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A hand woven silk cloth from Assam called Vrindavani Vastra that dates back to the late 17th century will be the centrepiece of an exhibition in Britain which explores the impressive cultural history of the northeastern state for the first time.
This is also for the first time that the over 9m long piece of cloth, produced by the almost-lost lampas technique of weaving, will be on display in its entirety.
The exhibition at the British Museum in London is titled "Krishna in the Garden of Assam: The Cultural Context of an Indian textile" and will be held from January 21 to August 15.
In the late medieval period, Assam was the centre of a vibrant culture of devotion to the Lord Krishna, a movement that was founded by the Vaishnavite saint Srimanta Sankaradeva and which continues to this day.
A striking element of this devotional cult is the re-enactment of scenes from the Life of Krishna, all over Assam but especially in the island of Majuli in the Brahmaputra river during the Raax festival.
These Krishna narratives were recorded not only in music, drama and dance, but also in woven textile imagery. This is the first exhibition in Britain to explore the impressive cultural history of Assam through objects.
The Vrindavani Vastra is one of the most important Indian textiles in the museum's collection and is dated to about 1680.
Assam has been renowned for many centuries as a centre for weaving both silk and cotton. The lampas technique of weaving was used to produce the Vrindavani Vastra and this example would have been woven on a wooden draw-loom using two sets of warp and two sets of weft threads.
The lampas technique is now lost in India but produced
vibrant and highly sophisticated figured textiles between the 16th and 18th centuries.
This textile is associated with the cult of Lord Krishna. It is today made up of 12 strips of woven silk, each one being figured with depictions of the incarnations of Vishnu and with captioned scenes from the life of Krishna. These scenes are recorded in the 10th century text, the Bhagawad Purana, and elaborated in the dramas written by Sankaradeva.
"The 12 individual strips were perhaps used to wrap copies of the Bhagawad Purana and decorate the altar used for venerating this text. The episodes depicted include the defeat of the snake-demon Kaliya, the battle with the crane-demon Bakasura, swallowing the forest-fire, and hiding the gopis' clothes in the trees. The dramas of Sankaradeva are still performed today, especially at the festival of Raax on the island of Majuli," a statement from the museum says.
The later history of these 12 strips of cloth is fascinating. They were taken to Tibet, stitched together to make a massive hanging and then, years later, were discovered in the monastery at Gobshi near Gyantse in southern Tibet during the Younghusband Expedition.
Contemporary commissions from Majuli (dance masks) and from the artists group, Desire Machine Collective, will also be on display.
The work by DMC, funded by the Gujral Foundation, is a video artwork, a response of the Collective to the Vrindavani Vastra. The dance masks are of the type used in performances at the annual Raax festival. Their acquisition has been funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation.
A 3 minute film, shot at the 2014 Raax festival introduces the exhibition.
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