Mayank Mansingh Kaul on Handspun Handwoven: Why it Matters

Mayank Mansingh Kaul on Handspun Handwoven: Why it Matters

An exhibition of 108 khadi saris and fabrics reopens a conversation between creators, curators and consumers of khadi 

The area outside the display hall of the exhibition Meanings, Metaphor: Handspun and Handwoven in Modern India at the Lakshmi Mills compound in Coimbatore saw an unusual gathering on the evening of January 20. Over South Indian filter coffee, vadas and onion pakoras served in plates lined with plantain leaves, textile enthusiasts, khadi experts, stakeholders from local cotton yarn mills, designers, some weavers and some textile design students engaged in animated chatter. The weather, khadi, Gandhi then and now, how such exhibitions paved the path for important dialogues, why Lakshmi Mills, a major textile yarn and cloth manufacturer as the venue was both unexpected yet “perfect”. A noticeable absence of the high and mighty, ‘look-at-me-and-listen-to-me-because-I-know-what-khadi-is-about’ conversational tunneling—often evident in exhibition openings in Delhi and Mumbai—added a lightness to the ambience.



Photo: Pallon Daruwala Photography

An installation at the exhibition.

The 108 Arithmetic

All this and et cetra though blurred the moment you stepped inside and were gathered instantaneously into the folds of the 108 fabric rolls and saris that ranged from white, almond, cream, and cinnamon colours to a few mustards, a variety of light indigos, a dull onion pink somewhere, even a gold and black. No fuchsia, parrot green, vermilion red. These had been hung in linear as well as circular formations, with others displayed on wave-like bamboo frames created by scenographer Sandeep Sangaru. A total of 108 pieces—54 fabrics and 54 saris. Clearly, some compelling curatorial grammar and deeper reflection had determined where each fabric or sari “performed”.

Presented by the Bengaluru-based The Registry of Sarees, curated by Mayank Mansingh Kaul, Meanings, Metaphor… had sense, sensibility, sustainability, heft, tactility, texture and provocation in the way it spoke to those who listened. Most did. To the opening remarks by Ahalya Matthan the founder of the Bengaluru-based The Registry of Sarees, to Kaul’s curatorial observations, to the sentimental address by khadi expert Rta Kapur Chishti, to designer Rakesh Thakore’s soft but passionate notes on coarse khadi from Andhra Pradesh, the finer (but semi-mechanised) khadi from West Bengal, yarn counts, the grammar of warp and weft, why the Indian Indigo renders a darker, deeper blue, his comments on a rare mustard with a three shuttle weave, how the gold yarn sparkled on a black khadi sari.


(L-R) Aishwarya Pathi with Ahalya Matthan, founder of The Registry of Sarees.

The Fabric of Freedom: Then and Now

Originally commissioned as a set of two of the same design (of which a majority from one set has been acquired by The Registry of Sarees), by Martand Singh, fondly known as “Mapu”, the late patriarch of khadi technologies and weaving, these fabrics and saris have been part of a few exhibitions in the past. The saris were designed and produced between 2000-1, imagined as a collection of 108 distinct designs. Alongside, 108 varieties of cotton fabrics were sourced from different parts of the country to represent different varieties of khadi—entirely handspun as well as those spun on the Ambar Charkha.

The Fabric of Freedom exhibitions were developed by Singh with textile experts Rahul Jain, Chishti and Thakore. The team studied cultures as well as technologies of cotton cultivation across India through this work. These exhibits first travelled to Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata between 2002-03.

The Registry of Sarees, which also runs a learning centre in Bengaluru would eventually acquire a large part of the originals in the last year and more. It planned then to present new interpretations of “Mapu’s Khadis” curated with a yet untold grammar and an innovative perspective by Kaul. The first iteration of Meanings, Metaphor: Handspun and Handwoven in the 21st Century, was presented in November in Chirala in Andhra Pradesh as part of a conference called Anchoring Innovation that focussed on the technological cultures of the handmade in India. Four thousand weavers visited this exhibition.


