Sutr Santati: India Now Through Textiles

Sutr Santati: India Now Through Textiles

An ongoing exhibition at Delhi’s National Museum speaks for nationalism, collaborative energies, natural materials and the unrelenting grip of gold on Indian textiles 

Of the many ways in which textiles speak to a viewer, one is sentiment. A relationship of meaning between thread and mankind is formed long before we are aesthetically or academically aware. The hands of those who make textiles either as ordinary cloth for domestic use or as fine pieces created by master weavers, spinners and designers are part of our lives. Acts of weaving, spinning or embroidering, their patterns, motifs, colours and textures directly link to our identity—they reveal our matrbhumi (motherland). And if you were to probe deeper, they disclose secret histories of colours, what deities, animals and mythical beings mean in folk tales. Complex histories too. Like Khadi as the fabric of India’s complex march to freedom.


The ‘Sutr Santati’ exhibition ongoing at National Museum, Delhi.

Sutr Santati (continuation of yarn): Then, Now, Next, an ongoing exhibition that commemorates 75 Years of Independent India, at Delhi’s National Museum, curated by Lavina Baldota of the Abheraj Baldota Foundation speaks in multiple tongues. To a person “in love with textiles”, it offers harmony, solace and information, the immense possibilities of craft in cloth. However, to a consciously de-centred observer, Sutr Santati, a curation of about 100 textiles with each created by several collaborative hands and artisanal minds unpacks crafts consciousness in India. Their re-energisation, de-colonisation, how commercial design and purist interpretations collide and co-exist. And the ever-expanding collaborative networks between students of art, craft and weaving, NGOs, mastercraftspeople, fashion designers, curators and scholars.

“Among my mandates, one was the expression of nationalism or patriotism and how we relate to 75 years of India’s Independence. The other was a contemporary interpretation of traditional textiles. And finally the importance of circular economy through the use of natural yarn, eco-friendly colours and ways of creating,” says Baldota. She is attired in a purple and steel Ilkal sari with a khand blouse and is busy with walk-throughs which she has been conducting with other textile experts for viewers and students visiting the National Museum.


Lavina Baldota photographed at the exhibition.

It is a coincidence then, that a grey-silver-ivory Ilkal shawl in mulberry silk with additional weft counts in cotton and woven in tapestry technique and azo- free dyes, with a vermillion red horizontal line on it is among the outstanding pieces of this exhibition. Designed by Ramesh Ayodi, it is from Baldota’s private collection.

Yarning India’s Length and Breadth

At first glance, Sutr Santati embraces the viewer with a dozen juxtapositions of tradition and modernity—the most obvious statement of anything related to textiles in the India of 2022. Kanjeevaram with the Gendaberunda and Yali motifs by Vimor Foundation of Bengaluru. Another with 114 motifs of the weaving style by Balram Krishnamurthy of Kanchipuram. There is a stunning diaphanous Jamdani from Varanasi designed by Swati and Sunaina. A wall panel with handspun Himalayan wool by Kullvi Whims of Himachal. Kora cotton wall hangings created by Jason Cheriyan of Karnataka. A Kotpad shawl from Tarini Handlooms of Odisha. A Ramavali woven in Baluchari tradition by Darshan Shah’s Weavers Studio in Kolkata. Stak Tiger is a meditation rug made by Jigmat Couture in Ladakh. Handwoven in lamb, camel and yak wool, it is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s penchant for prayer and meditation.


To a reader sitting far away and trying to make sense through photographs taken in the muted lights of the exhibition, these descriptions could sound confusing and overwhelming.

However, there are other ways to describe Sutr Santati. There is a hand-painted Kalamkari from Andhra Pradesh as well as a Mata ni Pachedi (an old art of cloth painting with images of goddesses) from Gujarat. A Kodalikarrupur piece from Tamil Nadu. Ikats of various traditions from Odisha to Saurashtra to Telia Rumaal. Many representations from Varanasi—Gyasar brocades to silk, jute, cotton, peacock feather and zari for textile by Smita Morarka titled ‘Purnamidam’.

Embroideries range from Nakshi Kantha to Chamba Rumal, mochi kaam (embroidery done by leather makers of Kutch) to abhla bharat (mirrorwork) of Gujarat, Chikankari of Lucknow to aari stitch. Wall panels, dupattas, shawls, art pieces, a couple of fabric installations, dorukhas (double-sided shawls) and saris populate this exhibition. The techniques of rendering the vast repertoire of themes from the current idea of India to karma and dharma in mythology include tie-dye, hand-block printing, and painting, several versions of extra weft weaving, dyeing, hand-knotting and hand-spinning.


(Right) A Mata ni Pachedi from Gujarat.

On the one hand is an engrossing glossary of materials—from natural and azo-free dyes to Kala cotton, Kora, natural silk floss for embroidery, tussar, zari, thikri (natural, hand-blown mirrors), Muga and Eri silk, pashmina to golden and silver leaf, fabrics as diverse as Chanderi and Mashru. On the other are nationalistic symbols like the interpretations of the Charkha, of ‘Bapu’ (Mahatma Gandhi’s image, footsteps, teachings and philosophies), the Indian tricolour, dedications to Rabindranath Tagore and his poetry, cultural ideas, rural lives, several stages of Ajrakh dyeing, the co-existence of animals, flora and fauna. A white sculptural Khadi panel by Vastrakala Studio, Chennai, with knotted rope and couching stands out in its pristine, imposing presence. Amongst the ‘quietest’ pieces is designer Ilamon Banrisa Thangkhiew’s wall panel dedicated to the Meghalayan community Hynniewskum Hynniewtrep.

