Mhairi Muncaster, Retail and Commercial Development Manager at the William Morris Gallery in London travelled to India on a WIRP Travel Grant in November 2016. This is the report from her visit.
The focus of the trip was to meet people working with textiles today and document their personal stories and the context in which they are working. We are primarily interested in block printers and natural dyers (the two techniques that William Morris perfected) but also potentially block carvers and contemporary makers who are responding to historic textiles.
As well as meeting contemporary makers, institutions such as the Anokhi Museum of Hand Block Printing, City Palace Jaipur (which has a collection of historic textiles), The Calico Museum, and the Shreyas Museum of Folk Art give a deeper understanding of the roots of contemporary textile traditions. Through the contacts made the intention was to develop our handling collection of textiles, woodblocks and tools. Unfortunately, due to the currency crisis, although some collecting was done it was not possible to buy from grass-roots artisans because they all traded in cash.
Our intention is to create a community engagement project as a result of this trip that engages the Indian diaspora in Waltham Forest with the Gallery’s textile collection and Indian textiles. A brief will be written for this project, which will then be commissioned out by the Cultural Programme Team so that it has reach across the borough and to access additional funding.
Beginning my trip by visiting the Anokhi Museum of Hand Block Printing proved to be an excellent foundation on which to discover more about the small rural communities that work around Jaipur still producing textiles using traditional techniques. I met with the museum manager who explained how Anokhi work, producing traditional textiles and working with hand blocking, then selling these textiles as fashion or home wares in India but also internationally. He identified two villages to visit, Bagru and Sangneer. I was then able to hire a driver and make the trips to these rural communities with a good understanding of the history of their crafts and also the way in which it’s distributed.
Unfortunately I arrived during the currency crisis in India when 80% of the currency was withdrawn from circulation. This meant that I had no other way of paying for goods than a credit card and was unable to buy samples from the rural communities that I visited. I did however take a wealth of photographs, made contacts, spoke to artisans and saw them at work.
In Ahmendabad I met with Lokesh Ghai who is an academic and textile researcher. Lokesh generously spent two days with me introducing me to the following:
- A community of Muslim artisans, hand-block printing for national markets and natural dying.
- A community of wooden block carvers.
- A weaving studio.
- An artist working with an ancient technique, producing painted temple clothes.
I benefited greatly from having Lokesh with me, he was able to translate so that I could glean more information, but also access traditional artists who would have been unwilling to meet with me without his introduction.
There is absolutely no substitute to gaining first-hand experience of another culture and I feel genuinely privileged to have been able to do this. I have a background in historic textile research and I cannot stress enough how moved and amazed I was to see some of these beautiful traditional crafts being practised in their rural communities.
I visited a number of rural communities who have been practising the same textile traditions in the same conditions for hundreds of years, and I was able to gain an in-depth understanding of their experiences through interviews and observations. I have been able to better understand the pressures that modern methods of production have put on the rural communities and talk to artisan makers about the ways that their practice has suffered or flourished because of these conditions.
Being able to meet with artists and textile practitioners has given me fantastic contacts in India, and I will now work with the Cultural Programme Team within Waltham Forest Council on a project that will use some of the traditional techniques that I experienced, in the gallery setting, in order to engage the Indian diaspora living around the gallery. Having a member of staff who has experienced these traditions will help to engage the communities and inform our projects.
Here are my tips for working internationally in India:
- Withdraw cash before going to India because cash points can be unreliable.
- It can feel quite isolating so where possible make contact with museum professionals before leaving the UK so that relationships are established before the visit.
- Museum staff in smaller organisations were really happy to spend a lot of time with me. I found that an un-planned visited to the Shreyas Museum was particularly beneficial and the curator spent an hour with me talking through the museum’s displays.
- Drivers will often try and take you to places they earn commission from – this happened to me. It’s really important to be firm and clear about the places that you want to visit. They will also try and arrange un-official guided tours of the museum’s you are visiting. Again, be very firm that you do not require this.
- Be prepared for museum professionals to be late meeting you.
- Try and see organisations in rural communities as this was such a vital culturally different experience for me.
- Do not try to cram in too many experiences – India can be such an overwhelming country!
“William Morris was inspired by Indian textiles, and for this reason it makes sense for the Gallery to develop deeper connections with Indian makers and understand their textile traditions. Mhairi has come back from Indian with fantastic contacts for the gallery, a wealth of information and imagery, and has begun to disseminate this to the wider staff team. All of this will enable us to link to our local community and help us to foster stronger relationships in the future. The travel grant scheme is invaluable to smaller museums who may be unable to fund travel in other ways.”
Carien Kremer, Senior Curator and Acting Museum, Library and Archive Manager, William Morris Gallery