Mayank Mansingh Kaul. Photos: Dalip Kumar
People often call me a textile historian or a revivalist, and I am neither,” Mayank Mansingh Kaul declares emphatically. Seated on a kurta and trousers, the soft-spoken 34-year-old is popular in the gallery, with several passers-by and visitors waving at him.
His astute observations about Indian textiles can perhaps be attributed to his childhood in Ahmedabad, growing up in a home that was a stone’s throw from the Calico Museum of Textiles, the largest comprehensive archive of Indian textiles. “A lot of my early memories, even when I was as young as seven or eight, are from visiting the museum,” he says. “I can’t remember that one moment when I decided that I would choose a career in textiles. But I think my parents realised my interests early on and they took me to Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design when I was about 12.” It was about then that he set his sights on the institute, where he would eventually study textile design a few years later.
Born to a banker father and a musicologist mother, Kaul grew up in what he calls a “cultural environment” at home. But beyond his family, his biggest influence was Martand Singh, often called the “textile man of India”. “Mapu was not just a mentor but a constant sounding board, a knowledge resource,” says Kaul. He first met Singh in Hyderabad in 2006, where the latter was working on a restoration project of the Chowmohalla Palace. Kaul introduced himself as a student interested in Singh’s work and a chance meeting turned into a close teacher-student relationship. “I think for anyone working in the field of textiles, meeting Mapu and learning from him was always a dream.”
It is perhaps Singh’s old-school emphasis on the revival of crafts that made Kaul a thorough researcher. He has been the brains and the force behind several successful textile exhibitions in India, such as “Gold: The Art of Zari” held last year and an upcoming retrospective to celebrate designer duo Abraham & Thakore’s 25 years in the fashion industry.
His first tryst with exhibitions was a result of his friendship with Himanshu Verma, designer and founder of Red Earth. “There would be so many exhibitions on design abroad that their absence was conspicuous when one came back to the country,” he says. In 2007, Kaul and Verma conceptualised an exhibition around the motif of monsoon in fashion. The first independent exhibition he curated came much later, for Khoj, in February 2011. That exhibition explored the idea of art in fashion, where a two-week residency for fashion designers and visual artists culminated in a collaborative presentation.
Curating an exhibition, right from the stage of ideation, is often unglamorous hard work, says Kaul. “Thinking about a textile exhibition, in most cases, is not a time-bound process, but rather one that involves constant learning. Of course, the actual exhibition happens in a particular time-frame,” explains Kaul. “The important thing is to arrive at a message for the exhibition.” A lot of this work, he adds, is purely administrative. The joy, of course, comes from visiting private collections and choosing the pieces to be displayed. For this exhibition, for instance, I had to go through hundreds of diary entries and notes kept by Kumar to extract her continuing concerns and observations.” What follows is a more insular, quieter process of writing, which is indispensable for a textile exhibition that is not only trying to revive the craft but also the myriad histories of each handloom tradition.
Talking about lost artisanal traditions, one would expect the conversation to dissolve into a nostalgic lament at the current state of handloom. But Kaul proves to be a pragmatist. “There is no one definition of revival and every generation has an opportunity to redefine it in its own way,” he says. The revival efforts in the 1950s and ‘60s gave importance to generating livelihoods through craft, not so much at ensuring the quality of craftsmanship. “By the ‘80s, most of the handcrafted techniques were languishing. So, for people like Mapu and the Vishwakarma exhibitions, revival specifically meant bringing back the highest level of craftsmanship. The effort was directed towards creating museum quality new textiles, even if they took one artisan creating one handmade piece,” he explains.
Kaul believes there is a lot of simultaneous deskilling today. “Revival now could simply mean not letting go of the fact that things are made by hand, but this does not ensure the best examples of that craft are kept alive.” For him, revival means finding a contemporary relevance for the past. “If a particular weave is not relevant today, I don’t believe it should be revived only for its own sake.” He cites the example of the zardozi embroideries that were made for royal families. “The use of gold in courtly garments was often to make its wearer, say, a member of the royal family stand out in a crowd of several hundred people,” he says. It was also a heavy piece of clothing that was meant to be worn by someone who would be seated most of the time. “If you make an actor wear the same garment for a film and make her dance, it makes absolutely no sense,” he scoffs. “When you revive zardozi, it has to be reinterpreted. Designers like Kumar have made it lighter while also understanding that with such changes the base fabrics on which the embroideries are done also need to evolve.”
Kaul’s understanding of the handloom sector also owes to his time working at the Planning Commission in 2005. The government had instituted a task force on cultural and creative policy to look at specific policies relevant to creative professionals. Kaul, in his final few semesters at NID at the time, applied for the position at the Planning Commission and NID allowed him to present this work as his final graduation project. This was the time when Lado Sarai was only just coming up as a design hub in New Delhi and while the Municipal Corporation of Delhi allowed layers, doctors and professionals to run their offices from their homes, creative professionals were left in limbo.
And yet, Kaul believes government policy on the handloom sector tends to be blinkered. “The government has always operated in the handloom and handicrafts sector through subsidies and marketing efforts. Subsidies, in my opinion, have not let the handloom sector prosper fully because they often do not push artisans to become market savvy,” he says. The focus on price, for instance, has taken away the emphasis from quality. “Handmade products should, in fact, be better than what a machine can produce.” For Kaul, the role of the government should be towards providing a larger ecosystem for the survival of the crafts.
As he walks about the exhibition talking about Tibetan banarasi weaves and Chinese motifs that came to India through Surat, it is easy to see that he still has an entire textile universe to conquer.