Power Cloths Provoke Powerful Response


Long Kani pashmina shawl. (detail) Late 19th century, Srinagar, Kashmir, India. Private collection, Mr C.L. Bharany, New Delhi, India.

Ghandi khadi

Khadi blanket woven at Sabarmati (Gandhi) Ashram, Ahmedabad, India, c. 1929. detail. Gifted to Reginald Reynolds by Mahatma Gandhi. Private collection (by descent), Scotland.

Jasleen and Suzanne

(left to right) RMIT Gallery Director Suzanne Davies and Jasleen Dhamija, in Delhi.

Exhibition space

Power Cloths of the Commonwealth at the National Crafts Museum Delhi.

Exhibition space

RMIT Gallery’s successful exhibition Power Cloths of the Commonwealth, Australia's only cultural representation at the XIX Commonwealth Games in Delhi, garnered a tremendous amount of positive media attention in India.

Power Cloths of the Commonwealth, held from 25 September to 20 October, showcased key historical and contemporary works from around the Commonwealth, many of which have not been previously on public display.

The Gallery was singled out for its contribution to the Games cultural front; “While the Games were turning on the heat in Delhi, a display of Indian culture, heritage and folklore were held to beat that heat.” Business Review India (20 October)

Journalist Sohini Chattopadhyay was impressed. “When a footbridge collapses, headlines scream and scams stare us in the face, it takes a mighty heart (and a solid reason) to stand up and say something good about the Commonwealth Games. So far a showcase for spectacular ignominy, the occasion of the Commonwealth Games has brought a fascinating exhibition featuring textiles from 22 countries across five continents to the capital. For that at least, we must thank the Commonwealth Games. (Business Standard, 2 October)

Power Cloths of the Commonwealth was opened by the Hon. Speaker of the Lok Sabha (Parliament) Shrimati Meira Kumar on 26 September at the Crafts Museum, New Delhi. Her speech was widely reported by the media.

She said it was the khadi and charkha that empowered the “humblest and simplest” people of India to wage a non-violent struggle and said that the cloth as a basic need of the human being knows no boundaries and is instrumental in making people fight for their rights. (SME Times, 21 September) “If the cloth empowers you then it is incumbent upon you to empower those who create the cloth by fulfilling their hopes, aspirations and demands.”

The opening ceremony was attended by the Minister of State for Textiles, Shrimati Panabaaka Lakshmi; the Hon. Peter Varghese AO, Australian High Commissioner to India; Dr Ruchira Ghose, Chairman, Crafts Museum; Professor Daine Alcorn, RMIT Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation and Vice President; High Commissioners from Ghana, New Zealand, Malaysia, Canada, Nigeria, South Africa, Sri Lanka.

Also in attendance were other distinguished members of the diplomatic, political and cultural communities from all five continents involved in the exhibition, which is the initiative of RMIT Gallery, partnered by the National Crafts Museum, Delhi (attached to the Ministry of Textiles).

Power Cloths was encouraged by the Chief Minister of Delhi, The Hon. Sheila Dikshit, with the involvement of various high commissions of many Commonwealth countries. The exercise was fully financed by the Australian International Cultural Council, RMIT University, and the Victorian and South Australian governments, as well as the Australian-India Council.

Dr Ghose said the exhibition was about many aspects of power. “It is also about the power of technique, the mystical and sacred power that is represented through the robes of the shamans, and the power of linkages through trade and colonisation that binds these countries together”. (Mail Today, 30 September)

In her speech, the Minister of State for Textiles, Smt. Lakshmi, said that the significance of cloth, and of age-old traditions in the making and decorating of cloth, are things well understood in India. It was no surprise then that special mention was made in the media of the Indian segment of the exhibition, including a brocaded khilat, and exquisite Kashmiri shawls, which was a part of the tribute paid by Kashmir to Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

“Clothes of high artistic value which were traded around the world, such as the exceptionally dyed and printed Kalamkari created by Gujarati masters, will be on display for the world in a quest to create a remarkable impact on the minds and souls of the Art-Lovers.” (bharatbusiness.com, 12 October)

In outlining the concept of the exhibition to the media, RMIT Gallery Director Suzanne Davies, who co-curated the exhibition with Indian textile specialist Jasleen Dhamija, was interviewed about how textiles could signify political power or political positions of resistance or independence like Ghandi’s topi and khadi. (Prokerala News, 25 September)

Ms Davies told media, "For Commonwealth countries, textiles provide an irresistible opportunity to explore our shared experiences and differences through rich, visceral materials. They highlight our cultural wealth and diversity." (Headlines India 25 September)

Pugree, Turban

Pugree, Turban. A hand-woven hand-embroidered turban, Rajasthan, India. The finely hand-woven cotton. Courtesy of the Crafts Museum, Delhi, India.

Australian High Commissioner Peter Varghese spoke of the significance of the exhibition, saying it “signalled the importance of bridging cultural distance, learning more about each other, recognising what brings us together and what makes us unique – these are big challenges of the age of globalisation.” (newkerala.com September 26)

He added that; “This showcase of fine textiles from across the Commonwealth is a spectacular expression of our cultural diversity.” (thaindian.com 25 September)

Professor Alcorn said it was a privilege to attend the opening of the exhibition which was clearly of enormous interest to the Indian community.

“RMIT University is proud to be associated with such an excellent showcase of textiles representing both history and communities, and to celebrate and learn from the stories represented at the exhibition,” Professor Alcorn said.

“RMIT continues to maintain strong educational and research programs with the Textile Industry and is pleased to be able to support technical evolution whilst at the same time celebrating its history."

As acknowledged in Indian media, bringing museum quality textiles from 22 Commonwealth nations across five continents together in New Delhi for the exhibition was no easy matter. “Like the Games itself, the show too is an exercise in complex logistical organisation and international cooperation.” (Business Standard, 2 October).

Sohini Chattopadhyay was also impressed with the Australian works in the exhibition, particularly the “magnificent Ngatuk cloak from south east Australia, made of 27 possum skins.” (Business Standard, 2 October).

Shailaja Tripathi was equally taken with the Aboriginal work. “Of particular interest is the possum skin cloak made by Australian Aboriginal elders; the cloak was worn by chiefs and they were even buried in it.” (The Hindu, 25 September).

Suzanne Davies talks about the concept of power through textiles – including the power embodied in a garment by virtue of the excellence of technique in its making and/or the value of the materials from which it is made. She reveals how she found in Edinburgh a khadi blanket woven at the Sabarmati Ashram before the Dandi March of 1930. (The Hindu, 25 September).

The khadi blanket was dubbed “the central attraction” of the exhibition (Mail Today, 30 Sep). The black and white blanket was gifted to British left-wing writer Reginald Reynolds by Mahatma Gandhi sometime in 1929-30. It was through Reginald Reynolds that Gandhi had delivered the ultimatum (dated March 2, 1930) to British Viceroy Lord Irwin in which he had set out 11 demands to the British.

Responding to a query on whether the blanket could find a permanent home in India, Ms Davies said that a well-expressed proposal for it to stay in India (a good and appropriate home) would be receptively considered by the family. (The Pioneer, 20 October)