Mobile Palace’ revisits Indian textile history via contemporary lens

the exhibition Mobile Palace showcases a series of immersive textile installations created by contemporary artist Swapnaa Tamhane at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. As part of the exhibition, curated by Deepali Dewan, the crest and trough effect created with the textiles suspended from the roof at the first glance affirms what seamlessly flows through the exhibition: the essence of the non-linear temporality and in-between spaces. The color and the pattern of the motifs on the textile demand a closer look to gauge the uniqueness of each design carefully crafted on the immersive installation. Since each of the marks defies the said assumptions, the impressions turn into an act of resistance – the pervasive notion in her large art practice. The distinctive appearance of the design renews the critical desire to look at the world with a new pair of eyes.

Printing blocks used in the design for Mobile Palace, 2019, Teak wood (saag), Swapnaa Tamhane, with Mukesh, Pragnesh, and Avdhesh Prajapati, and Bhavesh Rajnikant |  Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace |  STIRworld

Printing blocks used in the design for Mobile Palace, 2019, Teak wood (saag), Swapnaa Tamhane, with Mukesh, Pragnesh, and Avdhesh Prajapati, and Bhavesh Rajnikant Image: Courtesy of Swapnaa Tamhane and Royal Ontario Museum

The origin of these motifs, found within the exhibition Mobile Palace, lessons in the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier’s Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners’ Association House. With the exhibition, Tamhane was keen to turn it into a decorative, soft architecture. In an interview with STIR, the artist mentions, “I traced the building through motifs, taking the entrance ramp, niches, and the exterior brise-soleil have been transposed into block print designs.” Like the architecture of the building remains the vestige of political history and social economics, the textile in the hands of the Tamhane is also a witness to the story of impermanence.

Detailed image of panel from Mobile Palace, 2019–2021, Natural dyes, appliqué, and beading on cotton, Swapnaa Tamhane, with Salemamad Khatri, and Mukesh, Pragnesh, and Avdhesh Prajapati, and Bhavesh Rajnikant.  Assistance from Sine Kundargi-Girard and Lydia Haywood-Munn |  Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace |  STIRworld

Detailed image of panel from Mobile Palace, 2019–2021, Natural dyes, appliqué, and beading on cotton, Swapnaa Tamhane, with Salemamad Khatri, and Mukesh, Pragnesh, and Avdhesh Prajapati, and Bhavesh Rajnikant. Assistance from Sine Kundargi-Girard and Lydia Haywood-Munn Image: Courtesy of Swapnaa Tamhane and Royal Ontario Museum

“The artworks begin with cotton and its significance in the independence movement in India, the role of the textile mill and handloom industries, and the architecture that was commissioned in the post-independent landscape. I am interested in how a motif can mean several complex ideas at once,” adds Tamhane. The cotton mill-made panels in Mobile Palace are printed and dyed in natural colors. The presence of indigo, carrying colonial valency, does not go unnoticed in the display. The artist traces its importance in the colonial discourse, “Indigo is significant in its historical underpinning recalling the peasant-led revolt against British planters in 1859, as well as the once-abundant growth in Sindh that has all but disappeared. The use of indigo also refers to the current desire for the handmade, including dyeing yarn for khadi and khadi denim used by designers.”

Artist Swapnaa Tamhane |  Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace |  STIRworld

Artist Swapnaa Tamhane Image: Brandon Brookbank

Crucial to the exhibition are three cotton cloth installations created out of a heavily patterned block-printed fabric. On one hand, the installations replicate the sweeping ceiling of the cathedral-like auditorium in the building, on the other hand, they are translated into a shamiana (tent) – ubiquitous to grand Ottoman or Mughal culture. Furthermore, with this, Tamhane aspires to recontextualize the notions of decoration and pattern in compositions that echo tent forms used in India. Sophisticated in their construction, decoration, and ornamentation, the shamiana in the precolonial times was tantamount to the heart of the power, as its etymology suggests: the Persian word shah means king and miyana means centre.