Photo: Pallon Daruwala Photography

A display of fabrics.

Notes from Coimbatore

At its Coimbatore display, Matthan told The Voice of Fashion that “Handspun and handloom are defining terms, at the forefront of many changes both within the country and outside.” She added that “The Registry of Sarees is keen to facilitate and participate in this dialogue through engaging both audiences, practitioners and experts in the area to find a Meaning and Metaphor,”. Explaining why she chose South India for its travelling display she said, “The South has several rich traditions of textile culture, and lacks organised public platforms to receive shows and exhibits, although we have hungry audiences. It is widely accepted that Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata principally lead public engagement and debate in culture, art and politics. If we are to find commonalities, then the rest of India must also be included in these dialogues.”

Interview with the Curator

So what are these dialogues? What must we hear when Handspun, Handwoven narratives speak? Is this journey different or superior to that of other artisanal textiles of India? Here, curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul addresses the warp and weft of the subject even as he explains why he has tried to highlight the ‘performative’ aspect of textiles, evident in the free flowing movement of the display.  Edited excerpts…


Mayank Mansingh Kaul, curator of ‘Meanings, Metaphor: Handspun and Handwoven in 21st Century’.

Is it easy to utilise khadi as a tool to tell the story of India that was and can be through textiles or is it very complex, given the layered nature of khadi?

Mayank Mansingh Kaul, (MMK): Trying to explore and reflect on the many meanings and metaphors of handspun and handwoven fabric in India and the world today, is indeed a very layered proposition; especially because of its synonymity over a period of more than a century, with Mahatma Gandhi’s use of this as a political, economic and cultural symbol. And it certainly comes with its share of challenges as one tries to re-engage with its symbolic and material significances today. I have tried not to be daunted by the ‘baggage’ of its preconceived notions as I suggest new questions for its future, by being constantly reminded that Gandhi himself saw his ideas as experiments, and which had the potential of being enquiries and not, in any way, ‘final’ solutions towards these questions for his time.

How did your curatorial instincts start unfolding when the prospect of curating “Mapu’s Khadi collection” was brought to you?

Interestingly, the original exhibition was Mapu’s last formal project with Indian textiles and informed my first ‘professional’ engagement with the field as a young graduate from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad (Gujarat). At this time, I spent several months travelling through hand-spinning centres across the country, looking at its various production and design contexts. I subsequently started working as a designer presenting garment and home collections using hand-spun textiles, and eventually finding more interest in the curatorial aspects of Indian fashion, design and textiles. While Mapu was a mentor, he was also a friend, and encouraged me and several others of my generation to ask our questions; surprisingly re-thinking some of his own thoughts about something developed over several years.

When Mapu himself termed the original project and exhibition, now almost two decades back as ‘Khadi – The Fabric of Freedom’, he was trying to free khadi from its heavy, and loaded post-independence associations of ‘Public Service’ and Indian politicians. This freeing was towards the acceptance of khadi, on the one hand, at the turn of the new millennium as a highly distinct Indian product, which could lend itself to luxury; but which could also at the same time without any sense of contradiction to this, be seen as ‘dhyaan’ (meditation) at a personal level of hand-spinning as a daily activity of contemplation. Through my practice, I have tried, in whatever way to take the idea of curation of Indian textiles forward so that it can be seen outside of its usual and conventional ‘craft’, ’design’ and ‘functional’ dimensions, into an art form in itself, and which needs to be understood on its own terms. So naturally when the idea of me curating the present exhibitions came up I wanted to take it to such possibilities of conversations.

Above and beyond the technological intricacies of khadi and its history, there is a sentimental, engulfing appeal that the fabric holds even for people who do not understand a word of all this. How do you define that appeal?

