The curator and the textile : interviewing mayank mansingh kaul

The curator and the textile : interviewing mayank mansingh kaul

Photos: Courtesy of Lekha and Anupam Poddar Collection

FRACTURE- Indian Textiles, New Conversations, an exhibition at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, India brought together diverse creative practitioners to explore traditional Indian artisanal techniques in innovative ways. As the world’s first such collection of contemporary textiles, the exhibition, its curatorial process and its presentation, throws up several questions about the need for curatorial dialogues on textiles, addressing their neglect in recent years. JAMINI spoke with its co-curator, Mayank Mansingh Kaul, on various aspects of the exhibition through an email interview.

}AMINI: ‘FRACTURE – Indian Textiles, New Conversations: is the first mqjor exhibition on Indian textiles to have been organised in the Indian subcontinent in almost three decades. What were the initial stimuli for the exhibition, and how was it conceived?

Mayank Mansingh Kaul: Mrs Lekha Poddar, Founder-Director of the Devi Art Foundation, has been interested in Indian textiles for several decades now. I know of few people outside of the scholarly space in the country, who pursue this interest with as much zeal and enthusiasm as her; she keeps travelling across the world to attend conferences and shows, and reads voraciously to remain updated on new writings and discussions on the subject. Her own passion for Indian textiles was ignited by the marvellous exhibitions that were organised in India and abroad over a decade, as part of the Festivals of India beginning in the early 1980s. And over the years, she has kept herself in close touch with designers and curators who were involved with these exhibitions as well, nurturing the spark of an interest then into the full-scale commitment to India’s textiles and excellence in its artisanship that we see today.

Chandrashekhar Bheda (in collaboration with Mahender Singh) Flying Rug. Weaved and ribbed cotton . 120 x 420 inches (flat) and 96 x 252 inches (displayed). 2014

The mandate of the Devi Art Foundation is primarily concerned with contemporary art, and this has been the chief focus of her visibility in recent years. But few people – even in the arts’ space – are aware that she has been the chief patron of a number of significant projects related to Indian textiles. These include a series of revival projects in Benaras, which aim at the contemporary production of Mughal-style brocades and velvets – handloom technologies which had been lost to India for more than a century before being revived! For these initiatives, she has collabo­rated closely with textile scholar and designer Rahul Jain, who has conceived and led these initiatives. FRACTURE was initially thought of as an exhibition with him. Understanding that India is the last bastion of such hand-artisanship in textiles in the world today, the provocation was the development of a collection of works which would convey excellence in making, while at the same time question notions of the contemporary in textiles today.

In a curatorial format, such concerns had not been raised – you are quite right – since the exhibitions of the Festivals of India, when its chief curator Mr Martand Singh galvanised a large team of designers, artists, craftspeople and exhibition designers towards several exhibitions over a span of ten years. Our exhibition is much smaller in comparison, but picks up threads from conceptual ideas that came up about Indian textiles then. Those exhibitions were presented in India and around the world, in many cities, and from Japan to the Americas. In the USA alone, some exhibitions travelled to close to twenty cities.

Swati Kalsi. SHE LL. Cotton and metallic thread on silk. Dimensions variable. 2014

J: At what point did you get involved? And what were your interests in the prqject?

MMK: The initial premise of FRACTURE was to look at visual vocabularies of Indian textiles, and to commission works which would suggest a new graphic language for contemporary times. In this endeavour, the role of master craftspeople and artists was seen as essential, and most work developed by Rahul in conversation with individuals who were open to the challenge of exploring new directions in motifs and in the visual content of traditional textiles. In the case of a work in Patachitra from Puri in Orissa, for instance, traditional representations of Shri Jaganath were taken forward in an abstract way, using the metaphor of the third eye. The very representation of the idol, and its worship, were interpreted through more recent signifiers of science fiction – notions of cosmology were thus evoked within what would be called a traditional ethos, but its illustrative idiom was changed.

Rimzim Dadu. Silicon Jamdani Sari. Silicon. 38 x 187 inches. 2014

Once such works started to come in, Lekha and Rahul realised that younger voices were needed to expand the collection to include works from contem­porary practitioners of textiles. The exhibition’s mandate needed to be developed then as a reflection of what was happening in contemporary design from India, and which would be relevant to such curatorial enquiries on hand-made textiles. This is where I came in. Having been involved with non-commercial formats for engaging with Indian design, I found this would be a great way to piggy ride on the creation of such a collection for Devi Art Foundation with the purpose of mounting a final exhibition, while raising conceptual reflections on the need for curatorial work in the field of Indian textiles.