A Space for the Ceremony of Close Readings, 2018. Natural dyes on cotton, cotton tassels, acrylic lantern, and audio read by Swapnaa Tamhane, 2021, Swapnaa Tamhane, with Salemamad Khatri and Mukesh Prajapati |  Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace |  STIRworld

Tent: A Space for the Ceremony of Close Readings, 2018. Natural dyes on cotton, cotton tassels, acrylic lantern, and audio read by Swapnaa Tamhane, 2021, Swapnaa Tamhane, with Salemamad Khatri and Mukesh Prajapati Image: Courtesy of Swapnaa Tamhane and Royal Ontario Museum

With the onset of the British Raj, the shamiana was equated with the makeshift tents: a home to nomads perpetually leading a life on the move. The peripatetic way of being was antithetical to the coloniser’s view of a secured living. Its sociological synonymy as temporary, transient and unreliable makes shamiana a metaphor for gray morality. As part of the immersive exhibition, the viewers are encouraged to enter and experience the tents. The tent – ​​a performance in itself – entails a suspension of disbelief: the fantastical element eyes the world beyond the confinements of state. The audience reflects not only on the production – the inner workings of the shamiana – but also on what lies beyond the space of theatrics – the outer world.

Detail of panel from Mobile Palace, 2019–2021, Natural dyes, appliqué, and beading on cotton, Swapnaa Tamhane, with Salemamad Khatri, and Mukesh, Pragnesh, and Avdhesh Prajapati, and Bhavesh Rajnikant.  Assistance from Sine Kundargi-Girard and Lydia Haywood-Munn |  Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace |  STIRworld

Detail of panel from Mobile Palace, 2019–2021, Natural dyes, appliqué, and beading on cotton, Swapnaa Tamhane, with Salemamad Khatri, and Mukesh, Pragnesh, and Avdhesh Prajapati, and Bhavesh Rajnikant. Assistance from Sine Kundargi-Girard and Lydia Haywood-Munn Image: Courtesy of Swapnaa Tamhane and Royal Ontario Museum

Additionally, the layered fabric compositions swiftly challenge the colonial hierarchies between art and craft. In a country like India – punctuated with diversity – the artisans and craftspeople across the vast subcontinent share a vast set of skills and vast knowledge. As the title of the exhibition Mobile Palace – the reification of the colonial semblance of order – it also attempts to question and disturb the hierarchies by working with quote-on-quote crafts like woodblock carving, block-printing, embroidery or ornament by suggesting a conceptual meaning to it. Tamhane frequently collaborates with artists based in Gujarat, India, to realize her creative process, “I want to collapse all these separations between the ideas of what art is, what craft is, and what design is, into visual encounters that bring all these ideas together, even onto the surface of a textile. The woodblock carver, Mukesh Prajapati, block-printer, Salemamad Khatri, and Qasab Kutch craftswomen are always credited in my work.”

Installation View of Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace |  Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace |  STIRworld

Installation view of Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace Image: Courtesy of Swapnaa Tamhane and Royal Ontario Museum

Tamhane’s response to the rich textile traditions and techniques practiced in India with the contemporary lens is reflected in the sweeping textiles and the incongruent design of the lines. Moreover, the performative nature of the tent activates the in-between spaces to manoeuvre the viewers to experience what lies outside the restricted terrain of inclusive and exclusive. “I would love for visitors to feel enveloped by the abundance of block printing, to notice all the interruptions in the patterning, to have their eye caught by the glittering embroidery. Each textile included is entirely unique in the print and dye application, with further additions of appliqué and beading. Lastly, I want viewers to think about these new forms of collaboration, to think about the histories of materials like cotton and indigo, and to reconsider decoration and ornamentation as metaphors for larger ideas,” concludes Tamhane.

Mobile Palace: Collaboration in Process, Royal Ontario Museum, 2022 Video: Francesco Shank and Rameshwar Bhatt

The art exhibition Mobile Palace runs at Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto until August 1, 2022

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