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South Asian Art - In Memory Of Prashant H. Fadia

Pedro Moura Caravalho, Anne Hawley and Alan Chong

Embroideries made in Bengal were exported to Portugal in large numbers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the twentieth century, however, the geographic origin of these works and the chronology of their production had become obscure, making interpretation difficult. The magnificent embroidery in the collection of the Gardner Museum is fittingly the centerpiece of this exhibition because of its unique and intricate imagery,
which merits close attention. Explored here for the first time, the imagery provides startling insights into a hybrid mode of representation brought into fragile being during a period of shifting political and cultural alliances. The
Gardner Museum’s textile is thus of unparalleled importance for the study of both Indian embroideries and Indo-European art.

As is often the case for Indo-Portuguese objects, the embroidery has been given a variety of attributions. Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased it in 1897 from a Parisian dealer who identified it simply as “Couvre-pieds, espagnol, blanc et bleu”. Since at least the 1930s, it has been displayed among various Japanese screens in the second-floor passage of the Gardner Museum. As early as 1935, however, the museum correctly classified it as a seventeenth-century chain-stitch embroidery from eastern India made for the Portuguese market. The museum’s guide of 1959 still identified the work as East Indian, but the edition two years later omitted the possibility that it was made for the Portuguese market. In 1976 it was attributed to Goa, perhaps made for the Portuguese trade. These confusions mirror the state of research in this field; even fine textiles such as the Gardner Museum embroidery, with evident royal connections, were long neglected.

In 1952 John Irwin convincingly identified the group of embroideries to which the Gardner Museum example belongs as from Bengal, with the main production center in the region around Satgoan and Hooghly, on the Hooghly River around forty kilometers north of Kolkata (Calcutta). In the 1986 catalogue of the Gardner Museum’s textiles, Adolph Cavallo classified the embroidery as a Bengali bedcover made in the first half of the seventeenth century, remarking, “The male busts, the figures, and armorial shields shown in relation to the great building in the central field, the building itself, and the four scenes with warriors all await proper interpretation.”

The lack of dated Indo-Portuguese embroideries prevents the establishment of a clear chronology. Only one work, in Geneva, bears a handwritten date, 1646, but this is not necessarily the year of its production. Extant pieces and documents indicate that Bengali embroideries had reached Lisbon much earlier, in the sixteenth century. In 1578 four Bengali “colchas” (bedcovers) were sent along with other gifts to what is now Morocco in exchange for the body of D. Sebastião. Textiles of this type thus seem to be among the earliest extant Indian embroideries. In 1596, an embroidery was described as Indian in the Schloss Ambras near Innsbruck, residence of Archduke Ferdinand II.

Bengali embroideries related to the Gardner Museum’s textile survive in large numbers. This is no doubt partly due to the extended period of their manufacture, from at least the mid-sixteenth century to beyond the mid-seventeenth century. Irwin suggested that the expulsion of the Portuguese from Hooghly in 1632 brought an end to the export of these embroideries. A miniature in the Padshahnama, a magnificent manuscript produced around 1650 for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, illustrates the Mughal attack on Hooghly, shown as a European-style city of considerable size. But there are reasons to believe that patronage may have persisted after 1632, since Portuguese merchants continued to inhabit the region. The Italian traveler Niccolao Manucci reported that many Portuguese living on Sri Lanka fled to Bengal after the Dutch captured the island in 1658. According to him, by the late seventeenth century, no fewer than eight thousand families of Portuguese and other European origin were living in Bengal.

Bengali embroideries like that in Gardner Museum are usually classified as coverlets, bedspreads, or quilts; however, examples with complex iconography aligned on a vertical axis undoubtedly functioned as wall hangings, which were commonly displayed in well-appointed homes of the period. The strength of the materials used and the method of execution also help explain the survival of large numbers of Bengali embroideries, often in pristine condition.Normally they are embroidered in chain-stitch with tasar or muga silk, the wild silks of the region, on a plain cotton ground. The Gardner Museum’s textile, while conventional in dimensions and format, has an unusual dark blue silk ground. Very few other blue-ground embroideries survive. One or possibly two were cut and transformed into hangings for a nineteenth-century four-poster bed in the Bowes Museum (Barnard
Castle, England); another recently appeared on the market.

The indigo used in dying the silk was probably imported from Gujarat, which many sixteenth-century travelers regarded as the source of the best blue dye. The blue silk surface, although partly worn, confers richness to Gardner Museum’s example and increases the legibility of the embroidered motifs; the more common monochromatic embroideries are often somewhat difficult to read. The fine needlework is of great virtuosity; using only a single type of stitch, the embroiderers filled all available space with a multitude of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, crustaceans, as well as mythological beasts in dense vegetation. As is the case with most early Asian export art, little is known about the artisans and workshops responsible for these embroideries; the working process and the method of transmitting ideas and models from clients to manufacturers remains unclear. The relatively large number of extant related pieces nevertheless implies that a considerable number of embroiderers worked simultaneously on individual pieces. Embroiderers may have labored together in workshops, or work could have been distributed to various villages where embroiderers followed specific instructions. It is also uncertain to what extent the particular form of the embroideries drew on preexisting local traditions, for little is known about these. The cyclical monsoon weather is particularly damaging to natural fibers such as cotton and silk, while cultural traditions did not favor the preservation of old textiles.

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