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Calico Museum - The Textiles Carry Tales


The Calico Museum of Textiles stands out for its uniqueness and antiquity of exhibits. The treasures it houses are the finest of fabrics-woven, spun, painted and printed in India over the past five centuries. A visit to this unique Museum is an enriching experience.


Incredible! That’s the adjective one of the foreigners used for the Calico Museum of Textiles. “Simply amazing,” remarked a European research scholar. The list of adjectives could go on and on, for such is the collection of textiles preserved in the cool and serene environs of the 90-year-old Sarabhai House at Ahmedabad.

Founded in 1949, the Calico Museum of Textiles, stands out among specialized museums, basically for the uniqueness and antiquity of the exhibits on display. The care and imagination in the selection, lay-out and display of material could exlipse any textile museum.

Originally, the Museum was housed in the Calico Mills, which is in the heart of the textile city of Ahmedabad. With the swelling collection of exhibits and the spectre of pollution looming perennially over the industrial area, the Museum was shifted lock, stock and barrel, to the safer and verdant confines of the palatial Sarabhai House.

Tall trees, gardens, fountains, courtyards, ceramic mosaic terraces and marble floors lend a divine touch to the majestic Museum. The carved wooden facades, thick pillars and beams and havily wood-worked roofs give one the impression of an ancient haveli. The facades, doors etc. were, in fact, brought from deserted or crumbling havelis of Gujarat and Rajasthan and reconstructed in the perfected from.

The museum’s treasures consist of the finest of fabrics, woven, spun, painted and printed in India over the past five centuries. These marvels of the hand and the heart, collected from all parts of the country, charm the visitor through a variety of kalamkaris, pichhwais, patolas, bandhnis, silks, floorspreads, tent canopies and precious brocades.

The Museum also has icons and busts made of bronze, sandstone and marble especially in the Jaina Gallery. The Museum has two galleries, one for the religious textiles and another for historical and other textiles. These galleries have further been split into smaller galleries focusing on specific nature of textiles.

To give you an insight into the exhibits of the Museum, the authorities have a lady guide, who rattles out precise information about each exhibit. The guide, fluent in English, Gujarati and Hindi, takes the visitors, in groups, on a conducted tour o the Museum. But if you want more information on the exhibits, pick the catalogues which are placed in each room and which contain minute details of the displayed items.

The tour begins from the Religious Textiles gallery, which displays textiles of the Vallabha Sampradaya, a Krishna sect founded in late 15th century, most wodely known for its sanctuary at Nathadwara in Rajasthan .

The gallery opens with a small shrine simulating those found in temples and homes of wealthy devotees. On entering, the visitor is transported into a devotional aura with the jingling of traditional aarti sounds. The nine steps to the Shrine signify Navadha Bhakti. About 90 pichhwais, divided into three groups, are on display in this gallery.

The first group of pichhwais relates to festivals and the pieces exhibited are those used during the festivals of Nandamahotsava, Sarada Purnima, Govardhana, Dharana, Gopastami Ramanavami and so on. The Nandamahotsave pichhwai, painted on cotton, dates back to the 19th century. It depicts the great celebration held by Lord Krishna’s roster father, Nanda, on the day after Janmashtami.

The second group of pichhwais consists of pieces that are not associated with any particular festival, but have seasonal themes. They can be hung at any time during the appropriate season when special festival pichhwai is not in use. In this group fall three pichhwais-the grisma (summer) pichhwai, which can be hung from March to June; the varsa (monsoon) pichhwai, which can be used from July to October; and the sarada (winter) pichhwai, which is used from November to February.

Mordant and resist-dyed, the varsa pichhwai depicts gopis waiting for Krishna under a kadamba tree on the banks of Yamuna. The other theme in the varsa pichhwai is Morakuti, named after a small village in Vraja, the legendary home of Radha, where Krishna danced like a peacock to capfootprints (paduka), the Tree of Enlightenment (bodhi vraksha), the Wheel of Religion (dharma chakra), and a stupa. Image worship was introduced around 3rd century B.C. Early images of Tirthankaras were usually in sandstone and perhaps in wood, as well as in precious and semi-precious stones and some metals. Hence, some of the icons displayed at the Jaina Gallery are the bronze Parsvantha of 1235 A.D., Tirthankara Digambara of 12th century A.D. in sandstone, and the seven-century-old Dvitirthi (two Tirthankaras) in bronze.

