Book Extract: How India influenced western aesthetics
A new book by anthropologist Phyllida Jay explores fashion, textiles and visual cues to chart India’s influence on the West’s most iconic design houses
Chintz. Such an evocative word, conjuring images of flora and fauna, eternally suspended in a garden paradise. Its key motifs are tropical bird life, trailing vines, red or pink flowers in luscious full-bloom and buds heavy with fecund promise. Chintz traverses time and the surfaces of everything from mid-Georgian English canopied beds, women’s gowns of the Regency era and Victorian William Morris wallpaper. Nothing could be more ‘English’ in its associations: yet the name chintz is derived from the North Indian word ‘chint’, meaning ‘spotted’ cloth. Chintz is in fact an Indian invention, adapted for European tastes. In the seventeenth century, the vibrant hues of chintz were so admired that Indian imports all but destroyed the European textile industry. In response, the British and French governments imposed a ban on it.
However, such was its desirability that consumers continued to acquire chintz by smuggling it into Europe. This vibrant textile is but one of the myriad Indian decorative arts and crafts that came to define European luxury from the seventeenth century onwards. It was not just chintz that wove its way into the very hearts of European homes and fashions, but precious jewels, fine muslin cottons, fragrant tea, aromatic coffee, pungent spices and of course, Kashmir shawls. These goods, much coveted and prized in Europe were all inspired by India: by its rich cultural traditions, diverse geography and by the skill of Indian artisans. A watershed event was the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London. At a time when rapid industrialisation was upturning English society and ideas of labour and specialised craft were being replaced with ‘the dark satanic mills’ of machinery and mass manufacture: the Indian crafts displayed at the Great Exhibition were held-up as paragons of what constituted good design based on traditional artisanal skill. The ‘soulless’ products of mass-manufacture, were contrasted to the hand-crafted Indian objects, imbued as they were with values of community-based labour relations, personalisation and the individual skill of the craftsman. Indian textiles especially were displayed as examples of what good design should entail. The focus of the India section at the exhibition can also be understood as a two-way process of cultural exchange that can be traced back to the early trade in printed calicos.
Today this legacy reverberates across global fashion in myriad forms, part of such densely intricate histories of colonialism, cultural influence and assimilation that we are often unaware of their Indian origins. In a single object or style, it is often almost impossible to say where one cultural imprint ends and another begins. This complex web of cultural flows is only intensified in an era of Pinterest and Instagram. Here, images float in the vast, amorphous arenas of cyberspace, completely unanchored from their roots and original meanings. Not least, the Western fantasy of ‘the Orient’ frequently collapses the vast differences between India, China, Japan, North Africa or the Middle East into one amorphous idea and image of the ‘exotic’.
Yet the prevalence of Indian words in fashion’s lexicon attests to India’s distinctive role in fashion history, so that we have calico, chintz, bandanna, muslin, seersucker, shawl, dungarees, madras check, pyjama and khaki. So does the aesthetic influence and supply chains that incorporate Indian crafts across the spectrum of international fashion. Hence from luxury houses such as Hermès and Chanel, high fashion labels including Isabel Marant, Mary Katrantzou, Alexander McQueen, Temperley and Erdem, to high street brands such as Monsoon and Zara, Indian aesthetics, embroidery and embellishment are woven into the very fabric of international fashion, continuing to determine what consumers perceive as beautiful, luxurious, exotic and desirable. Sometimes their Indian origin isn’t evident, hidden within complex supply chains and aesthetic interpretations. Sometimes when Indian culture is overtly drawn upon, the nature of the interpretation attracts debates around cultural appropriation which flare up on social media. For example, in the 2016 music video for the song ‘Hymn for the Weekend’, Beyonce, styled like a Bollywood heroine in an Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla anarkali gown and matha patti (jewelled headgear), moved her elaborately hennaed hands sinuously in imitation of Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form. Meanwhile Coldplay frontman Chris Martin wandered through Mumbai’s largest slum Dharavi, crooning effortlessly about light and love, whilst children pelted one another with Holi colours. Opinion was divided on whether this was a celebration, or offensive pastiche, of Indian culture. This is just one of many instances that highlights the broad movement of digitally driven activism in the past few years, which has grown increasingly vocal and committed to ‘calling-out’ what is seen as ‘cultural appropriation’. It’s a highly charged subject by which designers must tread with greater care along a knife-edge between inspiration and accusations of theft. On one side, there are those who argue that creative freedom and the licence to freely draw from other cultures is vital to cultural innovation and creative expression. On the other side, many believe this, in fact, represents stealing, at the expense of the cultures being borrowed from. These cultures, they argue, are rarely compensated or acknowledged by those freely using the symbols and materials that represent their heritage.
These periodic debates that now play out on social media obscure a much richer history of cross-cultural influence and interchange, so long and so caught up in political, social and cultural upheavals, that they can neither be unequivocally celebrated, nor exactly reduced to the idea of appropriation. This book charts some of the material flows of objects that have been produced in over 350 years of contact and exchange between India and the rest of the world. Since the founding of the East India Company (EIC) in 1600; the end of British rule in 1947; and the decades that have passed since then, a dialogue has evolved between Indian and European aesthetics.
This book’s exploration of the history of India’s influence on Western culture (including its role in creations by some of the most influential and revered designers and luxury houses today) is intended to redress some of this lost history of India’s role in global material culture and design. Exploring the ways in which India has influenced Western fashions and luxury raises the history of colonial domination and exploitation. This history is the focus for Edward Said’s (1978) critique of ‘Orientalism’. It implies the construction of a mythical ‘Orient’, its defining characteristics believed to be immutable and in direct contrast to the Occidental world. In this binary, the ‘West’ is seen as superior in all things and the ‘East’ serves to reinforce a sense of Western hierarchy. However, simple binaries cannot account for the complexity of influence and assimilation between India and Western culture. Can there be a different way of viewing the relationship between power and cultural practice, by engaging in its very complexity? As the chapters in this book will demonstrate, India’s influence on global fashion and luxury has a long, complex and rich history. An over-riding concern will be to trace some of the ways that India was formed in the ‘Western’ imagination, and why some ideas and indeed Orientalist and stereotypes remain so pervasive to this day, raising broader questions of power, representation and hierarchy.