Textiles as history
`Sari to Sarong: 500 years of Indian and Indonesian textile exchange' is one of the largest and most ambitious exhibitions ever curated. PUSHPA CHARI reveals the legacy of cultural influences.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA CORPORATION
Ceremonial cloth and sacred heirloom, Coromandel coast, India, traded to Sulawesi, Indonesia, 18th Century.
THE civilisational reach of India's great textile culture cuts through largely undocumented and unmapped pathways of history. What little has come down to us is through records of ancient trade routes and transactions written by the odd Greek shipowner trader, the accounts of Greek and Roman historians and through travellers' tales (Megasthenes, Fahien, and Ibn Batuta), not to mention the Biblical reference equating the quality of steadfastness to the (steadfast) nature of the Indian dye! From the scrap of indigo dyed `ikat woven cloth found in a Pharaoh's tomb pointing to 5,000-year-old trade connections with India, to an England-bound East India Company Shipman's meticulous record of "bales of muslin stuffs and Masulipatnam Palampores" is testimony to the widespread popularity of the textiles of India. In fact, by the 18th Century, Indian mulls and "cashmeres" were much sought after fashion wear in the courts of Europe.
The royalty and artistocracy of South East Asian ruling kingdom too favoured the flamboyant gold shot woven cottons and silks of India, the gossammar thin muslin, the intricate weaves and motifs which embellished textiles. The genesis of the lasting impact on South East Asia of Indian culture perhaps lies in the "Greater India" Hindu kingdoms of Khamboja, Champa, Annam Srivijaya and Madajahit, which flourished in (modern day) Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines and lasted from Second Century A.D. to the 15th Century. Founded by merchant princes from South India and perhaps even Orissa and Bengal, these kingdoms had well organised cities with temples (Angkor Vat being the most famous of all), priests, rituals, artisans and brisk trade with the mother country. Along with trade came the religious myths and beliefs of India. Although Islam and Buddhism were eventually to emerge as dominant religions in the region, the deep impress of Hindu civilisation can be felt every where. In the place names of many cities and the inclusion of Sanksrit words in the local languages, in the pervasive influence of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in both classical and folk expressions of art, particularly in Indonesia. The textiles of Indonesia have, across time, also incorporated and integrated Hindu's symbols such as the Garuda, the naga, the lotus, the elephant, the "mandala diagrams" and so on. In fact, the country's textiles from apparel to ritualistic hanging, ship cloth and sacred religious cloth demonstrate the remarkable exchane of ideas, materials, designs and images resulting from Indonesia's Indian trade links.
A slicky mounted exhibition titled "Sari to Sarong" (www.nga.gov.au/SariToSarong/index.cfm) currently on view in Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum, explores the 500 years of cultural interaction between India and Indonesia two of the greatest textile producing countries of all time. The exhibits comprise rare Indian ship cloths, some dating back 500 years, bright hued Indonesian "tampan" cloths with prominent ship motifs, intricately woven ikat cloth hangings, batik imagery on cloth as well as outstanding examples of zari work on Indonesian cloth. Through all the exhibits is woven the underlying theme of India's lasting cultural impress reflected as much in the epic imagery, Hindu symbols and the integration of Indian craft skills as in the fact that Indian textiles themselves came to be seen as "sacred" "ceremonial" and auspicious by Indonesians. Many ship cloths and materials which Indian traders brought were invested with the status of currency and sacred heirlooms, the possession of which denote high status in local society. Many of these form part of the exhibition including the Gujarati "Patola" which came to symbolise wealth. Indonesian weavers skilfully emulated the Patola's design format, the triangular end patterns and the border in their own textiles.
Where the "journey" begins ... in Singapore.
One hundred and twenty rare examples of textile exhibits mark landmarks in the journey from the sari to the sarong. The ceremonial sacred cloths and heirlooms of purely Indian origin make compelling viewing. Among them is a silk double ikat "sacred cloth" Patola from Gujarat in red, black and white featuring an auspicious elephant surrounded by frolicking animals. Another "heirloom", also from Gujarat, traded in the 18th Century, is a tie and dye collage in blue. A superb example of Machilipatnam kalamkari "Palampore", an 18th Century "ceremonial" piece celebrates a tree of life in a field of blue, grey and pink flowers. Another hand spun vegetable dye piece from the Coromandal Coast depicts Rama slaying Ravana, traded in the 17th Century... .
"Tampans", which were small square cloths owned by Indonesian aristocracy, ship cloths, royal ceremonial robes and skirts from Java and Sumatra, Palisir ceremonial textiles, Balinese exorcist cloths, valances and sacred textiles, ikat hangings and an array of royal apparel form a major part of the show. The skirt cloths and the Balinese textiles have a strong integrative bias, featuring tie and dye skills, the use of natural dyes along with the indigenous batik tradition. A particularly eye-catching batik piece depicts "Gitopadesa" with Krishna and Arjuna resplendent in bright zari crowns while a Balinese exorcist cloth in brown combines silver zari work, painting and writing. From Sumatra comes an Acchenes ceremonial hanging in cotton, wool and silk effortlessly integrating into its local weave, zari, sequin, bead and mirror work, appliqué and embroidery. There are exquisite examples of intricate zari work, on view among them like a muted silk square surrounded by beautifully woven red and white zari border, which could give a run for its money to the best Banarasi sarees.
Indian royal ritual and garments with their glittering gold work and flamboyant colours were adopted by Indonesian ruling princes. Zari parasols, richly caparisoned elephants, glittering gold-embossed palanquins and symbols like Mount Meru and the mighty Garuda became royal symbols of Indonesia. New forms of clothing such as jackets and turbans came to supplement Indonesian costumes. Many are on show such as zari encrusted jackets, tunics resplendent in batik motifs done in jewel colours, women's ceremonial dresses in velvet worked with sequins, gold thread, zari and appliqué.
"Sari to Sarong" is an exhibition from the National Gallery of Australia. It will be on view at the Asian Civilisations Museum, 1, Express Place, Singapore, 179555, till July 4, 2004. Ph: 63327798
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