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Jasleen Dhamija’s life embodies the rich and vibrant textile heritage of India. She has years of knowledge, understanding and experience on the subject. For over six decades she has been a pioneer in the research and revival of the textile traditions of this country, as well as Iran, Africa, Central Asia, the Balkans and South East Asia. Since the time India achieved independence, Jasleen has been documenting and working with handicrafts and hand-woven textiles. She did this by studying gazetteers researched by the English District officials and gathering information from scholars, master craftspeople and traders. Through her commanding personality, her eloquent oratorical skills and her highly evolved sense of aesthetics, she has inspired and mentored countless young scholars, imparting to them her unique vision of India’s textile legacy.
Jasleen was born in Lahore in 1933. Her father, Manmohan Singh, was a remarkable entrepreneur and opened a hotel in Anarkali bazaar, a bus company, a bakery and a bank. They lived in a large haveli, as a joint family. Her father was passionately fond of music and dance and encouraged his daughters to study these arts. Jasleen was taught dance. It was unacceptable for girls to learn music and dance in those days, and his colleagues mocked him saying, “He is making singing and dancing girls of his daughters!” Unfortunately, due to economic failure caused by the Great Depression, the bank collapsed and the family lost everything and returned to Abbottabad in the Hazara district (now in northeastern Pakistan). It was a provincial town but strategically located on trade routes and known for its fine embroidery of phulkari and bagh. Jasleen recalls growing up in a large family, with a doting mother and an older sister who inspired her. Growing up in the years immediately leading up to India’s independence, her family was actively involved in the Freedom Movement.
Jasleen in Abbottabad dressed in her aunt’s jewellery, 1937.
Probably her most memorable moment was Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to their home in 1938, accompanying him at age five on walks in their garden and being introduced to his message of a self-sustaining nation through the importance of spinning and wearing khadi. Another influential figure was the Sikh poet and spiritual leader Bhai Vir Singh, who lived in Amritsar and whom the family would visit each year. The third, was the gift of a beautifully embroidered pillow cover, made in anticipation of her wedding, by Hazra Bibi, a woman from Swat who worked in their home. These images have stayed with Jasleen all her life, making a strong and lasting impression on her.
In 1940 her family moved to Delhi and the city has been her home ever since, apart from a short residence of six years in Ahmedabad from 1983-89. It was during the years of attending the Presentation Convent at Kashmiri Gate and later Miranda House, that Jasleen became interested in handcrafted products. At times, roaming the bazaars of Delhi, picking up colourful block-printed fabrics or brocaded materials. Other times fashioning a bag or a lampshade, she would sell these to the Central Cottage Industries Emporium located at the old WWII barracks on Janpath. A trip to South India proved fortuitous when she showed her purchases to L C Jain, Member Secretary of the Handicrafts Board, who was so impressed by the young woman, that he introduced her to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a pioneer in India’s crafts revival movement, and invited her to join the Board. That was in 1954, and though it meant giving up her postgraduate studies at Miranda House, she has never looked back since.
Jasleen has been involved with policy formulation, revival efforts, design and product development for the handicraft and handloom sector. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was keen to revive all that the British had tried to destroy, especially the production of handloom products. Working closely with Kamaladevi, she travelled throughout the country meeting a range of craftspeople including weavers, dyers and printers. Often going where there was no road, Jasleen narrates her encounters in those early days of discovering a hundred-year-old earthen pot used to ferment indigo, or meeting the last known weaver of kani shawls, or reusing the redundant wooden blocks of a print maker. Referring to old British Gazetteers, Kamaladevi and Jasleen located craftspeople in village after village they travelled to. As her story unfolds, it becomes apparent that her work in those early days has helped shape the trajectory of significant developments in the field of textiles in India, provided livelihood opportunities to thousands, and sustained the craft in multiple forms for the future.
Jasleen has travelled extensively, and lived in many places, during her career. She lived in Iran for seven years, and Africa and Central Asia for four years each. During this time she worked as a cultural advisor and consultant on rural non-farm development and women’s employment for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). Iran especially, touched her deeply and continues to have a special place in her heart. After 17 years of intensive work in India covering the length and breadth of the country, she was delighted to have the opportunity to study the traditions of Iran. What fascinated her most were the links between the two countries and being able to make connections between present day crafts in India and those that existed in Iran. Jasleen was invited to teach at the Institute of Ethnography on the symbolic significance of the rural traditions; Iranian scholars were very keen to learn of their ancient past and the traditions they had lost. Her work in other parts continued with this focus, and in South East Asia as well, she created an awareness of the links with past traditions between there and India. Jasleen was able to build on the skills she had learnt from Kamaladevi and apply these to countries whose economies also needed to be developed and strengthened. Living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 1978-82, she worked in 21 countries in Africa, reviving important craft traditions that had been lost and creating a number of schemes for women’s employment. The break-up of the Soviet Union created great hardship for the women whose economic and social needs had been looked after by the government. In 1994, she travelled throughout Central Asia as a Head of the Mission of developing programmes for the women. Uzbekistan faced in some of its remote areas, such as Kashkadarya and Sukhandarya, a high rate of suicide by women. Jasleen headed a UNDP project for assisting women there for four years.
