Reliving the present

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Unfolding: Contemporary Indian Textiles by Maggie Baxter explores the path-breaking new designs that have helped revive crafts of yore

Alys Francis

Countless books have been written on India’s vibrant traditional textiles and crafts, but what about contemporary textiles? Just as artisan traditions were feared dying, it was these path-breaking new designs that ignited a craft revival and breathed life back into the industry – yet that barely scored them a footnote.

“Everyone’s focused on the history,” West Australian born Maggie Baxter told the Indian Sun.

Baxter set out to right this imbalance through her new book Unfolding: Contemporary Indian Textiles, which was launched at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi in September.

The comprehensive work documents 27 contemporary Indian designers and artists whose work is reinvigorating traditional Indian techniques like bandhni, leheriya and jamdani – giving them a fresh identity to appeal to fashionistas and art lovers of today.

An accomplished artist who majored in sculpture at university, Baxter’s own textile work has been entwined with Indian traditions ever since she first visited the subcontinent in 1990 to set up a business producing bed linen. The business didn’t work out but while she was visiting artisan makers Baxter fell in love with India and its traditional block printing, embroidery and weaving.

Baxter said she recognised there was “a gap in the market” for books on contemporary textiles, but the chance to go out and write one herself came out of the blue. “It wasn’t planned, it just happened,” she said.

As part of her research for the book, Baxter interviewed most of the designers and artists featured. She also travelled across India, visiting West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi. “The book brought me to many places I hadn’t been before,” she said.

Unfolding: Contemporary Indian Textiles takes readers on a similar journey through Indian textiles, from how design generates income for artisans in the villages, to rapidly developing metropolises where change makers are reassessing traditions and techniques. It chronicles new Indian design philosophies that are pushing the boundaries of minimalism, surface decoration, textures, and narratives with mythological and religious symbols.

When she finished her book, Baxter saw it as an opportunity to showcase some of the textiles and designers she’d written about. “I thought it would be a very good way to bring these designs to Australia,” Baxter said. The Unfolding: New Indian Textiles exhibition ran at RMIT Gallery in Melbourne in June and the Fremantle Arts Centre in Perth in July.

How did the Aussie crowd react to these new Indian designs?

“I don’t think they knew anything about it but they absolutely loved it,” Baxter said. “Over 700 people came to the opening in Fremantle, there were queues going right around the Arts Centre.

“It was an extraordinary response.”

One thing never fails to surprise those new to Indian textiles, according to Baxter. “When you showcase work out of India everyone’s always amazed that everything’s still handmade,” she said.

Traditional textiles are still facing challenging times, as the children of artisan families continue to move out of the industry for more lucrative work. But Baxter is optimistic the industry won’t unravel any time soon, as India’s new breed of contemporary designers still, “have a very strong commitment to craft”.

Unfolding: Contemporary Indian Textiles featured designers and artists whose work is changing how the Indian market consumes traditional textiles, including: 11.11/eleven eleven, Abdulaziz Alimohammad Khatri, Abraham & Thakore, Akaaro, bai lou, Good Earth, Gopika Nath, Greenearth, Irfan Khatri, Jagannath Panda, Kirit Dave, Manisha Parekh Mayank Mansingh Kaul, Meera Mehta, Mithu Sen, Monika Correa, Parul Thacker, péro, Play Clan, Ravage, Raw Mango, Shades of India, Shrujan, smallshop, Swati Kalsi, Tushar Kumar and Vankar Shamji Vishramji.