Silk, Gold and Silver from Benaras: The City of Lights


Silk, Gold & Silver from the City of Light

National Museum, New Delhi

10th September – 8th October 2019

Minakari Panel

Minakari Panel

“Pra – Kashi: Silk, Gold & Silver from the City of Light” is an exhibition of textiles showcasing the finest traditions of contemporary handwoven weaves done on traditional Indian drawlooms over the last 25 years at ASHA. This is a silk weaving workshop based in one of the oldest, culturally richest cities of the world  – Benaras. In the last two decades the workshop has produced patterned silks incorporating complex weaving techniques of court silks which had been extinct in India since the 19th century. Rahul Jain, a leading expert on traditional textile arts of India and proprietor of ASHA pointed out, “The decline in the power and wealth of the Indian courts, as well as the Europeanisation of courtly fashion and taste after the mid-19th century, resulted in an irreversible loss of patronage for the highest-value, courtly fabrics of the Mughal era.”

His exhibition showcases a range the workshop produces through varied exactness, explaining the story of the finest Indian textiles produced in Benaras. In the spectrum of the handmade, ASHA’s silk-weaving represents the most sophisticated or the most degenerated form of ‘factory’ production from the pre-industrial era. Such factories (also known as karkhanas in the Mughal period) for their production depended on ​​​technical, artistic, mechanical and mathematical tools and skills of a very high order​, most of which were far more international than local​. Also an extreme division of labour among dozens of processes, for many, could have played an important role in making it exquisite but ephemeral.

Their revived techniques include patterned velvet, lampas, samite, and taquete, which together represent a great majority of luxury silks which were woven for 2000 years at the classical silk-weaving centers of the old Silk Route.

Shikargah Panel

Shikargah Panel

ASHA’s drawlooms reflect a luxury industry once strung all along this circuit and its western extensions – stretching from eastern China to southern Spain, for more than a thousand years. This mainstream drawloom industry of the old world lay entirely outside India. His practice has elements from the world’s truly cosmopolitan arts of silk-weaving cultures across Asia, Europe and Africa. It defies attribution to period, place, culture or a community.

In a note about the exhibit Padma Shri Rahul Jain stated “Objects crafted to the point of ‘extinction’, have been associated with great wealth, power, piety, patronage and coercion throughout history. They were usually designed to impress, dominate, and reinforce hierarchy in public. At times, they blurred the modern, limiting distinction between the secular and the sacred. These incomparables were reserved only for the imperial families, powerful temple pontiffs, or entidades as honorific gifts. They were never produced for the masses. Evidence from late medieval India suggests that only some part of the production, possibly the ‘seconds’, in the royal Mughal karkhanas were sold to the nobility through princely agents. While few believe that these were never really ‘used’, instead hoarded in state and temple treasuries over time.”

Under his guidance, ASHA has given continuous support for over 25 years to 8-10 low-income, low-caste, traditional silk-weaving families in the city. Their work is a source of inspiration to not just the local industry, but also textile practitioners and researchers around the world. And can be seen displayed in several major collections including the British Museum in London, the Musee Guimet in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Textile Museum, Washington DC.

Velvet Floral Panel

Velvet Floral Panel

His first solo exhibition in India is made possible by the National Museum, New Delhi and the Devi Art Foundation. It is curated by Pramod Kumar KG of Eka Archiving Services. And dedicated to the memory of Padma Bhushan Shri Suresh Neotia and Padma Bhushan Shri Martand Singh – patron and savant of Indian textiles, crafts and the arts.

It is an eye-opener in times when manual labour in India is not paid their due. This festive season let’s pledge to again start recognizing their talent, by paying for it, instead of haggling with them. And before the Navrartras finish early this October, do go to view the centuries-old textile weaving techniques’ samples made in this day and age. They re-establish a sense of self-worth in our debilitating second largest industry.

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