A Sense of Five Directions | Craft Museum| Curated by Devi Art Foundation and Rta Kapur Chisti

We visited the Exhibit 'A search in five directions' : (Textiles from the Vishwakarma Exhibitions) in honour of Padma Bhushan Late Shri. Martand Singh was presented by National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum in collaboration with Devi Art Foundation. Curated by Rakesh Thakore, Rta Kapur Chishti and Rahul Jain. The museum along with the Weavers Service Centre, Delhi have preserved many of these exquisite textiles, in excellent condition over 35 years. Here is a curation of Quotes by Martand Singh on each piece of the exhibit.

"The fact was that everyone was searching for new designs as they are now. At that time, there was an apathetic quality to the weaving, because the Indian urban market hadn’t evolved as it has today, with a lot more money. So, everybody was in search of a new idea, everybody wanted to do something new. But they knew that the ‘new’ had to be an interpretation of the ‘old'. "
-Martand Singh on the Jali-patterned tissue panel

“In the Weavers Service Centre, Hyderabad, Kailasam hand-painted the nachu. The best nachu I’ve ever seen was a shawl from Chanderi with a machh-ki-suiyan/fish-scale pattern in gold that was hand painted with a nachu. I’m now not sure whether originally, the nachu wasn’t a free-hand, dye-painted device. Because the block-printed version only works if the block edge doesn’t show….where it’s seamless….when I found that cotton and silk shrink at different rates, we created what I felt was one of the finest pieces in the exhibition: a crinkled silk-by- cotton Chanderi panel with a free hand nachu dye-painted by Kailasam.”
- Martand Singh on the crinkled Chanderi panel

“If you ask me, the only jamdani that makes sense is the one from Tanda, in Awadh, which has white patterning on a white muslin ground. It doesn’t have to do with the fabric itself…rather, it has to do with the light passing through the cloth; the sense of transparency of the fabric in relation to the opacity of the patterns….”

– Martand Singh

“For the single color double ikat patolas in black and in red, we introduced gold in the pallu/end- piece at first, and then in the border as well….Salvi had never used zari before but once he got over the initial hesitation, it opened up a whole new area for him, as well as another market at the upper end…. he increased his number of looms and his success led to the production of single ikat versions in other nearby towns such as Rajkot and Baroda. But the patola double ikat remains unique, not only because of its perfection but also in its ability to interpret that perfect geometry, the use of color and the subtle change of scale…..”
- Martand Singh on the double irate patola sarees

“I got designs from the Salarjung Museum where I had seen the only pomegranate pattern in India. I think it was Pupul Jayakar who had suggested putting the fine checkerboard pattern into the curvilinear ikat patterns, set in a geometric square grid in the telia rumal. The moment Mr. Reddiya put in a check, the motifs came alive and I realized the dynamic quality of that check.” 
-Martand Singh

“The problem was, the colors would come out different to what was intended, depending on environmental conditions. The dye chemistry was an arduous process of learning through experimentation. I wanted to remove the strong black outline and replace it with a red line, the process took six years. It meant the painter had to work with a transparent mordant, which would only show after the cloth was processed. There were many shortcomings in a number of tree-of-life pieces and I think the most successful one is the one with the blue bamboos.” 
– Martand Singh on The tree-of-life

"The Paithani is really exceptional as a cloth, rich yet restrained…and it is very difficult to weave. It had lost its energy as compared to Kanchipuram where the production growth was phenomenal and anything was possible. In Paithan, nothing seemed possible. I had to bring the weaver back to the Weavers Service Centre for two years…..you must remember, we covered the whole range from the five-hundred-rupee cotton Paithani sari to the two-three thousand range and beyond, which was the weavers’ bread and butter….and then the museum-quality pieces…..”
- Martand Singh on The Paithani panel

“I recall seeing a chanvar /fly whisk being thrown out of a temple in Varanasi, and a woman picking it up….so I went to Haji Sahib of Peeli Kothi and asked him what she would do with it. He told me she would probably take off the feathers, knot them together into yarn and embroider with it. I asked to see an example of this and they showed me a piece where the heart of a flower was embroidered with peacock feathers. So I asked if they could weave with the peacock feather yarnas well. They explained the difficulty of knotting at every two inches, but they finally agreed to try. They wove two lengths of twelve metres each, one with a yellow ground and another with a blue ground….the blue ground works while the yellow ground doesn’t.….”
- Martand Singh

“I could say by looking at a fabric if it had the weight I needed…..and Jadunath Supakar was there to interpret pattern layouts in terms of fabric structure. There were specific elements that the exhibitions brought back into active production….elements that had been eliminated in the production process for reasons of cost etc.…such as karhwan brocading as seen in this piece, konia motifs, the use of patbana/twistless silk in the weft, etc.”
-Martand Singh on the Varanasi Brocade

“I remember going to Sanganer to see whether I could find anything finely block-printed…..but I found nothing. There was a static quality in Sanganer blocks as compared to, for instance, the blocks of Machilipatnam, which were more fluid because of the local method of chiseling the blocks. The largest number of Sanganer prints I’d ever seen were at the Jaipur City Palace Museum. In those cloths, there were only one or two colors…they also achieved a pure white base, which was striking. I saw Mattiebelle Gittinger’s book, ‘Master Dyers to the World’, that had a beautiful directory of prints. I thought it an interesting idea to do a similar directory again…”
-Martand Singh on the Sanganer Print Directory

When I looked at his gyasar samples, I decided to remove the contextual symbols such as the Vajra medallion and the calligraphic elements…. I was left with the most interesting heraldic pattern called rusnata and the flame of fire. The patterns were transformed….with actual drawings. After that we did shawls in gyasar, which were very successful...”
-Martand Singh

“.. in the perfect geometrical piece, when you hold it up at a distance, a certain element of the design is seen as perfectly symmetrical, and if you move closer, a different part of the design becomes perfectly symmetrical. That is what makes the patola so optically effective..”

