MUSEUM OR DEPARTMENT STORE? – INDIA SEASON AT THE V&A
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London (V&A) has nearly completed its transformation into another Kensington department store to add to Harrods and Harvey Nicks. Through the museum’s magnificent central shopping arcade (once the gallery of Early Medieval Art) visitors will find varied boutiques—indeed, they cannot escape without passing piles of scarves, jewels, clinking trinkets and fake gewgaws which lie in wait beyond the door marked "exit" at the end of every exhibition. With some searching, even books may be purchased, though the scholarly functions of the institution, discreetly continued by its gallant staff, are carefully concealed behind the attractions of commerce.
The museum is now, of course, almost entirely dependent on patronage for mounting exhibitions, which means that it is often at the mercy of individual whim. ‘The Fabric of India’, the central showpiece of the V&A’s current "India season" has supporters from the sub-continent’s fashion industry, which makes a change from the usual Gulf nabobs. Its curator, Rosemary Crill, has a notable academic record, discernible here in the intelligence of the arrangement and catalogue. The sponsors are the bling-fashion jeweller Nirav Modi, the "stylish sustainable luxury" brand Goodearth and Esperion, a pharmaceutical company whose leading product is a cholesterol-lowering drug.
The sponsors have certainly done the worlds of design and commerce a huge service in bringing this exhibition to the public. The V&A has been collecting textiles for over 150 years, some acquired as spoils of war, some through trade, others via the Great Exhibition of 1851. But many of them are seen here for the first time since the 19th century—indeed, there has been no major exhibition anywhere focusing on Indian textiles. On display are loans not only from other British institutions such as Tippoo’s tent-hangings from Clive of india’s Powis Castle, but extraordinarily important works from sources such as the Musée Guimet and the National Museum of India. The history and processes of hand production are carefully outlined in the catalogue and demonstrated in the galleries. The Industrial Revolution in Britain and its impact on India, where the weaving industry collapsed through the inexorable rise of the Lancashire mills, is given full measure in Crill’s history of production.
From hangings on the walls of the V&A, we get glimpses of what Lisa Golombek once called the "draped universe of Islam"—and indeed of Hinduism. Golombek argued that "textiles in Islamic societies fulfilled far more than the functions normally expected of them" in their cladding of walls and floors which now may seem stark and cold. ‘Fabric of India’ demonstrates this was true also of the Hindu world. Huge and brilliant swathes of cloth that once disguised the materiality of architecture have stunning visual effects in the galleries. Here is a vast floor-spread, nearly ten metres by four, and here are long narrative pieces, story-telling on an architectural scale, such as a mid-17th century Coromandel cotton showing court scenes divided into panels and registers, as might have been seen in a wall-painting. The scale and brilliant colours are testimony to a powerful art form which can no longer be relegated to the lesser category of "decorative art."
Of the garments, I am less certain. The show confines itself to hand-made work, which neatly removes it from the moral problems presented by the spectre at the feast, the contemporary garment industry. The earlier pieces have a fascination, but the Emperor Akbar’s pashmina shawl and Indira Gandhi’s wedding sari surely belong to the "golly gosh" of celebrity association to which the V&A has now so firmly tied itself.
Also within that category of personal association, although more dazzling than the garments, belong the exhibits in the V&A’s other major India show, ‘Bejewelled Treasures,’ which is itself a record of the intimacy now prevailing between the museum and the collector. When the Qatari Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah al Thani saw the V&A exhibition ‘Maharaja’ in 2009, he was so taken with the glittering display that he began his own collection of Indian jewels, which now includes some astonishing pieces: a gold tiger’s head finial with the tongue as a huge ruby and necklaces set with diamonds from the fabled mines of Golconda. Once again, the catalogue is by a much-respected scholar and curator, in this case Susan Stronge, whose abilities are wasted on this array of bling and tat. The show is sponsored by the jewellers Wartski and was highly successful at the Metropolitan last year. Enough said.
Does it matter that private funding has sponsored these shows? Surely not, one might say, provided a sponsor has not had a controlling hand in the event. But the sponsors’ roles resonate in the shameless vulgarity of the jewellery and the modish garments displayed in the final gallery of ‘Fabric of India’. We make a seamless transition from the museum display of high-fashion by modern designers to the V&A shop, where we can lay out money to buy ourselves a scrap of the same—a silk scarf for a mere £85, for example. High-fashion clothes, diamond studs: this is the international world of the super-rich, heritage as a ‘design feature’. Art deserves no state support – the private sector will flash its wealth instead. That’s the message of these shows. Gawp and be grateful.
Jane Jakeman is an Islamic art historian formerly on the staff of the Bodleian and Ashmolean libraries.
The Fabric of India, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 10 January 2016
Bejewelled Treasures: The Al-Thani Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 28 March 2016