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Soft, white capital
Mumbai's once-thriving mills are at the heart of a new exhibition on textiles.
The warp and weft of curator Grant Watson's Social Fabric is deeply intertwined with the history of Mumbai. It tells the story of cotton, a commodity that played a pivotal role in the establishment of Mumbai and its capitalist class.
On display at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDLM), the exhibition is supported by Max Mueller Bhavan and features works by Sudhir Patwardhan, Archana Hande, Alice Creischer and Celine Condorelli, among others. Through a constellation of artworks and archival material - including commentaries by Karl Marx who tracked the cotton industry and the effects it had on Britain and her colonies - the exhibition explores the cultures and economies spawned by this coveted raw material.
In a nice geographical coincidence, the museum, which focusses on the life and history of 19th-century Mumbai, happens to be located in Girangaon, the Marathi name for the village of mills that occupied the heart of the city.
Watson is a senior curator and research associate at the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva), London, and has had a long engagement with Indian art resulting in exhibitions such as 2008's acclaimed Santhal Family: Position around an Indian Sculpture, MuHKA, Antwerp. Santhal Family, 1938, by Ramkinkar Baij is considered India's first public modernist sculpture. It depicts a Santhal tribe family in transition with their few belongings. For the exhibition, Watson invited a group of international artists to respond to the sculpture and the ideas - modernity, social mobility, etc - that enshrine it.
However, despite Watson's abiding interest in Indian art and the project's direct connection to Mumbai, Social Fabric - which first opened at Iniva in January this year - had its trigger elsewhere: in a 2009 show called Textile Art and Social Fabric that Watson curated in Antwerp, showcasing the artists who used textiles in the work. Having studied textiles before he studied curating and visual cultures, Watson fused his two passions in the Antwerp exhibition, and the ongoing Mumbai one is cut from the same cloth. His next project focuses on women artists who work with textiles.
"I was drawn to the subject because the histories of colonialism and trading textiles have gone hand in hand, " says Watson referencing the Industrial Revolution, which having started in England in the latter part of the 18th century, eventually spread throughout the world. One of the main developments of industrialisation was mills where cotton cloth was mass produced.
From being Cotton Central and the engine of the city's economy to being home to defunct mills and unemployed workers, a fall paralleled by its transformation into Mall Central, the rise and fall of Mumbai's mill culture is central to the show. And no one evokes the thriving old millscape better than Patwardhan.
In 1973, Patwardhan moved from Pune to Mumbai and lived and worked as a radiologist in the Girangaon neighbourhood, in Parel and Tardeo, till 1978. His contribution to the exhibition includes a suite of drawings done during this period. The artist recalls, "I wanted to paint the working class so I found myself walking the streets. The subjects of these drawing are in one sense victims of exploitation but they're also survivors. "
Many years later, in 2001, Patwardhan painted a dramatic work called Lower Parel. This large and unequivocally titled painting portrays life on and around the arterial Parel Bridge. "The gentrification of the area where mills have given way to malls has resulted in negativity and anger but life still goes on, " he says.
Archana Hande, the other Mumbai artist in the show, draws on her travels to create visual commentaries around cotton and textile cultures. On a journey from Mumbai to Ahmedabad to Bhuj, which Hande calls "textile travel", she encountered several oral stories and traditions which informed her work, The Silk Route Hedges, 2011.
Hande explains, "My travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan also revealed the important role textiles play across societies. For instance, the use of textile as dowry can be found in parts of India and Pakistan too. I was very keen on using visuals rather than text to transmit the oral narratives I picked up along the way. " Hande transcribes these narratives in a quasi folkloric style in an accordion book. Elsewhere in the exhibition, Hande displays Scroll 1 Girangaon, 2009 and Scroll 2 Girangaon, 2012. These twin scrolls focus on the transformed mill land.
Apparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the Pressure of Wealth During the Contemplation of Poverty, 2005, is the long title of the German artist Creischer's mixed media installation comprising eclectic media such as photographic images, beads, textile panels and gold foil. The sprawling work resembles an elaborate optical contraption whose lens, is repeatedly readjusted in order to read the various facets of the global cotton craze.
"Alice's work is a Marxist critique of industrialisation while Archana's is more intuitive, " says Watson of the contrasting approaches found in the exhibition.
As far as the fabric of an exhibition goes, this one has been woven with considerable thought. Despite the dense subject matter, and the distinct artistic vocabularies, Social Fabric is a contained exhibition. Unlike several other exhibitions at BDLM, which were spread across the site of the museum, Social Fabric is - with the exception of White Gold, a humongous painted curtain by the UK artist Celine Condorelli, 'white gold' references the sobriquet cotton earned in Egypt - contained within the galleries at the museum. This move definitely works in the favour of this heavily annotated and fairly museological exhibition, which would've definitely lost some of its urgency had it been scattered among the museum collection.
Like Watson's earlier projects, including Santhal Family, Social Fabric assigns importance to dialogue. The project opened here with a panel discussion around the artworks and the city's mill culture. It will close on a similar note with the Max Mueller Bhavan hosting a clutch of multiformat presentations and discussions. Sadly, this spirit of dialogue has been mostly missing in the many land negotiations that have followed the collapse of the cotton mill culture.
The exhibition is on at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, till November 11
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