An author and editor of several publications on Indian textiles, one of her most popular books, Indian Folk Arts and Crafts (1970), continues to be in demand today. Other books over the years have included Living Tradition of Iran’s Crafts (1979), Asian Embroidery (2004) and Sacred Textiles of India (2014). She has contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Iranica and edited Volume IV of World Encyclopaedia on South Asia & South East Asian Dress & Fashion (2010). She has been a visiting faculty at NIFT in New Delhi and at the University of Canberra, Australia, and received the Hill Professorship at the University of Minnesota. She continues to curate and write about the subject, often from a contemporary perspective, both encouraging and working with a generation of young scholars and artists.
Jasleen with her colleague Aminata Traore in Bambako, Mali, West Africa, 1980
Her most recent exhibitions were Power Cloths of the Commonwealth for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne (2006) and New Delhi (2010), and another on The Sacred Grid – Phulkari, Bagh and Sainchi in Delhi (2012). She has organised two festivals on the Sacred Arts of India. She also continues to be an advisor to the Crafts Council of India, which she helped set up in 1964, and works closely with the World Crafts Council. For the 12th Five-Year Plan of the Planning Commission, Government of India, she was the Chairman of the Committee for Handlooms Development. Today, she is widely acknowledged internationally as a philosopher of living cultural traditions.
Jasleen’s personal life reflects her professional career – her home is a showcase for the world’s prized textiles and she herself is always dressed in the most exquisite saris. She commands a presence that speaks of her aesthetic taste and vision for what living with handcrafted ideally means. After textiles, her next love is food, and she is widely known for her warm hospitality and the incredible flavours of her cooking. She is also the author of two cookbooks, Joy of Vegetarian Cooking (2000) and Food for All Seasons (2003).
Jasleen has collected discerningly, each piece carefully selected for its technique, design, colours and meaning. Some have been purchased in bazaars; others directly off a weaver’s loom and some are the first pieces from independent India’s revival efforts. Many are no longer made, barely visible in the cultures they come from, their use and meaning almost forgotten.
Monisha Ahmed, who has written the text for this catalogue, is an independent researcher whose work focuses on art practices and material culture in Ladakh. Her doctoral degree from Oxford University developed into the book Living Fabric: Weaving Among the Nomads of Ladakh Himalaya (2002), which received the Textile Society of America’s R L Shep Award in 2003 for best book in the field of ethnic textile studies. She has published several articles on textile arts of the Himalayan Buddhist World as well as other areas in India. More recently, she wrote a chapter on textiles for The Arts and Interiors of Rashtrapati Bhavan: Lutyens and Beyond (2016). Ahmed co-edited Ladakh: Culture at the Crossroads (2005) and collaborated on Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl and Beyond (2009). Formerly Associate Editor of Marg (2010-16), she is co-founder and Executive Director of the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation, Leh.
Textiles are amongst the oldest techniques mastered by the human race. Studies of the evolution of man from hunters to food gatherers to nomadic and agrarian ways of life, have used the art of weaving as their mainstay. Woven fibres created the first shelters, the beginning of architecture. The stitching of leaves shaped the earliest container, patram.
Textiles, because of their inherent nature may not have survived, but it is their impressions left on clay pots that confirm that they have been part of the technological evolution from pre-historic times. The analysis of a fragment of woven and dyed cotton adhering to a silver jar excavated at a Harappan site indicates that not only was cotton spun and woven but the use of mordants in the dyeing process was practised. At the same time, a number of drop spindles and large dye vats have been found at the Harappan port of Lothal as well as at Dholavira, both on the coast of Gujarat.
Throughout the world, a number of origin myths are associated with the art of weaving, as are references to philosophical concepts. In India especially, a large part of the vocabulary and imagery of philosophical and religious thought is taken from textile terminology.
Yantra, the esoteric design used for meditation is derived from the Sanskrit word for the loom. Till today, the ritualistic kushti (sacred thread), woven by the Zoroastrians, is woven on the loom that is known to them as yantra. Sutra, to string together, is the name for the Buddhist texts. Grantha, a sacred volume is derived from the word ‘to plait, to knit together’. Tantra originates from the word for the warp, tantu. The main warp beam is known as stamba, and that is the axis mundi connecting all the parts together. Early surviving fragments and visual documentation are clues to the limitless ingenuity of the makers of these textiles, as are references to the craft in oral literature and mythology. Beyond surface designs, textiles have also played a symbolic role in the country’s social and cultural landscape; their importance recognised at major life-cycle rituals and significant events. At the same time, many of these textile traditions are still practised in the country, demonstrating their continuities with the past.
