February 3, 2016

Assam Exhibition Takes off at British Museum

Britishers are discovering a little–known chapter of Indian history through the largest surviving example of a piece of Assamese textile of great devotional import, the ‘Vrindavani Vastra’.

The ‘Vrindavani Vastra’ is being displayed at the famous British Museum from January 21. The exhibition will continue till August 15 next.

The Vrindavani Vastra (literally ’the cloth of Vrindavan’) was produced in Assam sometime in the late 17th century. It is made of woven silk and designed with scenes from the life of Lord Krishna during the time he lived in the forest of Vrindavan. It was made for devotional purposes for the Vaishnavite cult developed by saint Srimanata Sankardev.

At over 9 metres long, this Assamese textile is the largest of its kind to survive for so long. It is made up of 12 strips, all now sewn together. The Krishna scenes on the textile are from the 10th–century text of the Bhagavata Purana, and are elaborated in the dramas of Srimanta Sankardev. A verse from one of these is also woven into the textile, using immensely sophisticated weaving technology, now extinct in India.

Following its use in Assam, the textile had a second history in Tibet. It was found there by Perceval Landon during the Younghusband Expedition sent from British India to Lhasa in 1903–1904. Landon, a friend of Rudyard Kipling, was the correspondent from The Times on the expedition, and he gave the textile to the British Museum in 1905. In the exhibition, the Vrindavani Vastra will be displayed alongside other Assamese artifacts from the British Museum and several important loans, including another magnificent example of one of these Krishna textiles on loan from Chepstow Museum. This survives as the lining of a remarkable item of 18th–century Anglo–Indian costume. Manuscript leaves from the British Library, masks (the making and acquisition of which have been funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation) and modern textiles will help reveal this intriguing period in Indian history.

The display will also feature two film elements – an introductory film about Assam and contemporary devotion to Krishna filmed at the 2014 Ras Lila festival on Majuli island, and a new video artwork made for the exhibition by the Guwahati–based group Desire Machine Collective. This new artwork has been funded by the Gujral Foundation.


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