Pra-Kashi: “It is not a craft, a textile, or a product”

Pra-Kashi: “It is not a craft, a textile, or a product”

Weaving engineer and scholar Rahul Jain on the back story of Pra-Kashi, a silk, gold and silver exhibition currently on display at Delhi’s National Museum

On September 9 the Special Exhibition Gallery at the National Museum in New Delhi opened its doors to Pra-Kashi: Silk, Gold and Silver from the City of Light. The exhibition shows textile pieces of different lengths, hand-woven silks in silver-gilt thread with human or animal motifs, a few tailored velvet bundis with perfectly woven circles or zig zag patterns, an intensely crafted and arresting brocade sari with the shikargah (hunting) weave, a silvern drape elsewhere where the background textile, gilt-ridden, deep and dazzling looks like a reflective field over which designs had flowered. If there were some Mughal-inspired floral motifs, there were on the other hand, nude human forms with Biblical references. Lotuses and butas, borders, brocades and more, all lit up with gold and silver zari. These have been displayed along with a selection of historic textiles, jewellery and paintings from the National Museum’s collection.


A reproduction of identical panels displayed at the Pra-Kashi exhibition inspired from a mid 17th-century, Imperial Mughal qanat or wall tent panel at Calico Museum of Textile, Ahmedabad.

Presented by the National Museum in collaboration with the Devi Art Foundation, curated by Pramod Kumar KG and supported by Eka Archiving Services, the exhibition that displays textiles from the Asha Workshop of Varanasi, evoked an instant awe amongst those who had gathered for the opening event. Most said they hadn’t seen anything like this. I hadn’t either. It was unique in a way that was hard to instantly define. I found myself struggling for words to express why it was so inspiring. What gripped me though was the technical prowess and ingenuity of whatever this was on display.


Shikargah textiles on display highlight several species of birds and animals from India’s endangered wildlife.

According to the exhibition pamphlet, “The display represents the full range of luxury silks that were manufactured historically from the beginning of the first millennium using the Taquete-Samite, Lampas, Extended Samite, Brocaded Double Weave, Damask, Velvet and Voided Velvet weaving techniques. The revived techniques together represent the majority of luxury silks woven for 2000 years at the classical silk-weaving centres of the old Silk Road.”


Textiles inspired by the “cloths of gold” woven in Mughal India and Safavid Iran in the 17th and 18th centuries, in which silk-weavers used the ancient Samite weave, and its variations, to conjure up on cloth the appearance of enamelled gold.

Jain started Asha as an academic exercise, as part of a master’s degree in weaving from the US. He had no idea, he says, that it would get a life. Supported by two Padma Bhushan awardees, the late industrialist, art collector and philanthropist Suresh Neotia and the late textile maestro Martand Singh–both “peerless” patrons of experiments in textile weaving–Jain, ploughed on with the group of weavers he retrained. He would later be awarded the Padma Shri himself, and is the author of many scholarly books on textiles, their technical and karmic histories. He stayed on to reinvent, “not revive” textiles that had been crafted to the point of “extinction”.

At his Alaknanda home in Delhi, the light-eyed, 56-year-old Jain, all smiles and light of manner, with tiny specks of wry humour dusting his expressions, spoke about Pra-Kashi. Why it is not a craft, not a textile, not a product that can be traded or bought. And why “ prakash” or light is about eliciting a sensory response.

Edited excerpts.

What is Asha? 

It is essentially a centre for learning. Twenty five years later, the one thing I can say is that we weave what is extinct. Even centuries back, all these textiles were not woven for trade; they were not bought or sold. They were either owned or gifted to cement political alliances or friendships. Because they didn’t exist (as samples), one wanted to get an impression, of what they really looked like. Nowhere except in murals or miniature paintings of the Mughal period do you get these impressions. In fact, before the 17th Century, very little of Indian fabrics is known. All that is available is what was exported, which is the second rung of fabrics. The finest fabrics were produced for the courts and the rest were exported.

The idea at Asha was never to create a modern product, because the modern product really arises out of the modern capitalist economy. The idea instead was to create a space, which was full of wonder. You didn’t know what was there at the end of it. So we created a space, a kind of a classroom that could be an exploration/ discovery/ inspiration/ of the kind that moves you beyond the common circumstance. When you put all those things together, you get learning. It is not possible through books or formal learning. Most people will call the Pra-Kashi silks and textiles a reproduction of some kind of 300-year-old fabrics. Which it is not. It is merely an impression.

Why did you just create fabrics?

Because fabric is the most sensory of all materials as it is next to the skin. It surpasses all others for its closeness to the body.