In the evolution of textiles, we see the world influenced by the movement of people. Nomads created rich textiles to personalise their space and many of their traditions were passed on to the people where they settled. The Heer embroidery of the Kathiawar was linked to the influence of the Huns, who migrated across Central Asia with one group entering Gujarat in the 5th century AD. The Heer Chaklas embroidered by the women of the Kathis are linked to their origins from the Epthalites, a branch of Huns, who were sun worshippers.
Textiles also became an important item of trade from an early date in India, as seen in excavations at Lothal, a Harappan port in present-day Gujarat, it controlled much of the trade with the outside world. Seals and ceramics from the Indus valley found in Mesopotamia testify to trade with the Middle East. The Puranas mention the ‘Mountains of Moon’ and the source of the Nile as the ‘Country of Amara’, or Ethiopia. Lothal was not only well organised to receive goods but also to supply them, as can be seen by the presence of dye vats and kilns for preparing carnelian and agate beads. Examples of these beads in various stages of cutting, polishing into different shapes have been found at Lothal indicating that lapidary work was carried out in this area, and agate beads undoubtedly of Indian origin, have been found throughout the classical world and Southeast Asia. Today India continues to have the richest range of textile techniques and some of the finest master weavers and designers continue this tradition.
Indian textiles have enchanted the world for centuries, whether it is the exquisite fineness of the weave, the detail in the intricate embroidery, or the rhythmic repetition of a block printed pattern. A traditional textile conveys to the knowing eye a great deal not only about the creators, but also about those for whom it is created. The materials used, the weight and texture of the cloth tell us of the geo-climatic conditions in which it was made. The woven motifs, the use of pattern and colour, convey the origin stories, a people's cultural history and symbolic implications.
The simplest pattern of the checked cloth is linked to the sacred grid, which was the basis of the mandala, the fire altar, the multiplication of nine squares was navagrah, the protective symbol. The chequered squares are created by the movement of equidistant parallel lines horizontal to the earth, crossing with parallel lines moving skywards and cutting across the horizontal space, forming an enclosed sacred space.
The puja sari and angavastram used throughout southern India is woven in checks of red and yellow that signify rajas and satvic, that together create the ritually pure and powerful cloth. This chequered cloth called RMH (Real Madras Handkerchief) became an important ritual cloth in Africa, where it has been exported from very early times. It continues to be used for rites of passage in West Africa especially amongst the Kalabari of Nigeria. It was also known as guinea cloth, because of its monetary value.
Further, the square rumal was given greater power by inscribing on it the name of Allah, or the suras from the Holy Koran, as well as renderings of the double sword of Hazrat Ali, a gift to him from Hazrat Mohammad. One of the most powerful garments was the protective talismanic jackets and those made in India were highly regarded. Magical powers, especially of older women, were also associated with the use of locally available vegetables and minerals used in dyeing. The dyers were often also healers. Indigo was processed by them and it became an important skill, which they mastered.
Along with the silk route, the spice trade route by sea was equally important. Traders exchanged their textiles for spices, which grew in abundance on the islands. They carried their religious beliefs and practices, which were absorbed into the local traditions.
Some of the earliest surviving examples of Indian textiles are actually found among the pieces traded to centres such as Niya in Xinjiang, China, or Fostat near Alexandria in Egypt and Southeast Asia. In more recent history, are the highly coveted pashmina shawls and chintz fabrics that were traded to England, Europe, and Southeast Asia. As political, artistic and commercial developments evolved between regions, textile technologies were also shared. Silk making came from China, while from Central Asia came the loom with the overhead harness, created by the Naqshabandis. Disciples of the Pir Bahu-din-Naqshabandi, they first went to Surat from Bukhara, and then to Varanasi and Aurangabad making elaborate gold brocades. The tiraz khanas, or Islamic weaving ateliers of Syria created the extra weft brocade, which was introduced into India.
Key to the survival of India’s hand-woven textiles was patronage and demand, from simple homespun khadi to elaborately patterned silks. The creation of some of the most remarkable textile pieces in India were largely those conceived for the country’s rulers and chief courtiers. Their extensive labour, combined with costly materials, required the kind of patronage that only they could afford. Foremost amongst these were the Mughals, but also to a lesser extent those of the Deccani sultanates, Rajputs and Marathas. As patronage ebbed and British colonial rulers tried to impede weavers from working and enforced imported fabrics on Indians, support for the craft diminished.
Over the years, textiles have been handed down within families as precious heirlooms. Alongside public museum collections of textiles in the country, private collectors have also emerged. The Sarabhais started the Calico Museum, Praful and Shilpa Shah - the TAPI collection, Jagdish Mittal - the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, and O P Jain - Sanskriti. Against this background, Jasleen Dhamija’s collection is one woman’s journey that reflects her involvement with the technical, aesthetic and non-verbal language of textiles. Arranged in four groups – sacred, nature, female and male – they speak across boundaries to that which is essential to our lives.
Catalogue Text: Dr. Monisha Ahmed
Reference Images: Jasleen Dhamija
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