Woven Wonders of Varanasi: A ‘beautiful’ disappointment

I love museums. Regular readers of this blog will know that museums have played a very important part in developing and furthering my interests and knowledge in art, culture, history and sometimes, even deciding where to travel to next. Though not all museums have been uniformly good, I have never left one without having learnt something new there, something that has added to my knowledge. Till recently, that is.

About 10 days back, I went to see an exhibition titled “Wonder Weaves of Varanasi” at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The aim of the exhibition was to showcase textiles and weaves from Benares / Varanasi as part of the larger ‘Make in India‘ campaign. It had been curated by Shaina NC, and was organised in association with the Ministry of Textiles of Government of India, and supported by Lakmé Fashion Week.

Prior to my visit, I had seen tantalising pictures of the exhibits on social media and then came across this newspaper report, which got me all intrigued about the exhibition. Since I knew next to nothing about weaves from Benares / Varanasi, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with them.

So, it was with great excitement that I arrived at the Museum, and my very first view of the exhibits justified that excitement.

Woven Wonders of Varanasi , Make in India, Shaina NC, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mubai, Soecial Exhibition, Benarasi Weaves, Handlooms and Textiles

However, when I left the Museum after viewing the exhibition, my mood was very different — puzzled, disappointed and a little angry as well.

Let me elaborate.

The exhibition, which was spread over both floors of the Museum, was dazzling. Benarasi weaves in jewel, pastel and earth colours, with bird, animal, floral, tree and leaf designs, and on sarees, lehengas, dresses, jackets…were all around me. It took a while for the sensory delight to settle down before I realised that something was missing in the exhibition. Something very important.

Woven Wonders of Varanasi , Make in India, Shaina NC, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mubai, Soecial Exhibition, Benarasi Weaves, Handlooms and TextilesEvery exhibit had the name of its designer — Ritu Kumar, Anita Dongre, Ritu Beri, Gaurav Gupta, Varun Bahl, Rina Dhaka, etc. But there was no information on who the weaver was and what the weave was all about, its history, its uniqueness, symbolism… nothing.

There was also nothing like an overarching information board or pamphlet that wove the exhibition together.

My first thought was that I had missed seeing the information on the exhibition. So I checked all the exhibits on both the floors of the Museum and even on the walls. But there was nothing. I then checked with a member of the Museum’s staff, only to be told that there was no information available !

My original plan was to spend the entire morning at the exhibition, but I left after 45 minutes. For no matter how beautiful the weaves, without a context or a history or a story they were quite soulless. Have a look at them.

Presenting 35 photographs of some of the exhibits at the “Woven Wonders of Varanasi”. The shots are a mix and will enable you to see the display as well as the details. Clicking on any picture will start a slide show, but I recommend that you start from the first one. Do remember to come back and read the rest of the post once you’re done with the photographs. 🙂

The visit to the exhibition also raised a lot of questions in my mind on the roles and responsibilities of museums in general, and curators in particular. Is the curator’s job only to select and conceptualise the idea for an exhibition? What about the information that goes with it? Isn’t that the curator’s responsibility as well? What is the role of museums in this? Isn’t it their responsibility to see that an exhibition is as informative as possible?

In the days since my visit to the exhibition, I have neither been able to stop thinking about the exhibition, nor get over my disappointment at the way it was presented. The “Wonder Weaves of Varanasi” would have been more at home in a mall than at a museum. The casual display and designer credit would have been just perfect for a mall.

This would have been an excellent opportunity to showcase how traditional weaves are being used in contemporary fashion, and how heritage is being given a new lease of life. Sadly, the exhibition turned to be a frivolous display.

Unfortunately, the losers here are viewers like me. 😦


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25 thoughts on “Woven Wonders of Varanasi: A ‘beautiful’ disappointment

  1. No doubt you are aware that artisans in India over the years have never been given individual credit for their work. Sadly, it appears that this tradition continues today. If the weavers were given recognition perhaps their craft wouldn’t be a dying and underpaid art. A wonderful and beautifully curated textile museum is in Jaipur, the Anokhi Museum of Block Printing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I’m aware that individual artisans have never been given credit or recognition for their work. And I have always wondered why? Is it because of the traditional sense of collective ownership? Or is it because the patron who commissioned the piece claimed ownership? Much like the fashion designers here?

