The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Picking up threads, 2000 years old

A wall of the conference room of the British Council was draped on Wednesday morning with textiles several centuries old. They had once been exported to Indonesia from various points in India and hardly any specimens of these textiles exist in India any longer. A handpainted piece dated 1492 was exported from Machhalipatnam to Bali. It depicts scenes from Ramayana. A double ikkat patola shoulder piece was custom-made for Indonesians and was bartered for spices.

Bolts of handblock printed material in different lengths were meant for the same market. European floral motifs appeared on a printed and painted piece. A kalamkari Tree of Life first found its way to Sri Lanka and thence to Indonesia. There was a specimen of “hamsa” textile produced at one time in Surat. The floral designs in a delicately handpainted kalamkari belt for a lady’s dress were borrowed from Kashmir.

Sutra, an NGO created solely for that purpose, will try to revive, recreate and rejuvenate this lost tradition through an international seminar, the first of its kind in India, and exhibition from October 12 to October 26 in Calcutta on India’s 2000-year-old textile trade. Announcing the programme, Sujata Sen, director of British Council, said it would be part of the golden jubilee celebrations of the Handicrafts Board set up by Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay and also the valedictory programme of the celebration of her centenary year. The exhibition is being coordinated by Rosemary Crill, senior curator of V&A, London.

Sutra committee members Amrita Mukherjee and Darshan Shah said the event would provide an opportunity to showcase Indian products for a very large market. Foreign delegates will take back samples and brochures and this is bound to connect mercantile and cultural strands from all over the world. This will also create a rich field for comparative studies.

Grassroots artisans, too, will get the necessary exposure. They already have the expertise and are well up on technique. The exhibition will allow them to interact and see actual specimens from museums.

Amrita Mukherjee recounted how she was inspired to organise Sutra when she saw a chequered textile called “George” in Africa that harked back to the trade between the Portuguese and the Coromandel region. Major museums the world over have rich collections of Indian textiles but none was ready to lend them. Ultimately, industrialist Praful Shah of Mumbai has agreed to loan his invaluable Tapi collection well-documented in a book entitled Trade, Temple & Court.

A host of experts from all over the world will address the seminar — seven from India, six from the UK, seven from the USA, one each from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Australia and two from Germany. The Birla Academy of Art & Culture will be a major venue and sponsor of the exhibition and the proposed textile and crafts bazaar. Crafts Council will present 75 craftsmen and weavers.

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