Gilt Trip

Quiet or understated is not, however, a recurring leitmotif at Sutr Santati. What is on view abounds with gold zari instances, reflecting almost the presiding statements made across fashion and textiles in the commercial market which is overwritten by bridal couture. Gold, metallic zaris and multi-coloured threads and dyes dominate the broad vision here. These elements persist in weaving, embellishment as well as embroidery. From the chikankari and mukaish piece by designer Manish Malhotra for Mijwan Foundation to ‘Sone Ki Chidiya’ (golden bird and literally so), a dupatta by Pragati Mathur that uses gold zari, copper wire to the Kasavu Mundu veshti by Lakshmi Madhavan, gilt is persistent. Dastkari Haat Samiti’s artwork is Mahatma Gandhi interpreted in Venkatgiri Jamdani using gold zari and Kora cotton. Telangana designer Vinay Narkar’s ‘Chandravali’, a Gadwal piece created by weaver B Venkatesh, is a spectacular textile narrating a story in gold zari. As is the Baroda Shalu: A Royal Resurrection in handwoven cotton and zari in Varanasi belonging to private collector Radhika Raje. “The dominant use of gold that you notice, is, I feel a part of a larger contemporary Indian aesthetic. Zari is accessible to a wider demographic now than earlier, and in this respect, this exhibition is a good representation of handmade textiles being made for fashion in the country today,” explains Mayank Mansingh Kaul, textile curator and writer who is a special adviser to Sutr Santati. “This is further reflected in the primary use of figurative designs and a multi-coloured palette,” he adds.


The exhibition is wide in narration. It is tied together not by an aesthetic singularity but by interpretative width. Baldota’s mandate of ‘interpreting India’ and letting the artisan or designer explore freely explains the diversity. “There was no better way to use the two years of COVID-19,” she says about her timeline. But more than that it was her intervention to connect with designers and artisans pan-India who worked with traditional techniques in contemporary art forms. She helped various artisans source natural materials, bringing dozens of collaborative networks and individuals together, including creators who don’t work with textiles as their preferred artistic expression.

Energising Collaborations

Collaborations are the spine of this exposition. They are the ‘next’ that Sutr Santati points to, as does its student section of contributing artists. Every piece lists a multiplicity of talents and hands. An artisan with a studio, an organisation and NGO collaborating with a fashion designer, a master craftsperson with a textile artist or the team behind them. To cite two instances, “Sambandh” a wall panel created with hand-reeled tussar interprets the Bavan Butti technique of Bihar. It has been designed by Amit Vijaya and Richard Pandav of Amrich Designs and supervised by Veena Upadhyaya of Srijani organisation. Whereas “Awakening” is a shawl designed by couturier Gaurav Gupta in pashmina, silk, zari and natural dyes and created by Wasim Ahmed, Imtiyaz, Farooq, Mushtaq, Shahid, Sahil and Umar Narayan Baig of Kashmir.

Sutr Santati thus exposes a labyrinth of craft and textile talents. Through its criss-crossing of disciplines, it also spotlights the artisanal expanse of this country. These are living textiles not dying traditions as is often claimed. This is the most energising takeaway.


Sutr Santati exposes a labyrinth of craft and textile talents. Through its criss-crossing of disciplines, it also spotlights the artisanal expanse of this country.

“We started working with Srijani Foundation in Patna through Tata Trusts in 2018,” says Amit Viyaja. Amrich’s Bavan Butti started with saris and textiles that they named Bun-Kar which means to weave (bun) and to earn (kar). Success led them to this interpretation. “It uses hand-spun khadi and tussar with extra weft weaving. The jaali (net) you see in ‘Sambandh’ is not a window but a network of people coming together because this piece links artisans in Gujarat, UP, Bihar and Delhi,” says Vijaya.

If you are wondering about the many layers of meaning each work boasts of, like peeling layers off an onion, listen to Gunjan Jain, founder of Vriksh Designs, and a well-known name in Ikat weaving. Jain has two pieces at this exhibition. One among them, the ‘Navagunjara’ is exceptional. A wall panel in handwoven, handspun tussar silk, it celebrates ancient tapestry motifs and jaala weaving with mythical animals like Gajasingha, Jodi Hansa and Garuda. The border of the textile is in Cha Phulia weave with six lines of floating turtles and flowers. Jain says that bringing this to Sutr Santati had multiple meanings for her. “With the theme being Gandhi and 75 years of India, I found Odisha very relevant as it has a decentralised system of production as well as hand-spinning and hand-weaving that is close to Gandhi’s ideals. The motifs celebrate sea life and the maritime culture of the state,” she adds. The piece took six months to design, imagine and commission and two months to weave.

These conversations reveal how Sutr Santati has used the platform like a knife that slices deep and vertically through several layers of a cake from the top to the bottom instead of just cutting out a horizontal slice.


(Right) A phulkari work of art by Gunvinder Kaur Gurdev.

For textile students like Gunvinder Kaur Gundev, currently finishing a doctorate at MS University Baroda, who made the Phulkari panel ‘Rukh: Tree of Life’, Sutr Santati helped revive what she had heard her grandfather, a Partition survivor speak about the purity of Phulkari. “The current market makes a caricature out of Phulkari. I have tried to bring back the essence, by choosing a pure khaddar piece and the colour palette of Bagh. The textile is dyed in azo- free dyes but the silk floss is all natural untwisted yarn in mulberry silk,” says Gundev.

Stories within stories. Artisans, weavers and designers holding hands in a cosmic circular dance, creating chains of relevance and future potential. Continuity (santati) thy other name is collaboration.


‘Sutr Santati’ can be viewed at the National Museum, New Delhi, until September 20 except on Mondays. It will also be available soon in a virtual format. Its catalogue is in the making. 

Banner: Exhibits at ‘Sutr Santati’ with ‘Navagunjara’ the textile wall art by Gunjan Jain  mounted in the centre.