Krishna in the Garden of Assam: The cultural context of an Indian textile at the British Museum

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Krishna in the Garden of Assam: The cultural context of an Indian textile at the British Museum
Dance mask of the crane-demon, Bakasura. Made in the workshop of Hem Chandra Goswami, Chamaguri monastery, Majuli island, Assam. 2015. Funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation. 2015,3041.5 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- Assam is today little-known outside the Northeast of India. However, in the late medieval period it was the centre of a vibrant culture of devotion to the Hindu deity Krishna, a movement that was founded by the saint Shankaradeva (died 1568) and which continues to this day. A striking element of this devotional cult is the re-enactment of scenes from the Life of Krishna, all over Assam but especially on the island of Majuli in the Brahmaputra River during the Ras Lila festival. These Krishna narratives were recorded not only in music, drama and dance, but also in woven textile imagery. This is the first exhibition in Britain to explore the impressive cultural history of Assam through objects.

The largest surviving example of such a woven silk cloth, or Vrindavani Vastra, is the centrepiece of this exhibition at the British Museum. It is one of the most important Indian textiles in the Museum’s collection is dated to about 1680 and is today over 9 metres long. Assam has been renowned for many centuries as a centre for weaving both silk and cotton. The lampas technique of weaving was used to produce the Vrindavani Vastra and this example would have been woven on a wooden draw-loom using two sets of warp and two sets of weft threads. The lampas technique is now lost in India but produced vibrant and highly sophisticated figured textiles between the 16th and 18th centuries.

This textile is associated with the cult of the Hindu god Krishna. It is today made up of 12 strips of woven silk, each one being figured with depictions of the incarnations of Vishnu and with captioned scenes from the life of Krishna, These scenes are recorded in the 10th century text, the Bhagavata Purana, and elaborated in the dramas written by the saint Shankaradeva. The 12 individual strips were perhaps used to wrap copies of the Bhagavata Purana and decorate the altar used for venerating this text. The episodes depicted include the defeat of the snake-demon Kaliya, the battle with the crane-demon Bakasura, swallowing the forest-fire, and hiding the 'gopis' clothes in the trees. The dramas of Shankaradeva are still performed today, especially at the festival of Ras lila on the island of Majuli.

The later history of these twelve strips of cloth is fascinating. They were taken to Tibet, stitched together to make a massive hanging and then, years later, were discovered in the monastery at Gobshi near Gyantse in southern Tibet during the Younghusband Expedition. This military foray was sent by Lord Curzon to open a trade route between India and Tibet. The correspondent of The Times on that expedition was Perceval Landon, a close friend of Rudyard Kipling. It was Landon who acquired the textile and then in 1905 gave it to the Museum.

Contemporary commissions from Majuli (dance masks) and from the artists group, Desire Machine Collective, will be on display. The work by DMC, funded by the Gujral Foundation, is a video artwork, a response of the Collective to the Vrindavani Vastra. The dance masks are of the type used in performances at the annual Ras lila festival. Their acquisition has been funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation. A 3 min film, shot at the 2014 Ras lila festival introduces the exhibition.

Loans from the British Library are of illustrated manuscript leaves from the Brahmavaivarta Purana. These have very lively painted scenes from the life of Krishna, of great quality. A remarkable survival, now housed in Chepstow Museum, has also been generously loaned. This is an 18th century English gentleman’s silk ‘banyan’ or dressing gown. The exterior is of subtle monochrome Chinese silk damask while the lining inside is of brilliantly-coloured Assamese Vrindavani Vastra textile with, woven into it, scenes from the life of Krishna as well as bloodthirsty depictions of the lion-man incarnation of Vishnu, Narasimha.

Elements of the exhibition will be shown at the Chepstow Museum following the London display.

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