maharaja Ranbir Singh, shows an aerial map of Srinagar depicting the city dwellings as they were in 1870 with lake Dal and the river Jhelum flowing.
India’s textiles are synonymous with her identity both in worship and in trade. Wealth, power and religious devotion are all expressed through textiles, the exhibition examines how fabrics were used in courtly and spiritual life. Scenes from the Ramayana are illustrated on cloths given as gifts to Temples, one lovely sacred example centrally shows Rama being crowned in Ayodhya with the ten metre border filled with scenes from the epic, including Hamunan battling with Ravana; words from the Qur’an are written in gold and ink on a a 16th-century Islamic talismanic shirt, to protect the wearer; a rare early Jain panel embroidered with silk thread, an C18th crucifixion scene made in South-East India for an Armenian Christian church and Buddhist lotus flowered temple hangings are all displayed.
Tipu Sultan’s mobile palace tent is a spectacular surprise, the canopy and a wall of the original chintz tent is erected in the gallery, allowing visitors to walk inside it to see the magnificent decoration close at hand. Another astonishing find is the C20th 17meter long Bhitiya, a vast wall hanging made by the rural Gujarati Kathi community, discovered abandoned in the 1990’s, heaped on a pavement outside a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, by Jerome Burns, fortunately an art appraiser who offered it to the V&A as a gift.
Celebrating the variety, virtuosity and continuous innovation of India’s textile traditions, examples of everyday fabrics and previously unseen treasures are shown; from a 6.8metre ceremonial flag depicting the death of Muslim warrior Sayyid Salar Mas’ud (since C14th Muslims and Hindus have brought flags to his shrine in Bahraich in exchange for blessing and healing powers) to a contemporary sari and shirt outfit designed in Noida for office wear, from antique peshwaz to a new sparkling wedding ensemble by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, from a densely embroidered Mughal hunting coat to bandanas from Madras and Bengal, all these demonstrate the continuity of India’s textile traditions. The exhibition highlights the prevalence and admiration of Indian cloth around the world over millennia, between the C17th and C19th Indian textiles were coveted by the highest levels of European society. The Fabric of India reveals the consequences of the changing economy as European industrialisation threatened to eradicate Indian hand-making skills in the 19th century. The emergence of the Swadeshi and Khadi resistance movements saw textiles take on an important role in the development of Indian nationhood and identity, a symbolism that still exist to this day.
The Fabric of India is supported by Good Earth-India, Experion and NIRAV MODI.