I was also drawn to the opportunity of collaborat­ing and working with a variety of creative individuals through commissions, something I have thoroughly enjoyed doing through previous projects as well. Ultimately, however, it was the sheer scale and ambition of the project that excited me: not only was I thrilled by the idea of working in such a large physical space as the Devi Art Foundation, but I was also excited by the idea of addressing such a long gap in curatorial interventions in Indian textiles, as has been indicated above.

Sandeep Dua . Residue . Block print on cotton . 48.4 x 106 inches (each) . 2014

J: We would like to come back to some of the curatorial questions that FRACTURE brings up, but before we do so, could you share with us what, according to you, are the reasons for the gap that you speak of?

MMK: Ostensibly, it would seem that there is a lack of patronage for such demanding projects, as they require a tremendous amount of resources to be realized: Many of these commissions took two to three years to be executed, indeed some even longer. They needed monthly, if not weekly supervision. A team of five assistant curators were involved, apart from the three main curators – Rahul, myself and designer Sanjay Garg. And financially as well, these projects tended to go over the budget on several occasions. The commissioned artists and designers were themselves working in complex geographical situations -many of them had studios in cities, and were executing their works in smaller craft clusters, and coordination took time. In some cases, artists who had been commissioned were working with textiles for the first time!

Moreover, since India does not have a gallery dedicated to design and textiles, let alone a museum or institution devoted to these areas which can allow for curated exhibitions, there is little to provide an environment whereby designers and artists have the ecology available to produce, showcase and build audiences for their work. For this reason, many of them chose to get into the system of art galleries that show textile or ceramic-based work infrequently, and pitch such work as visual arts drawn from handmaking traditions. They do not stand on their own.

This had an impact on the progress of our commissions for sure – in some cases, where a concept was strong, the designer was not experienced in working within gallery formats and spaces, and so on. It takes a tremendous passion on the part of the patron to tide through everyday hurdles to keep the broader vision alive. It is for this reason that before anything else, FRACTURE and the vision of Lekha must be applauded.

However, there are more historical reasons for such gaps as well, which might explain the reasons for such inadequate platforms to showcase creative work outside of the purview of ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ visual arts. If you allow me, I will take a little circuitous route to explain this: at the beginning of India’s independence, when new ideas about arts and craft were being formed, we inherited a much more integrated vision for creative practices than now. Many artists did not see divisions between what is seen today as design, visual arts, decorative arts and craft right up till the 1970s, until the emergence of the present art world. This has necessitated the influence of international art world practices, which continue to maintain divisions quite clearly even today.

Simultaneously, however, design was being introduced to the country in very conscious ways. An exhibition on ‘Textiles and the Ornamental Arts of India’ in the USA in 1955, was reciprocated with one on ‘American Design’ in Delhi soon after, in a cultural diplomacy governmental-exchange initiative. Even if no such intentions can be attributed to the reasons for this initiative in a documented way, the perception was created that textiles belonged to the realm of decorative arts, and not to the newly emerging field of design. The early 1960s saw the establishment of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, which was inspired by the design pedagogy of Bauhaus, a pioneering design movement and school in Germany of the early twentieth century. The idea of design, thus, not only for its association with industrial manufacture of the West, but also for its focus on urban consumerist culture, became a function of practical needs. This differed to the very idea of the arts, as one meant for pure contemplation and for its own sake. The Shanti Niketan model from India, which has a more syncretic view of such making started, further giving way to a more specialised view borrowed from the West.

Through all of these developments, Indian textiles were relegated mainly to the realm of craft and rural development agendas. To some extent, even lost! The textiles and craft components of the Festivals of India, all landmark cultural diplomacy initiatives meant to take the best of India’s culture to the world, brought up the idea of using ‘designer’ interventions in the craft sector. The directions for textiles here were meant to revitalise both the local markets for contemporary products using craft, and to offer these as production resources for international designers. This process led to a major demand from the world over for textiles from India, and informed the massively profitable Export House phenomena when big companies trading in, and producing textiles and apparel came to India. The result was that the country was positioned as a mere manufacturer, and somehow could never establish its ability to be innovative according to international standards, because of constantly changing designs and the fashion system.

