Since ancient times, the Indian textile industry has been in great demand and its history is one of the oldest in the world. The first known reference is found in the Rig Veda. The Romans apparently gave gold coins in exchange for Indian textiles of the same weight. The textile industry harvested gold and silver, silk and cotton made in India found buyers in ancient Greece, Egypt and the Arab world, and, later, in Europe under the colonial rule. The economy of medieval India reached its peak, and the Indian craftsman, with his masterful skills, caught the attention of European travelers and traders.
The history of Indian textiles overlaps with stories of cultural appropriation and colonialism. India’s liberation movement saw the rebirth of the country’s textile traditions as a crucial political movement. The richness of India’s textile tradition was suppressed under colonial rule, when India was reduced to a mere supplier of raw materials to Britain. The principle of autonomy underlined Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement, to boycott foreign products and reduce poverty by employing the masses in spinning, weaving and wearing the Khadi. Nationalists adopted Khadi as a symbol of resistance and incorporated the spinning wheel into the design of their flag.
the Rashtrapati Bhavan is a custodian of the country’s distinct textile traditions, ranging from zardozi and velvets embroidered with gold in its rugs, bed and table covers, to muslin and fine silk curtains. Its architect Edwin Lutyens wanted to use Khadi as furnishings in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, this being aesthetically appropriate, but it was not allowed. Khadi was seen as a symbol of India’s struggle for independence. The British government probably wanted to convey a sense of imperial grandeur through British fabrics in royal colors, such as gold, dark blue, brown.
And as the styles of Indian chintz and kinkhabs (brocade) and Indian rugs were in vogue among Victorian interiors and fashion, so they were acceptable to adorn the interiors of the Viceroy’s house. the BhavanArchival footage from – which shows the use of heavy velor with a golden braid, flowery rugs, and chintz fabric – indicate how Lutyens had adapted to the demands of royal taste.
The color palette and patterns of the rugs are similar to Mughal, Persian and Kashmiri patterns. Lutyens had imbibed himself with originals from the 16th and 17th centuries and reproduced them. Made with India’s most exquisite textiles, almost all rugs in the Rashtrapati Bhavan are grand, covering the entire floor of the rooms, and almost all have floral designs, giving off a feeling of being in a garden full of blossoming flowers. The one in the Ashoka Hall, for example, measuring 32 x 20m, has a dark red base with trees and flowers in green, blue and white. The cypress trees carved into the carpet are symbols of eternity. A similar rug, from 17th century Persia, exists in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ashoka Hall’s curtains are rusty in color, with trees and animals in gold, matching the murals on the ceiling.
Some of the items designed and selected by Lutyens are still on display and used at Rashtrapati Bhavan, such as zardozi velvets and colonial rugs, showcasing Indian traditions of embroidery and weaving. Zardozi wall hangings and coverings – on walls, beds and floors – are part of the Bhavan textile collection. They also served as a masnad (seat in Persian). Used by Mughal emperors, who sat on these seats when they held court, masnads are made on a wooden frame, over which velvet is stretched on all sides. The embroidery is done using a fine metallic thread with a hook-shaped needle. The relief design gives a three-dimensional look and the technique is known as kalabattu. The embroiderer works the gold thread on a base padded with cotton or paper. Archival footage shows the velvets draped over the steps during the swearing-in ceremony of first President Rajendra Prasad in Durbar Hall. This tradition may have been emulated by British rulers. These velvets are exhibited at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum.
Independence ushered in the process of transforming the Viceroy’s house into Rashtrapati Bhavan, the fabrics now reflected the nationalist ideals of India while the selection of fabrics was made with our traditions in mind. The choices reflect India’s textile heritage. Various ceremonial rooms now adorn Khadi silk weavings, and Banarasi brocades, kinkhabs, Kashmiri rugs, velvets and damask. The revival of traditional Indian textiles was ushered in with the introduction of handicrafts and hand-weaving boards.
The challenges of industrialization arose with the independence of India, increasing industrial production to meet the vast needs of the Indian population. To protect India’s textile heritage, to support and revive ancient textile crafts and hand-weaving techniques, the government established the All India Handloom Board (now dissolved) and established the National Institute of design. Today, many studios produce handmade textiles. Indian craftsmanship is also sought after for its embroidery and handmade beads. The craftsmanship with its quality and diversity of skills, and its ability to innovate designs for varied international tastes have helped Indian craftsmen regain markets. But only a few know how the interiors of Rashtrapati Bhavan have been preserved and preserved the great heritage of Indian textiles with great zeal.
Anjali Bakshi is Co-Director of Rashtrapati Bhavan