BOOK REVIEWS | Stories from the Jaipur court


BOOK REVIEWS | Stories from the Jaipur court

This book is contrary to our common understanding of Jaipur. It is about shared history. It is an amalgam. An eye-opener on the multiple narratives from India’s past,” says Rahul Jain. These are separate strands from a conversation with Jain, one of India’s most well-known textile designers and historians, who was awarded the Padma Shri last year. His new book, Textiles And Garments: At The Jaipur Court, which was released in January at the Jaipur Literature Festival along with three other books on the City Palace, is a visual study of the textile collection of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, in Jaipur’s City Palace.

It focuses on the assimilation and survival of local arts under the city’s former Kachhwaha Rajput rulers and traces skills, techniques, materials and garments back to 1727 (the year Jaipur was founded). It takes readers into the Kachhwaha treasury, which has objects and textiles acquired through patronage, as royal gifts and the spoils of war.

It is a compelling book for many reasons.

One, as Jain explains, no other textile collection comparable in size and assemblage to the one at the Jaipur court survived in any princely state, with the exception of Hyderabad. Two, this material—textiles that showcase Indian craftsmanship, from the late 17th to the mid-20th century—represents what Jain terms an “archetypal” collection of courtly furnishings, costumes and accessories from the late medieval period. It doesn’t just represent one kind of crafts legacy or a particular patronage. More than 2,700 textiles still survive in the City Palace museum.

Many, writes Jain in his introduction, “lie unprovenanced or misprovenanced” in distant art collections. “Exports to the Middle East, Syria, Africa, Europe, East and South-East Asia include repositories of what went from here.” Even so, some of the finest work remained in India.

Textile historians, exponents of weaving and the decorative arts will find multiple layers of insights as well as pattern and design inspiration tucked into this work. But lay readers and writers interested in old textiles too will find the book illuminating for it shatters the commonly held notion that everything about medieval India was about Mughal or Deccani patronage and ownership.

The first element I was curious about, for instance, was: Why has a garment with Kashmiri embroidery been chosen for the cover of a book that has the words “Jaipur Court” in its title? After a struggle, I revised my initial opinion—it wasn’t exactly Kashmiri, but it did have a strong Mughal sensibility. It’s only when you read the introduction that you realize what Jain means by “speculation or guesswork” about Indian textiles in historical narratives. My own simplistic assumption was that Jaipur should look like Jaipur—which would usually mean block-printed fabrics, cottons painted with mordants and resists, Sanganeri prints, tie-and-dyed textiles, or even leheriyas.

But Jain says: “This is about plural heritage. You cannot separate the Hindu from Islamic, Buddhist, Jain or Christian work. Or, Imperial Mughal textiles from those at the courts of Awadh, Bikaner, Deccan or Jaipur”—a composite idea of medieval India through textiles emerged. “While Mughal sensibility may have pushed the value and keenness for the material in the global art market for wealthy buyers, such an historiographic assumption is too simplistic,” he adds. He emphasizes that textiles at the royal courts came from all over—very little, in fact, was local. Some of the most expensive textiles of the day came, in fact, from Iran. Europe, Turkey and China were other prominent sources.

There are two other very interesting aspects. Jain mentions that the carpets, curtains and tent fabrics in the palace’s farrashkhana were stored in the former Kachhwaha citadel at nearby Amber. They were relocated to the City Palace in 1875. “The farrashkhana assumed crucial importance in any study of India’s court textiles as it was a repository of large-scale, heavy- duty tentage and carpets, which generally withstood the ravages of time better than the more delicate royal apparel,” writes Jain.

Another captivating revelation is the study of inventories, showing the broad trends in the 18th and 19th centuries. For instance, in the Amber farrashkhana, notations were written in the local Rajasthani variant of the Nagari script, with the use of abbreviations, acronyms, a Hijri year, the length and width of the textile, the price then and a description. In other cases, the day of arrival of the piece at the palace and its colour are also mentioned. Till the late 18th century, inventory data was directly inscribed on to the fabric or lining of furnishings.

Referring to the contributions of two eminent historians, Chandramani Singh and Ellen Smart, Jain says that every single textile or object that was formally stored and administered in a major court treasury carried an inventory marking. Keeping in mind these specifics, Jain’s research, which took more than six years, covered several hundred Indian textiles, as well as the records and catalogues in two dozen private and public collections in India and abroad.

In four chapters, segregated by a category and century of study, the book takes the reader through Kalamkari curtains, canopies, floor covers, Ikat dyed fabrics with borders embroidered in metal threads, tent panels in Lampas-weave silk, woven silk velvets from Iran, block- printed, resist-dyed fabrics, silk- cotton fabric brocaded with silk, men’s ceremonial coats, pashmina shawls, sashes, women’s ghagras, dupattas block-printed with gold pigment, the weaving of mashru fabrics and other techniques and peculiarities.

History and anecdote form the text. The “Man Singh” tent story is particularly entertaining. Visually, its outer panel shows silk velvet stamped with gold leaf. An 18th century piece, it is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

What Jain calls “unique masterpieces” are, in fact, also master storytellers of an aesthetically pluralistic medieval India. The moral of that story can hardly be overstated in these times.