Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
An enchanted world
One of the finest textile museums in the world, the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad was started by the industrialists and design visionaries, Gautam Sarabhai and his sister Gira Sarabhai. They realised the need for a design resource which would inspire and nurture contemporary textile designs at their Calico Mills, one of the oldest textile manufacturers of Ahmedabad. The concept of a museum as a design knowledge resource began in the Forties, when Gira Sarabhai was entrusted with the collection of Indian textiles which form a part of our country's cultural heritage. She selected and curated textiles of a high quality represented in the fabric's construction, ornamentation and vocabulary of colour, form and texture.
Today, the Sarabhai Foundation houses the Calico Museum of Textiles and the Sarabhai Foundation Galleries located on its campus in Shahibag, Ahmedabad. The textile collections are of historic value, comprising court textiles used by the Mughal and Provincial rulers; trade textiles of the 15th to 19th centuries, produced for export markets; regional embroideries of the 19th century, tie-dyed textiles and religious textiles. The collection represents the Indian sensibilities expressed in a very wide spectrum of textile techniques. The galleries also have exhibits on ritual art and sculpture, temple hangings or pichhvais; miniature paintings; South Indian bronzes, Jain art and sculpture, and textile techniques galleries and library. The Foundation also has a shop which sells its publications comprising catalogues, books, gallery notes, cards, posters and reproductions in cloth and paper.
The Foundation has emerged as a leading research institution, unique for its vision and its comprehensive design approach manifest in the architecture and landscape; indigenous display and installation; quality of technical research, and vigorous publication programme. The Museum has sought professional consultancy from qualified art and textile scholars, anthropologists, museum scientists and textile conservators, from India and overseas. The uniqueness of the Museum lies in the Sarabhais' single-minded commitment to quality. This is amply demonstrated by the "design sense" that pervades over all the display systems, architecture, landscaping, curation of textiles and art, research and publications leading to the generation of knowledge.
Both in the concept and design, the Sarabhais have drawn inspiration from Anand Coomaraswamy's insights on Indian culture and the value of experiencing art in a museum. The Textile Techniques Galleries are unique because of the visually rich, encyclopaedic information presented in the Buhler's gallery of classification of textile techniques and Anne Morrell's gallery on embroidery techniques. The description and analysis of techniques is stimulating and informative. The galleries demonstrate the potential that traditional knowledge systems have for inculcating research and innovation and for the education of contemporary textile designers.
The Calico Museum of Textiles is housed in the chowk; a complex of old buildings around a swimming pool was transformed by facades of carved wood and mud construction, typical of traditional Gujarati houses built around a chowk. Inside, the legacy of Indian textiles is unfolded in the exuberant floral and figurative vocabulary of Kalamkaris, embroideries, woven Jamawars and brocaded fabrics, yarn resist dyed textiles and tie-dyed textiles. The old swimming pool is used to display large tents, carpets, costumes and textiles of the Mughal and provincial courts. The traditional knowledge systems of vegetable dyeing, patterning through resist methods, simple and complex weave structures and their resultant textures, the unstitched garments and costume repertoire, all evoke the intensity of the layered textile traditions of 2000 years.
Textiles are displayed on an indigenously developed system of panels. The entire textile is stretched on a wooden panel and preserved by a plastic covering. Panels have been displayed at varying heights, in different planes, or suspended from the ceiling to create a spatial dimension. Panels have been stacked like the leaves of a book, which allow viewing of individual textiles yet economise on space. The textile can be viewed intimately without actually being handled.
Relevant to students of design, art history and architecture besides research scholars of anthropology, textiles and history, the museum has assisted researchers from textile magazines, Indian museum curators, and collaborated with leading research institutions as co-publishers. The museum had organised several appreciation and sensitisation workshops, to help inculcate "ways of seeing" art and culture. The textile design curriculum at the National Institute of Design has drawn important influences from the museum. The Museum as a cultural resource for people to experience and enlarge their perceptions, is a monumental service done by the Sarabhai Foundation of India and the textile world. Every visit to the museum reveals a little more of the universe of Indian textiles.
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