From the practical demands of local climates to the expressive capacities that they wield, it is no secret that, at some level, textiles realize an integral part of daily life. Past their material presence, it is also interesting to note how the metaphorical extensions of cloth serve as a mapping of our lived experiences — the fabric of our society, weaving in and out of a city, etc. The material and conceptual importance of textiles are, of course, intimately interconnected, but perhaps these intersections are most readily apparent in the journeys that these textiles underwent and the routes that they etched across space and time.
Traded Treasure: Indian Textiles for Global Markets is an exhibition detailing the importance of Indian textiles in global trade and its history. Held at the Johnson Museum of Art in the Bartels Gallery (Floor 1L), the examples of the exhibition draw from the collection of Banoo and Jeevak Parpia.
In particular, textiles played an important role in trade between India and Southeast Asia, where fabrics from the Coromandel Coast — in the southwest of India — would be exchanged for spices. Some of the most stunning textiles from this exchange were given as gifts to royalty. In addition, many of these types of objects could also have been given as royal gifts to temples, where they would have been used as ornamental items such as altar cloths. A beautiful fragment of a pha nung skirt exhibits thepanom — a type of deity or angel in Thai mythology — surrounding fierce kirtimukha monsters. While religious iconography in South and Southeast Asia is most strongly associated with the surviving carvings on temples, textiles demonstrated a mobile network of spiritual and visual imaginations. In this way the exchange of textiles revealed and reified an intimate understanding of underlying political and social structures — a fact made more impressive by the geographical separation between sites of production and markets.
However, this trade was by no means limited to Southeast Asia. On the other side of India, in what is now Goa, the Portuguese had a small but influential presence. The style of dress for elites in Portugal derived largely from the customs of the Spanish court. However, the tropical climate of Goa was unsuitable to the heavy velvets brought over by the Portuguese. In order to maintain the hierarchies of the old country, the Portuguese royalty of Goa commissioned renowned weavers of to create textiles using local fabrics. These light textiles would then be embroidered with designs keeping with Portuguese aristocratic traditions. On a fragment of a royal cape of local cotton fabric is a stunning example of tasar silk embroidery detailing a scene of hunters on horseback as well as those on elephants. Thus, even the aesthetic demands of the Portuguese royals were not impermeable to the influences of local traditions.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of the exhibition lies in understanding how much truly went into the production of these fabrics. Entire villages and generations of families had dedicated themselves to this laborious enterprise, specializing in weaving techniques of stunning detail requiring hours upon hours of handiwork. Thus, to understand the trade of these fabrics does not just implicate a linear trajectory of production and consumption; rather, it is the hours and days of the lives of the artists who produced them combined with the collective imaginations and desires of the various markets of sale — and the miraculous interweaving of all of these narratives across geographic and historical space.
Traded Treasure: Indian textiles for Global Markets is open until June 9th.
A previous version of this article included an incorrect name.
Varun Biddanda is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]