      Thank you for telling me about the Anokhi Museum of Block Printing. The next time I’m in Jaipur, I will definitely visit it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      There are lots of stories and information about “Varanasi’s weavers and the history, the technique, their skills.” I am looking for specific information on these particular weaves as they were part of the exhibition and it would have been a great opportunity to learn more about these beautiful weaves instead of just ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ over them, which seems to have been the purpose. A museum is not just an exhibition space; it is a place of enquiry and information as well.

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    1. Oh yes. We are experts in all talk and no action. The people who could have affected the change are unfortunately the culprits here. This could have been such a wonderful opportunity to take the campaign forward.

      Personal research is fine as a takeaway, but in this case I feel a mass movement is required.

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  2. The displays and motifs are very beautiful. But, as you said, the purpose of having them in the museum is to understand the history behind it. Else, we could just visit a sari shop and check them out.

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  3. I can so understand your disappointment, especially being so fond of museums with their treasures and especially the one hosting the exhibition. I think it was one of those exhibition-cum-sales, being hosted in a museum, you know the kind one finds in 5 star hotels and malls. And such exhibitions have nothing to offer except the goods. No wonder the organiser had said, ‘Jo dikhta hai wo bikta hai.’ And always but always, the creators of masterpieces get hidden away even where they are supposed to be showcased, as it had been in Delhi Haat when it had opened way back. But then commercialism won over and the artistes disappeared. The shopkeepers claim that they have their own looms back from where they come, but beyond that say nothing, because we know who they are, right? But the fabrics are gorgeous, even if I never wear any silk garment or saree 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that it has been a tradition in India for the original artists – weavers, sculptors, painters – to be hidden behind the patron. But to have this happen in an exhibition titled “Wonder Wonders of Varanasi”, where the weave and its weaver should been the stars, instead of the designer, is unpardonable.

      Yes, the fabrics are gorgeous. More’s the pity.

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  4. Do they not reflect what we consumers wish to see? When I say we I mean masses at large. I am with you at the idea that you are presenting, but on the whole more and more voices need to be heard in this context. Or else sales are flowing. people are happy and exhibitions like these are complying.

    P.S Sarees are simply breathtakingly beautiful 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The masses want to see beautiful things and they don’t really care about the stories behind them till it is presented well. The exhibition would have been that perfect opportunity to do just that. An opportunity missed to not just showcase some gorgeous stuff, but also tell the stories and people behind them.

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  5. Beautiful photographs. With you in ‘feeling’ for the weavers and lack of recognition. That is the sad but true state of affairs when it’s only the big names which guarantee footfalls and sales! I do hope the museum and someone in Textiles takes note of the lacunae. The way the Kutcch hand woven have now given way to machine made garments since it’s fast and ‘sells’ (the operative word), I do hope Banarasi weaves do not go the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Banarasi weaves have already gone that way and it is only the a few people who can afford the real thing. When I was in Varanasi about 4 years back, I saw a lot of Banarasi sarees, which were actually polyester ones.

      An exhibition like this has a lot of responsibility which doesn’t end with putting up the exhibits, but extends beyond it to make it into a national, rathe than a regional heritage.

      Like

  6. To the hardworking weaver, opportunity with a design house means income. It is saddening that though our local products are finding their way to the big cities, they are losing their identity. It is like a story half-told.

    P.S. I must say that the colors, patterns, fabric look absolutely divine!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s a pity, but it’s the real sad truth. Most of the weavers reside in Ramnagar in Benaras, across Ganga. You will be shocked how much they are paid for the hard work they put into these beauties! A mere pittance. It’s just the same for the carpet industry in Benaras -Bhadohi circuit.

    Blatant commercialization, I suppose. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is terribly unfortunate and a real let-down after all the hype about ‘Make in India’. There are many who are ready to support the work of weavers, like us at the Facebook page ‘Kai Thari-Karigar’ and the Facebook group ‘Kai Thari’. As the founder, I’ve often wondered how we could do more as a growing community of consumers. The primary purpose was to create a platform of like-minded people who believed and respected the work of handloom. To raise awareness of the same and to highlight the woven treasures of each part of our beautiful country. Unfortunately, it still seems an uphill task despite the announcement of the National Handloom Day last year. It is unbelievable that it took so long for the Govt to even institute such a day in all these decades.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very well said !!! In fact a few days back I had gone to a crafts council exhibition in aga khan hall and it was the same story there.i deal with weavers that’s my business but I have not heard of a sunhleweaver who has access to these places and I also know for a fact that these big names just source from the weavers and embellish it . A similar problem you will find In Dilli Haat also and the worst is when powerloom Osborne passed of as handloom as not everyone can distinguish between the two .

    Liked by 1 person

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