This issue has been further compounded by Indian scholars of various disciplines. Textile writers and historians from India have borrowed extensively from Western scholars of Indian textiles – this approach has severe limitations, especially since a bulk of such writing emerges from museum collections of antiquities, and not from the relationship between such

‘pieces’ to living traditions. Other historians of art tend to ignore textiles altogether. One case in point is the otherwise accomplished book, India fly Design, by Saloni Mathur. In traversing an almost 150 year history of how notions of India have been shaped in the West, textiles do not get even a passing mention in the work! Recent exhibitions from India abroad continue to either harp on the exotic, Maharaja-inspired themes, and major exhibitions of contemporary art have been continually criticised for endorsing colonial representations! Questions of what it means to innovate within living traditions do not come up in the context of textiles, leave alone contemporary design from India …

J: Did some of these concerns influence the curatorial direction of FRACTURE?

MMK: Certainly. To begin with, we did not want to emphasise the conceptual aspects of the show more than the making. For this reason, almost all works exhibited have a visceral quality that brings attention to hand skills. The presentation and design as well, places importance on communicating such materiality rather than superimposing any theoretical problematic, as has become common in other contemporary art practices. Wherever works have been co-created, all participants are mentioned as equal participants without one voice being stronger than the other – hierarchies between ‘designers’ and ‘craftspeople’ has been a contentious area that we feel the exhibition allows itself to further investigate.

And finally, to address aspects of innovation in commissions, we chose to invite not only textile practitioners, but also non-textile artists and designers. They include visual artists, graphic designers and a film-maker. This approach has allowed fresh perspectives on the concepts, techniques and materials in the exhibition. Doing this through a ‘Call for Proposals’ – which was sent out to close to a hundred art colleges, design schools and cultural organisations – rather than through a smaller network of friends and known colleagues – further deepened our strategy to reach out to as many people as we could. This expanded the discussions to an extent that surprised us all – given that us three curators, being textile designers, are heavily involved in our fields as well. To show such textiles, ultimately, in a space normally associated with contemporary art itself, says a lot about present art­design divides.

Having said this much, I have to admit that the exhibition throws up more questions than it answers. This is merely a suggestion for what an approach towards curating textiles can be from today’s stand­point, but hopefully many more such propositions will come up in the years to come to provide a broader set of conversations for debate.

J: The process seems so lqyered and complex. How did the co­curatorial process work within such a set up?

MMK: The exhibition is not presented, formally, as a co-curatorial effort. Since every project required lengthy and numerous discussions with the artists and designers, the entire process can be seen as an extensive series of conversations we have had with them. We have therefore chosen to present the entire exhibition as a series of such dialogues. While there is a cohesive design narrative, each work is meant to stand on its own and ask its own sets of questions. And each of these questions is accompanied by a dialogue on the work between the three ‘co-curators’ to bring out the complexity of the process involved.

Initially, our roles were seen as quite distinct – Rahul’s to provide the historical anchor to every project, mine to guide the more contemporary design and curatorial aspects, and Sanjay’s to oversee the execution of the works. To some extent we have still stuck to our roles, but the final result is more than the sum of the individual parts we opted for!

Mayank Mansingh Kaul is a Delhi-based textile designer working with contemporary hand-crafts. A graduate of The National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, his work addresses design-related concerns from the perspectives of product development, brand-building and strategy, government policy and history. He is The Founder-Director of The Design Project India, a not-for-profit organisation working on writing, curatorial and archival projects in Indian design. He writes regularly for leading Indian and international publications, was Guest Editor for Take on Art Design (2012), and is currently editing a publication on post-independence histories of textiles in India for MARG(upcoming, 2016).

Leading Image : Ishan Khosla (in collaboration with Sandeep Kumar and Vinay Singh). Pardeshi: the turban untied. Hand-block print on khadi cloth . 433 x 9 inches (each). 2014

Photos: Courtesy of Lekha and Anupam Poddar Collection FRACTURE- Indian Textiles, New Conversations, an exhibition at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, India brought together diverse creative practitioners to explore traditional Indian artisanal techniques in innovative ways. As the world’s first such collection of contemporary textiles, the exhibition, its curatorial process and its presentation, throws…

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