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In brief: the Fabric of India

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has been collecting textiles for well over a century, some acquired as spoils of war, some through trade, others arriving via the Great Exhibition of 1851. Many appeared last year in the Fabric of India exhibition for the first time since the 19th century. 

In this book the history and processes of hand production are carefully outlined from early examples to Gandhi’s support of local workers. Steven Cohen deals very effectively with the basics: materials and making. The advent of the Industrial Revolution and its impact in India, where the weaving industry collapsed through the inexorable rise of the Lancashire mills, is given full measure in Rosemary Crill’s history of production. Divia Patel contributes an account mainly of garments in the modern world, but the Emperor Akbar’s shawl and Indira Gandhi’s wedding sari surely belong to the “golly gosh” of celebrity association to which the V&A has now so firmly tied itself. 

From illustrations of hangings and floor-spreads we get glimpses of Lisa Golombek’s essay The Draped Universe of Islam, in which she argues: “Textiles in Islamic societies fulfilled far more than the functions normally expected of them… in their cladding of walls and floors which now may seem stark and cold.” Huge swathes of cloth disguised the materiality of the architecture. They include a mid-17th-century Coromandel cotton showing court scenes divided into panels and registers as in a wall-painting. The scale and brilliant colours are testimony enough of the creation of a powerful art form which can no longer be relegated to a lesser category of “decorative art”.

However, this is a book of the show, not a traditional catalogue, and is a victim of modern design. The lavish spreads relegate factual information to tiny sidebars, and the glossary, bibliography and index are in maddeningly small, faint print. The authors maintain high scholarly standards, but the book proclaims the V&A’s abandonment of serious claims to art publication.

Jane Jakeman has a doctorate in Islamic art and architectural history from St John’s College, the University of Oxford. She has been on the staff of the Bodleian and Ashmolean libraries and was librarian to the Oxford English Dictionary. She has a degree in English from the University of Birmingham

The Fabric of India 

Rosemary Crill, ed

V&A Publications, 248pp, £35 (hb)