Fabrics Reveal Stories of the Past

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With white walls and vividly manifesting shades of pink, hypnotic and soothing patterns of blue and yellow, and red and white lotuses, “A Treasury of Indian Folk Textiles” gathers a large collection of lush fabrics made by peasant women in bygone eras.

The Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery at Cowell College is displaying its newest exhibition, curated by Summers, until March 16.

“It’s hard to describe the beauty of these pieces when you’re not exposed to this kind of art style,” said second-year Armand Avanian. “The textiles are different than the artworks we normally see today in museums. You can tell these pieces have more meaning and significance than what’s actually designed into them. It’s crazy to know these pieces were made by peasant women.”

The exhibit includes a selection of 18 art pieces all from different places in India. These pieces vary from uniquely designed rumals — bandanas worn by Sikh men — to more complex textiles such as a 19th century temple door hanging and a 20th century Tibetan dress.

“My favorite piece in the show is the Kantha [type of embroidery],” curator Joan Blackmer said. “It was made of recycled white dhotis [men’s sarongs] and women’s saris that were cut, layered and quilted with highly detailed stitching. It is embroidered with the design of a lotus flower and shapes resembling drops of water. It was used as a quilt or cushion.”

Almost every textile piece in the gallery paints a vivid and colorful scene. Attendees can appreciate one of the fascinating art pieces — embroidered coverlets, or a decorative art topper. The piece shows the Rasa Lila, a scene from the traditional story of Krishna, in which Krishna along with his consort Radha dance while encircled by other dancers. From its complicated floral patterns to the colorful dresses of the people, the magnitude of work and detail put into the textile is visible.

“There’s a bedspread piece which had been wet at one period of its time and some of the colors have run. I find that piece very striking,” Summers said.  “It’s my favorite piece out of the 200 to 300 pieces I’ve collected. It’s a lively composition because it shows scenes of everyday life, like women churning.”

Summers first traveled to India in 1974 to teach woodcutting at universities and art schools under the auspices of the United States Information Service. As an artist, Summers always looked for galleries. During this search, he was introduced to folk art.

“I was very in touch with the textile art,” Summers  said. “I did weaving myself at one period of my life and was very impressed with the artistic quality. The pieces themselves are fascinating and there’s a good deal of variation in aesthetic value, so I pick out very beautiful pieces.”

Another colorfully complicated textile is a 19th century cotton embroidered applique found in Gujarat, a state on the Northwest coast of India. At a size of 72 inches by 180 inches, this applique features elephants in traditional garb and various figures with horses bordering its sides. Squares, diamond shapes and complex patterns also fill much of the textile’s space.

“I hope this exhibit inspires our community to think about how different cultures throughout history passed down visual imagery based on ideas from religion, mythology and activities of daily life,” Blackmer said. “The Indian women creating these textiles created each object to have a purpose and did so with great care and dedication. Their act of creating something beautiful enriched their lives, as well as the lives and ideas of future generations.”