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Art review: ‘Indian Textiles: 1000 Years of Art and Design’ at the Textile Museum

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Long before ragas, chicken tikka or Bollywood films were exported from India, international demand for textiles from the subcontinent was strong. These items did not simply move from local bazaars to distant markets involuntarily. Many decorative fabrics were made expressly for customers in places as far afield as Europe, Egypt and Southeast Asia. Perhaps the most eye-catching object in “Indian Textiles: 1,000 Years of Art and Design,” an extensive exhibit at the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum, is a wall hanging that was made for sale in Indonesia and is titled in a local language.

“Mata Hari”, which means “eye of the day” in Malay, is one of many ceremonial fabrics of a similar design made in India for Indonesian buyers. (The noted World War I spy known as Mata Hari was a Dutchwoman who took the name after living in Indonesia.) The piece on display here vividly depicts a red sun, whose rays read as a series of spikes, over a field of minimalistic, widely spaced flowers. The banner hangs dramatically in the two-story space where the museum’s second floor opens to its third, a location that makes the red circle appear like a celestial body.

The fabric is one of many pieces in the exhibition that are on loan from London’s Karun Thakar, one of the world’s leading private textile collectors. Thakar’s contributions complement objects from the museum’s own collections in this exhibition of more than 150 examples of clothing and decorative textiles made on the Indian subcontinent (including what is now Pakistan) from the eighth century until at the beginning of the 20th century.

Rather than displaying the textiles in chronological order or by regional origin, curators have divided them into three types of patterns: abstract, floral, and figurative. The first, as the exhibition text notes, is “inherent” to weaving, but the geometric patterns produced by the process can be enhanced for aesthetic purposes. The flowers are the most universal and have been imitated and adapted in Europe and other parts of Asia. Figurative designs seem most typically Indian, as they often feature religious imagery.

Even this category, however, reveals that enterprising Indian weavers were willing to respond to foreign preferences. Elaborate theological designs include a depiction of the coronation of Rama, a major Hindu deity, and a narrative piece of over 40 episodes that begins with Ganesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god. Nearby are a hanging that illustrates the Jain conception of the afterlife and an illustrated cloth probably intended as an offering to the shrine of an 11th-century Muslim warrior saint. But there is also an 18th century blanket or hanging, made for a Christian church in Goa under Portuguese rule, which depicts Mary and the infant Jesus flanked by stars and angels.

Stylistic and thematic currents did not flow only outside of India. An 18th-century wall hanging or bedspread depicting a tiger attacking a deer shows the influence of Persian art, introduced to India when the Mughals conquered much of the country in the 16th century. Mughal designs fused with Indian designs in the style known as chintz, a corruption of the Hindi word ‘chimt’, which means spotted or speckled. The style and term became common in Europe, and in Britain poor quality knockoffs eventually came to be labeled “chintzy”.

Some of the textiles feature blacks and greens, along with the occasional blue, but are mostly in shades of brown and red. The dominant “mata hari” color that seems to run the show is found in dozens of other pieces, from an array of simply striped shawls and scarves to an incredibly detailed hanging that shows a devotee picking buds, possibly for a temple offering. Although faded from their original glow, all embody the primal hues of the Sun and Earth.

Indian textiles: 1,000 years of art and design

George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum, 702 21st St. NW. 202-994-5200. museum.gwu.edu.

Admission: Suggested donation of $8.