– Martand Singh on the patola panel

This successful introduction in the gyasar fabrics of Varanasi was fine-scale geometric patterns in gold and silver…..what sparked my interest, really, were basket weaves….”

– Martand Singh

In the Visvakarma Rasa, the idea was to put together the directory of all the patterns known in Kanchipuram, and other centres, and publish it as a black and white volume, that could serve as an ideal reference resource for woven design.”

– Martand Singh. 

I’d go to each weaver’s house to see what he was doing, and correct it along the way…..”

– Martand Singh. 

If I were to ask ‘Can you think of a wholly contemporary textile?’ it would be difficult because you’re constrained by a vast inherited repertoire of design…which was why, in Visvakarma Rasa, I created directories of design from each textile area.”

– Martand Singh.

“We started in Kanchipuram by trying to highlight its innate strengths. We looked at every possible resource that could provide a direction…. In Chennai, Nalli Chittaswami’s and Rasi Silk’s collection of old samples; several exquisite borders of saris and dhotis/men’s lower garments with the extraordinary play of colour…..What fascinated me in Kanchipuram was the sheer weight of the three-ply silk body and four-ply borders. In the Visvakarma Rasa, the idea was to put together the directory of all the patterns known in Kanchipuram, and other centres, and publish it as a black and white volume, that could serve as an ideal reference resource for woven design. The true Kanchipuram colour range is very small. It’s essentially arak/vermilion red, manjal/turmeric yellow and black…..therefore, the directories of all the woven patterns were developed only in these colours….”
- Martand Singh

“The nachu, a fine red reticulation in the pattern background, is the most beautiful element of the painted-printed cloths of Machhlipatnam. All else appears really incidental. Once I’d done the six nachu patterns, nothing else held any interest for me…. There are so many misnomers as well which have never been corrected. When I started out in search of the Kodalikaruppur sari, I found that, in Hendley’s book, there is first a mention of Kodalikaruppur, then only Karuppur is mentioned. But there are six different places named Karuppur, and the word is used as a suffix for many place names. There was one Karuppur where they used to weave Venkatagiri saris but the dye painting had totally disappeared…. Let me tell you that in the true Karuppur technique if you have the right cloth and you choose a pattern that’s appropriate, you can do anything.”

-Martand Singh

“I took cues about patola design and the fabric structure from Alfred Buhler’s seminal book and the collection of The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmadabad...and those became my starting point. I think that in the patola exported to Indonesia, the pattern repeats were perfectly square, whereas in those that were used within India, they were rectangular…… There was a small contemporary production by the Salvi family in Patan, but there was an excess of color and animal motifs. Yet, it was the most amazing and accurate system of patterning…very optical...compared to animal and human motifs, where slight miscalculations can be seen even in historical examples. Whereas, in the perfect geometrical piece, when you hold it up at a distance, a certain element of the design is seen as perfectly symmetrical, and if you move closer, a different part of the design becomes perfectly symmetrical. That is what makes the patola so optically effective…..”
-Martand Singh

“The area of traditional design reference was so vast that you were always borrowing from it . Even today, the problem is that we are still walking backwards into the future.”
-Martand Singh on the Screen-printed panel with birds by Adimoolam, Mani Rao ,V.Goutham.1991

“There are an infinite number of whites…..
White of the jasmine flower,
White of the sea foam,
White of the august moon,
White of the conch shell,
White of the clouds emptied of rain….”

Martand Singh on the AVADH JAMDANI SARI, Created by Weavers Service Centre, Varanasi 1981


The Visvakarma exhibitions covered a very wide range of India’s traditional textile techniques including pigment-painting, dye-painting, resist-dyeing, printing and weaving from centres across the country. The hand-crafted textiles that are displayed in the exhibition ‘A Search in Five Directions’ have been drawn from the Visvakarma series inspired and initiated by Martand Singh during the 1980s. This Visvakarma series is now housed in the care of the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum , Delhi.In Martand Singh’s vision each of the Visvakarma exhibitions, attempted to explore the contemporary relevance of the inherited skills and products of India’s textile craftspeople.Gallery One showcases textiles that were intended to project a strong classical/traditional sensibility but, at the same, suggest something more. They took a certain sense of excellence, texture, colour and pattern from the museum quality historical reference and brought it into a wider public domain in order to assert what could be achieved in our time.The textiles selected for Gallery Two are those that attempt to create a future for India’s textile arts that had greatly declined in quality and competitiveness. The exhibits reflect contemporary explorations both in technique and aesthetics.

About the Curators

This exhibition has been curated by Rakesh Thakore and Rta Kapur Chishti who worked with Martand Singh to design and produce all the Visvakarma exhibitions, alongwith Rahul Jain presently Director of the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad, who worked on several projects with Martand Singh in the last two decades.

All words provided by: DEVI ART FOUNDATION