Book Review: “Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage” by Frank Ames

Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage, Frank Ames; Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge/UK 2010, ISBN 978-1-85149-598-6; 254 pages, colour illustrations, English text.

Frank Ames’ earlier book, “The Kashmir Shawl and its Indo-French Influence”, first published in 1986 and reprinted several times since, has become the standard-of-comparison text, from which other authors could branch off into other areas like Pakistani collections (Rehman & Jafri), or present-day production (Rizvi & Ahmed).  Now it has given him an opportunity to embrace diverse aspects of the subject in a more personal way, addressing possible influences like European herbals and expatriate military adventurers, and depictions in Indian and Persian court paintings.

One topic that Ames considers is the extent to which artists in royal ateliers producing miniature painting may have contributed to trends and regional preferences in shawl designs.  G. W. Leitner, a 19th-century documentarist, described the shawl design process by which the naqqash’s (the artist’s) line drawings were interpreted by the tarah guru (the weaving-workshop designer) adding and filling colours and judging how much detail could be retained in the weaving, from his viewing apparatus and his weaving experience.  I think that step in the process adds to the likelihood that any artists’ drawings from near or far, could be commissioned by their royal patrons and forwarded to Kashmir for shawl weaving.

When I was in Lahore in 1999, to give a workshop to National College of Arts textiles students, I idly visited the would-be museum of the work of M. Abdur Rahman Chughtai and met his son Arif.  There was an exhibition of graphic two-colour book dustjackets he had designed, in what seemed like the front parlour of the Chughtai home.  I was given books of his paintings, that remind me of Aubrey Beardsley’s Art Nouveau style, in the midst of which I found an elaborate arabesque drawing described as “a Naqashi Work”, suggesting he followed in the tradition of working to different styles and purposes.

I think the central thesis of Ames’ latest book, by contrast with John Irwin’s precursor “The Kashmir Shawl” (1974), and his earlier classic, is about the danger in history-writing of viewing events from a distance and assuming that they unfolded in a smooth, self-contained, and logical progression.  Especially where the early evidence, the textile fragments, are so scarce, and incidental comments on the shawl industry by royal biographers, are so vague.  From a distance, we automatically simplify, and gloss over the gaps in information and breaks implied by events of a different kind like religion or politics.  In the transitions from Mughal to Afghan to Sikh periods, and the intersections with Persian history and other movements along the Silk Road, there is so much scope for the advent of new influences, we might think if we were there that current events were bursting upon us just as we do today.  Whereas to the distant historian the dust has settled over all, conveying an impression of uniformity and logical connection.

In a discussion about surprising developments in the science of genetics, a quote attributed to Stephen Jay Gould described evolution as a process of “punctuated equilibrium”.  I object to the arbitrary re-definition of “evolution”, but I think it is fair to say that, as in the welter of scientific discoveries, so in the history of the shawl industry, “punctuated equilibrium” may be the right description of events and assumptions.

In the end, I think Ames is very brave and generous, from his position of expertise, to acknowledge and appeal for more evidence and more wide-ranging consideration of how the changing styles of shawls came down to us.  As a reader, with little to contribute, I was captivated and hugely entertained, and left not with pat conclusions, but a richer appreciation of the world of those times.  And as a viewer who has complained of the “soupy overall harmony” of 19th-century shawls, I was continually surprised by his selection of vivid and sharply-drawn examples.

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~ by Peter Harris on 31/10/2011.

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