You said that in the absence of traditional custodians of the art and the process, you personally trained a group of very young, low-income, low-caste silk weavers to learn a newly invented set of weaving skills. Why did they stay back?

For these people it has been more than just physical learning. The drawloom was first used 2000 years ago. Its last vestiges were in Varanasi; the only other similar loom was in Iran. However, I came back to India with training in weaving from the West. I had to retrain the weavers as histories change, patronage changes, markets change, people’s tastes change and thus the product changes.

Initially it was a master’s project, for a degree in weaving. A non-profit trust was initiated by Suresh Neotia and Martand Singh, who said they saw in these textiles what they hadn’t ever seen before. They funded it for 20 years. I never derived earnings but I had the luxury to work in an NGO scenario. To survive, I moonlighted for Mapu’s (Martand Singh) textile projects, during the course of which I became a textile author.


Shimmering golden ground lotus patterned fabric in silk and silver gilt thread in a extended Samite weave. It is akin to the inner layer trouser fabric worn by a royal patron from the 1660s.

Why is the human eye so irresistibly attracted to gold and silver? Besides the markers of status and prestige associated with silks and gilt woven brocades? 

Let’s not even go into the significance of light. But there is a reason why it is called Pra-Kashi. Prakash as in light, Kashi as in the City of Light.

Silk, silver and gold are highly reflective. They are basically a metaphor for light. In fact, I think these precious materials have been valued for these reasons not just as stores of wealth. They have occult power, sacred connotations. Light being embedded or reflected gives it some kind of sanctity and this has been true throughout human civilisation. Just like water. If one were to say that these textiles are valuable because of gold and silver, it would be belittling them.

So it is not for me to sell these in DLF Mall whatever luxury may be there. This is not that kind of an object. Yes, it can be used for public propaganda but it is not available in a public context.

Reviews of the Pra-Kashi exhibition elaborate textile details like Samite brocades, Taquete-Samite, Lampas, Voided Velvet and such. How important it is for a viewer to comprehend these technicalities to appreciate the display? 

This exhibition is primarily a sensory exhibition. You have to go, engage with the textiles, engage with the light. The idea was not to present a set of fabrics. But to present an idea and an emotion. These fabrics exist as an interface between fabric and metal. Like water. They have been lit in a particular way which was not possible in historical interiors. I remember Mapu telling me, that one of the reasons glitter especially tinsel has been associated with Muslim community is because of the impression you had to make from a distance. He had once gone to meet the Begum of Rampur but could only see her through the chik (blinds). All he saw were glints of gold through the chik. The great distance from which you had to view an Imperial ruler, gold or glitter was used make an impression.

So to call Pra-Kashi a “textile exhibition” is missing the point.


Silk, cotton and silver thread shawls: end-panels and borders of silk silver thread twill tissue brocade with silk.

Yet it is an engineering marvel. 

Yes, even if I say so myself. The process is also magical as these textiles are all woven upside down. You don’t see it for three months and then it all comes out. I know both spinning and weaving, but what dropped me into this hole was learning this act of weaving. It blew me away. Also don’t forget that the drawloom is the world’s first major pre-industrial tool.  It is the most complex, sophisticated, mechanism.

So how does the fabric get woven?

You weave a centimetre a day. Or half an inch. Three men work on one drawloom each does a different task. The most interesting part is that the back story of weaving silk on a drawloom covers the entire globe from China to Spain. That’s why it is the most cosmopolitan of all arts from India. Because it is not from India. Drawloom weaving possibly started with wool but silks are the most valuable textiles of the Old World. It includes West Asia, Central Asia and China before going on to Europe and Africa. India is an Outlier. The Old Silk Route is one of the world’s greatest stories. Nobody can claim it. I love that part about it. It belongs to every culture. What people are seeing here is a series of transitions. Tradition links it to Central Asia, but the process parallels are in Iran, then there is the influence from China or Italy. I find it very contemporary.

You say that the Asha Workshop does not weave with an aim for profit. So what is the aim? 

I can only compare it to some kind of sadhana—penance. In khadi spinning for instance, people don’t use their eyes. There are all the five senses put together but there is a sixth that is bigger. I don’t know what it is. Today when we talk about crafts we only talk about industry. I am not saying it is good or bad. I am only saying we have to distinguish between the states of making.

Pra-Kashi will be on display at the National Museum, New Delhi till October 8. Mondays closed.

Banner: Shikargah textiles on display at the Pra-Kashi exhibition highlight several species of birds and animals from India’s endangered wildlife.  

Photos: Madhav Mathur