An exhibition of Thai silks struggles to present a shared cultural history

Thailand’s Queen Sirikit encouraged fashion houses such as Kate Spade to use mudmee for their Thai collections
The most visible recent shift in the exhibition space is the movement towards textiles. Swathes of hand-spun cloth have replaced traditional paintings and sculptures. Textile exhibitions also become spaces that offer a contemporary look at social and political histories. “Mudmee: A Shared Silk Heritage”, an exhibition of Thai silk weaves and their India connection, promised to be one such exploration.

Organised by the Thai Embassy and hosted by the National Museum in New Delhi, the exhibition proves to be a half-hearted effort to reimagine Thailand’s history through its textiles. As one walks in, the dimly lit exhibition room is decidedly gloomy. Textiles inside glass cases and pedestals are lit up in the only pools of light in the room, but little attention seems to have been paid to how these are displayed.

One would assume that textiles could either by divided by the period they belong to, the motifs they represent or by different levels of craftsmanship. “Mudmee” represents no such thoughtfulness. Most of the weaves on display are from the 20th and 21st centuries and there is not a single piece that dates to the Ayutthaya period between 14thand 18th centuries. The captions accompanying the fabric on display detail some motifs, but offer no explanations about why they are significant or how they relate to Thai culture.

Explanations of the country’s rich history, though, are available in a helpful brochure. The Thai word mudmee stands for tying silk yarns before weaving. This Thai silk is woven with two shafts in a plain-weave construction, which means that the final product has the same colours on both sides. The weaves themselves are strikingly similar to Indian ikat designs, be it the Patolas of Gujarat, Sambalpuri saris of Odisha or Andhra Pradesh’s telia rumaal. This is where the long, shared history between Thailand and India could have been examined.

A 21st-century mudmee silk temple hanging from the Surin Province, coloured with natural dyes and created with a twill weave as well as a resist-dyed weft weave (the central field portrays motifs of the pavillion, temple and stupa)
For instance, Thailand, once called Siam, was known to import Indian textiles such as block-printed cotton from Masulipatnam in Andhra Pradesh, silk brocade from Varanasi and Patola from Gujarat during the Ayutthaya period. Siam’s royal court would often commission Indian silks with their own flame motifs, which can today be found in the art and architecture of Thailand. An early part of this trade activity is also known to be a part of the Silk Route.

This is precisely the “shared silk heritage” that begged exploration. The National Museum has quite an extensive archive of Indian textiles, which could perhaps have been juxtaposed with Thai weaves to glean cultural similarities. This was perhaps the intention of the exhibition, but unfortunately has remained no more than that. Only one Patola sari has been displayed in the name of demonstrating shared histories.

The only really interesting aspect of the exhibition is the use of silk in contemporary Thai couture. Mudmee was a dying craft in Thailand when Queen Sirikit began efforts to revive the weave and modernise it. Since then, the silk weave has received royal patronage and the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles was set up. Sirikit also commissioned French couturiers Pierre Balmain and Erik Mortense as well as several other Thai designers to create outfits using mudmee for her public appearances. As part of this revivalist attempt, the exhibition also showcases footwear by Kate Spade and a Michael Kors dress that have been created using mudmee.

A Patola sari from the archives of the National Museum
Merely improving the exhibition design — by breaking the monotony and two-dimensionality of a fabric using height, light and movement — could have translated intention into reality. Meanwhile, “Mudmee” remains a lost opportunity, amid the growing number of experimental, thoughtful and truly innovative textile exhibitions being hosted in the city.

Mudmee: A Shared History” will be on view at the National Museum, New Delhi, till September 25