By Evelina Kuvykovaite (MA student)
On the 7th of November I attended the ‘The Politics of Craft’ conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art, which was organised as part of the current exhibition at the V&A titled ‘The Fabric of India’. In this review I will consider talks by Neelam Raina, Amrita Jhaveri, Peter Nagy and Venu Madhav Govindu. Although their expertise differs considerably, they all agree on the importance of textiles to India’s past and present.
After the talk by Raina I could not stop thinking about the role of women in textile production in India, in particular in post-conflict Kashmir. Raina spoke about the craft industry in Kashmir as male dominated where women occupied the position of buyers. However, in a war-torn, predominantly Muslim, Kashmir the lives of women are changing. They now assume new roles of income generators as they wait for their husbands to return from war either alive, or dead so they can bury their bodies – a necessary ritual in Islam in order to remarry. Crafts, and in particular textile production, offer a way for these women to support their households while working from home or part-time. Here, they are also able to utilise their skills, which they previously developed as buyers. These activities enable them to overcome grief and poverty and ascertain their own identities as equal members of society. Therefore, women’s involvement in the textile industry redefines the traditional family and societal structures among Muslim communities in Kashmir.
Govindu spoke about khadi, a traditional hand-woven cloth primarily made out of cotton, as a political economy. The khadi movement of 1920s led by Mahatma Gandhi aimed at boycotting foreign goods, in particular high priced clothes, manufactured from Indian cotton and woven industrially in Britain. Instead it promoted locally produced goods, thereby improving India’s economy. Gandhi believed that through the production of khadi local communities would be able to sustain themselves and this would eventually lead to social transformation and economic authority. The khadi movement was one of many steps leading towards India’s independence. It once again demonstrates how tightly the textile production in India is linked with its struggle for freedom.
The talk by Jhaveri and Nagy considered the career of a recently deceased Indian contemporary artist, Mrinalini Mukherjee. By creating monumental fibre sculptures she challenged the ingrained notions of ‘high’ art. Mukherjee was often marginalised for working in textile medium. Her art was identified as mere crafts by her peers and the general public and, in turn, rejected. Despite of this, Mukherjee was able to attain recognition on an international scale and in 2015 the Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi held the first retrospective of her work. Mukherjee’s career illustrates how the notions of ‘high’ art can be challenged through the use of textiles.
One observation made by Raina, which during the conference seemed fascinating, but in the context of the politics of craft rather insignificant, was about the older generation of men in Kashmir. When weaving the fabric those men performed traditional songs. In fact, it is this observation that best illustrates the importance of textile production in India. Weaving for these men was not just a way to earn their living, but it was a ritual passed through generations. And the cloth as the result of this ritual assumed sacred value, which helped India to overcome its struggles – social, economic, political, and personal.