In my view, it is both the material quality of the handspun and handwoven, as well as its symbolic references, which evoke an instant response among its makers, users and in the case of it being exhibited, viewers. But there is also something more–to put it simply–as a sum of its parts. Textile scholar and exponent Rahul Jain, who worked on the original project and exhibitions, articulated this very well in the catalogue then: ‘A human process in which the head, heart, and hand work in unison may be perceived … as the most meaningful, most rarefied technology of all. The products of such a process will retain, in our age, the distinction of striking the finest and innermost of human sensibilities.’


Photo: Pallon Daruwala Photography

Another glimpse of the fabrics on display.

Was there a method behind the placement of colours—indigo, black, the odd dull yellow, the onion pink versus almond, butter, white and natural coloured saris in this exhibition?

Yes. You enter the exhibition with 54 shades of ‘white’ or natural cottons and then move to 54 saris, which start with such whites and naturals, leading onto the yellows, indigos, reds and back to the whites. Since the collection highlights, primarily, the various textures of the handspun and handwoven, I was keen that viewers focus on this both at the beginning and towards the end, completing a full circle.

Tell us a bit about lighting at the Coimbatore exhibition, the deliberate interplay of natural lighting and bulbs, and what you mean by the “sacred circle”?

The scenographer Sandeep Sangaru was primarily involved with the design and production of the display units made in bamboo and informed the curatorial efforts with some great conceptual ideas. As a curator, I had to take these ideas forward in the context of the space. The space receives natural light through the day, so I used this to play with how textiles behave in sunlight. Towards the evening the space is dark and we have tried to create a dimly-lit effect, akin to seeing textiles in moonlight. Together, they further the idea of how to provide an ‘Indian’ experience of textiles–in rice fields and river banks, in sacred spaces and shrines … you enter the exhibition through a narrow tunnel surrounded by shades of white seeing the opaque to the translucent. You then see a dynamic play of the textiles in movement, reflecting light trickling in from holes in the tin roof and the glass window during the day, and in the evenings the silver and gold zari bouncing of gentle yellow light like traditional diyas. The exhibition ends with the textiles displayed in a circle, evoking sacred spaces of quietude and contemplation, as in the middle of a grove in a forest.



Photo: Pallon Daruwala Photography

Swirls of fabrics.

A lot of visitors want to “own” something like the pieces displayed as material culture is rather infectious. Does The Registry of Sarees have a plan to recreate these saris in some way? 

My belief is that such exhibitions are fundamentally educational or inspirational, hopefully planting seeds for all kinds of new directions in viewers. However, they do create the appetite to ‘own’. We have seen this very closely in the Coimbatore iteration, where many viewers have been disappointed not to be able to buy anything. Ahalya Matthan from The Registry of Sarees and I have discussed in the past that unless what is available for sale along with such exhibitions is at the same level of quality as what is being exhibited, then it is not worth it.

At Chirala particularly but here at Coimbatore too, some weavers attended the exhibition. What do you think they are taking back from here?

In Chirala, we had almost 4,000 handloom weavers view the exhibition, and many of them were interested in the possibilities of being able to weave similar qualities of fabric as were exhibited. There were young students, some from families of hand-weavers who said they would like to study design when they grow up… there were several spinners, who were encouraged that their work could get a new lease of life. But the most important feedback however was that, in the way the textiles were displayed, hand weavers indicated, that for the first time they had seen what they make as not ‘craft’ but ‘art’, not manual labour but ‘kala’… and themselves as artists and not craftspeople. Some weavers from Madurai who visited the exhibition in Coimbatore told us that they would like to attempt five designs of the exhibited saris and explore if they can achieve their fine quality of weave. Another organisation which works with weavers in Andhra Pradesh has expressed interest in studying the entire collection of 108 saris and remaking these designs using handspun cotton … I think this is encouraging.

Meanings, Metaphor: Handspun and Handwoven in the 21st Century will be on display at Lakshmi Mills, Coimbatore till the 27th of January. It will then travel to Bengaluru in March.