The earliest Jaina texts were passed on orally from generation to generation. The early manuscripts were on palm leaf but the use of paper, which started in the 12th century became popular from the 14th century. Some ofht eimportant texts seen in the Jaina Gallery are the Kalpasutra, which is in three parts. The first part, entitled Jinacharita (the lives of the Jias) usually has the largest number of illustrations in the manuscript. The second is Samachari (rules for monks), which has fewer illustrations. The third is Sthaviravali (the succession of pontiffs), which is less abundantly illustrated.

Manuscripts with illustrations of the scenes from the Samgrahani Sutra and patas, depicting the Jain concept of the universe and evolution of the soul the displayed in the Gallery.

Samgrahani Sutra manuscripts are six-paper folios illustrating Jaina cosmological concepts and stoeis. Pata is an embroidered wall hanging which is used as an object of worship or for ceremonial purposes.

The Adhai Dvipi Pata, dating back to 1505 A.D., displayed at the Gallery is perhaps the earliest piece of this type. Jnana Baji Pata, a knowledge game of the ‘snakes and ladders’ variety, is a teaching aid, representing symbolically the effect of karma in the progress of the sould towards liberation.

Also on display are the Tirtha Patas, which range in style from the highly stylized figures painted in rich colours of the 15th century to the more localized folk styles of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Also on display are the Tirtha Patas, which range in style from the highly stylized figures painted in rich colours of the 15th century of the more localized folk styles of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In stark contrast to the religious textiles are the historical and trade texment of a 17th century Mughal carpet that must have come from one of the workships which Akbar had established in India to continue the tradition of the Persian craft. On either side of the pathway are displayed a variety of fabrics, woven patterns, painted, printed, embroidered and appliquéd decorations. Around a corner, a Mughal warrior in helmet and chain mail, with a sword and rhinoceroshide shield lends a genuine touch to the Mughal splendour.

The earliest pieces of Indian trade textiles displayed in the Museum date back to the 15th century. Some of the pieces show the influence of Hindu or Islamic designs. The commonest and most typical of the Indian cottons found during excavations at Fostat in Egypt are those that are resist-dyed with indigo. The orgins of the fragments of Indian fabrics discovered a Fostat could be traced to Tujarat. Another fragment found at Fostat was of block-printed and mordant-cyed cotton, of the 17th century.

Patolu (singular) and patola (plural) are the terms used normally in Gujarat for silk weaving with designs in double ikat, that is, for fabrics where the warp and the weftr threads are coloured in sections by tie-dyeing before weaving, and are then woven to from intricate multi-coloured designs. Most probably, patolas were exported from India even before the Europeans arrived. The main buyer was Indonesia, where patola fabrics became an important component of local custom and ceremony. Among the patola treasures of the Museum are the 19th century Sadi, a silk patolu tie-dyed in the warp and the weft, a patolu shawl, bed-covers, scarves and trousers.

The Calico Museum of Textiles is different. Unlike other museums which follow the conventional method of displaying the pieces in glass cases, the Calico Museum authorities have covered the exhibits with a transparent plastic film. The film is scientifically tested to make sure that it is inert chemically. This has been done to ensure that the plastic films do not damage the dyes and the material which they want to protect.

The Museum authorities have made all possible efforts to create a ‘museum climate’ in and around the treasure house of ancient textiles. For instance, the museum pieces are protected from dust, air pollution and fluctuations in temperatures by the trees around the museum complex. Within the museum, the relative humidity of the galleries does not change too much or too sunddenly. The wooden structure, with relatively thick walls, shaded from the sun contribute to conservation requirements. The restricted visiting hours and a strict control over visitor traffic ensure a reasonably safe ‘museum climate’.

Moreover, the darkness between visiting hours and a subdued lighting (approximately 50 lux level) protect the textiles from fading.

All in all, the Calico Museum of Textiles is not just a trove of ancient textiles, it is a different world altogether. A visit to the Calico Museum would transport any visitor to the 15th and 16th centuries, bringing alive the India of the centuries gone by, through the carved wooden facades, motifis, frescoes, icons of sandstone and bronze, brocaded fabrics, tie-dyed and block-printed textiles.




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