Textiles — whispering soul of India

by Angela Jeffs

Walking into the main exhibition hall on the second floor of the Nihon Mingeikan (Japan Folkcrafts Museum) in Tokyo’s Komaba, re-creates the startling impression Hiroko Iwatate received when she first went to India 37 years ago.

“I was in this desert area near the northwestern border with Pakistan. All I could see were dazzling colors against endless blue skies, harsh sun and bone-dry sand. As different to Japan as could be imagined. That was when I fell in love.”

It was also when she began collecting antique and vintage Indian textiles. Not pieces created as art, but ordinary items — clothing, rugs, quilts, curtains — utilizing skills, techniques and designs passed down by generations of women over the centuries.

Nor did it matter if items were worn and frayed. Iwatate simply brought them home to pick out the debris (and dead insects), then repair as best she could.

Wear and tear is a part of their intrinsic beauty, she considers.

You can see the pick of her collection on display at “Textiles: The Soul of India,” which will run until Dec. 20. Next year it will go to Osaka. Also Toyoda, and “hopefully” Hiroshima. The current show coincides with the publication by Kyuryudo of a book of the same name — a gift itself.

The first items to catch my eye in the main room were the first textiles purchased: turban scarves that attracted Iwatate “because they looked like lengths of tie-dye shibori” and also late-19th-century camel girths and harnesses “because the designs were so contemporary.”

Born in Tokyo, Iwatate studied weaving (and printing) under the tutelage of Yoshitaka Tanagi, a relative of the founder of the Mingeikan, Muneyoshi (Soetsu) Yanagi.

After graduating, she traveled to Peru. Today, such an excursion hardly causes a ripple, but in 1965, for anyone to travel abroad — let alone a young single Japanese woman — was a rarity.

“Why South America? Because it was a heart-beating matter. I wanted to see 1,000-year-old Incan textiles. We were starved of experience in those days. I remember looking down at the lights of New York and my knees trembling.”

After Peru, she decided to take a look at Asia. China was too close to home. By comparison, India seemed wonderfully exotic. But when she got there, she found museums interested only in classicism, not the art of the commonplace.

“I remember finding some turbans in a dusty old glass case. I was desperate to take photographs, and finally the director took pity on this crazy young Japanese woman and had it opened up by pulling out all the nails. The fabrics were 100-year-old shibori — simple, basic, truthful, lovely.”

After two months traveling all over India, she returned with 10 items, but could not stop thinking about what she had seen and left behind. Six months later, she returned, to buy wherever she could, initially from people off the street, from women in their homes, and eventually from dealers and other collectors.

“In those days I needed police permission to travel in the India-Pakistan border areas. There were no roads, and the land was like an ocean. Taxi drivers like the late Mr. Tak in Jodphur became friends, my way into people’s hearts and homes.”

Iwatate’s collection of ethnic Indian textiles, the oldest dating back to the 18th century, now numbers 4,000. She keeps them in tin-lined tea boxes, “because they’re cheap and combat humidity,” all stored in an air-conditioned room in the building she and her husband, American George Burrill, own in Jiyugaoka.

“We live there, with a gallery-cum shop showing and selling contemporary Indian textiles on the third floor. I named it Khadi Iwatate after the self-sufficient homespun cloth that Gandhi advocated as part of his philosophy.”

The intensity of her passion for textiles is palpable. She nearly runs from exhibit to exhibit, explaining where she found things and what makes them so interesting. On a wall covered with items of clothing, she points to a woman’s top that appears a dull black.

“Girls wear bright colors until they wed. The woman of the Rabari people who wore this obviously dyed it after she got married. Issey Miyake (the fashion designer) was here the other day and he said it was wonderful, because it showed so clearly that there are many blacks.”

A quilt cover from the Kutch area was a fairly recent acquisition and, unusually, on a synthetic base and newly made. Traditionally, fabrics were natural — cotton, wool, silk — and colored with natural dyes.

“I met a young woman in a Muslim village and she invited me to her house. She was wearing Western-style clothing, so I asked her why she didn’t wear traditional embroidered clothes, and she said ‘Oh, they’re so old-fashioned!’

“But then I saw this amazing quilt cover she had made, with fine colorful embroidery and hundreds of tiny mirrors stitched into place. Believing it old-fashioned she was quite happy for me to have it. I just hope she makes more and keeps her skills going.”

The mirrors that are so commonly associated with Indian textiles were originally made from mica. Now they are cut into shapes from sheet mirror.

They were functional, as well as decorative. Traditionally people had only small lamps at night, so mirrored hangings reflected light back into the room or tent. The mirrors were also believed to keep bad spirits as well as wild animals at bay.

Iwatate’s most recent purchases were two curtains printed with indigo and madder, weighted with leather to keep them hanging flat. Every piece on display has a story, which she relates in breakneck English with enormous enthusiasm. Jewel-colored sari silks. Fine muslin veils and cashmere scarves. Woven wool plaids. Quilted (indigo) jackets. Incredible wedding clothes. And kanthas.

Kanthas are quilts from the Bengal area, and she Iwatate stops in front of a favorite, made as part of a dowry by the bride’s mother. Pointing, she says, “Look! Dogs, cats, monkeys, elephants, flowers, trees, children playing, people smiling! It’s a social and historical document as well as a woman’s mandala.”

After entering her husband’s house or tent after marriage, a woman was now allowed to go out, especially in rural areas. All her frustration, emotions, dreams, memories and love went into kanthas, made for a daughter’s dowry, as travel rugs for the men in the family, or a grandchild’s blanket.

“Women like this may have been uneducated, but their powers of ingenuity, patience and creativity were limitless.”

Right now, Japan is nearing the end of a year of celebration of Indian-Japanese relations. If you haven’t marked the occasion as yet, there are only two choices: Opt for a slap-up Indian meal, or go to “Textiles: The Soul of India.”

Come to think of it, there is only one choice. Because this exhibition is food enough, for mind, body and spirit. After walking around, sit down and close your eyes. Imagine the lights going down and the doors closing at the end of the day, and listen. . .

Listen to the spirit of loom and needlecraft whispering down over the years.

Nihon Mingeikan, Komaba 4-3-33, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-0041; phone (03) 3467-4527; fax (03) 3467-4537. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Monday. Regular admission price: ¥1,000. Web site (with details of talks and workshops relating to the exhibition): http: //www.mingeikan.or.jp; For information on Khadi Iwatate e-mail: burrill@gol.com