One of our aims in this exhibition is to reveal new aspects of Indian textiles and fashion. It may come as a surprise to many that India has a dynamic fashion industry which maintains a continuity to India’s textile traditions. An exciting feature of The Fabric of India will be a showcase of some of the most imaginative and innovative work by contemporary fashion designers. Names such as Abraham and Thakore, Aneeth Arora, Rahul Mishra and Kallol Dutta are amongst these. Their work is distinguished by their appreciation and understanding of their heritage as well as their responsiveness to international trends.
Rajesh Pratap Singh’s stylish women’s jacket is a symbol of this and will be one of many remarkable objects on display. It combines local traditions with global aesthetics and merges hand-making skills with technology. It also touches on one of the key relationships in the production of contemporary fashion, that of the rural artisan and the urban designer, something that will be the subject of future blogs.
The jacket is made from fabric that has the visual effect of a technique known as ajrakh, which is specific to artisan communities in western India and Pakistan. Wax resists and mordants for blue and red dye are applied with carved wooden blocks to create a repeat pattern. An example of a historic piece is shown here.
On first glance at the jacket, the fabric appears to have a repeat floral design. However, take a closer look and you can see that subtly integrated into the floral repeats are depictions of the human skull. The use of skull imagery on clothing in the west is a familiar sight. It has its origins in rock music sub-culture which was incorporated into high-fashion through the designer Alexander McQueen and then diffused into high-street culture. In India the skull is found in images of Hindu gods and keeps it deathly associations.
Rajesh Pratap Singh is one of India’s most important contemporary designers and is known for his adaptation of traditional techniques into contemporary forms. Excited by ajrakh printing, he tried to recreate a traditional design, with the addition of the skull image. The process of ajrakh is long and time consuming and takes up to 30 steps to complete. A key part of this is the carving of the wooden blocks that print the pattern onto the fabric. In this instance the designer searched for a block-maker who was willing to carve the skull image, but many of the Muslim block-makers refused to do so because of their prohibition against creating representational figures as well as the skull’s associations with death. Therefore to realise his imagined article, Pratap Singh transferred to digital printing, a technical process that has enabled the cross fertilisation of design and culture. Through this fusion of tradition and technology, the jacket is a symbol of the times.
Rajesh has experimented with this design and technique and on a visit to his studio in November 2010 I was treated to a tour of his workshops and to a visual feast of his creativity. It was from a group of jackets all incorporating the skull imagery, that this particular jacket was selected for the V&A collection.