Last Thursday, March 3rd, and just before the official book launch that afternoon of Gillian's Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World in the Petrie Museum in London, we went to see a special exhibition in the British Museum about a particular type of figured woven textile from northeastern India. The main exhibit is a truly enormous piece of material of some nine metres long and more than two metres wide. It is made up of twelve strips that are sewn together and are topped with three bands of Chinese damask and one band of Chinese brocade. The panels are made of silk and ornamented with the most wonderful illustrations, captions and texts, woven into the material. They date back to the late seventeenth century and derive from Assam in northeastern India. The panels were originally used and exhibited independently. but in later years were taken to Tibet, and eventually transported to Britain. This happened in the early 20th century after the march upon Lhasa by Francis Younghusband (1904-1905), which was organised in order to counter the perceived spread of Russian influence in the region. Perceval Landon was the war correspondent of The Times during the expedition. He apparently got hold of the nine metres long piece of material and had it sent and eventually donated to the British Museum. The same man, some years previously and during the Boer War, proudly posed for a photograph in South Africa together with the author and Nobel-Prize winner Rudyard Kipling !
The panels illlustrate the life of Krishna, one of the most popular deities of India and an incarnation of one of the main gods, Vishnu. The type of the illustrated panels is generally called Vrindavani Vastra, or the cloth of Vrindavan, named after the region in northern India where Krishna is thought to have grown up. The panels show various scenes from the life of the young Krishna. As a true Hercules, he defeated a whole series of demons, including a crocodile, a multi-headed serpent (Kaliya) and an ill-tempered crane. But there are also representations of the naughty Krishna dancing with young shepherdesses (the gopis) and hiding their clothes in a tree. Many of these episodes from Krishna's life are still being enacted all over northern India, at places where Krishna is especially venerated. This happens during the Ras Lila festival in late October / early November. It is actually very well possible that the panels of the exhibited Vrindavani Vastra were shown at this festival in Assam. But there are also representations of the other incarnations (avataras) of Vishnu, such as Rama, the hero from the famous epic of the Ramayana; the turtle who carries the world on his shell; the fish (matsya) that saved the first human meaning (Manu) in a true Noah-like fashion, and others.
The exhibition also includes a beautiful eighteenth century coat from India, on loan from the Chepstow Museum in southeastern Wales. The coat is lined with a Vrindavani Vastra. It also shows scenes from Krishna's life, including his playing with the gopis.
The exhibition in the British Museum can be visited until 15 August. The exhibition is curatored by Richard Blurton, senior curator of the South Asia Collections of the BM, whom, it so happens, I first met, many years ago, at the British excavations of the old town of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Richard also wrote a small booklet to accompany this wonderful exhibition.
Willem Vogelsang, 5 March 2016