Hidden in the Lining – Krishna in the Garden of Assam, the tales of two textiles


The Assamese lining of the banyan revealed (002)

A new special exhibition in partnership with the British Museum aChepstow Museum

Now showing until September 3 2017

This specially created partnership exhibition with the British Museum explores the origins, stories and meanings of wonderful silk woven temple textiles from 17th century north east India. A stunning example is remarkably in Monmouthshire Museums own collections… To all outward appearances this is an elegant 18th century gentleman’s dressing gown, known as a banyan. But hidden inside, kept from the ravages of light and wear, is a magnificent lining, made from this rare group of textiles woven in Assam, of which only about 20 examples survive today in collections around the world.

They are known as Vrindavani Vastra, which means the cloth of Vrindavan, – a forested region in north India where the Hindu god Krishna is believed to have lived as a young cowherd early in his eventful life. Dramatic scenes from Krishna’s life are woven into these vibrant strips of cloth. The same scenes feature in dance dramas performed with elaborate masks that are still distinctive to the region. Masks made by monks in Assam, and textiles have been loaned by the British Museum, and two beautifully illustrated pages from the finest Assamese manuscript in the British Library are also in the exhibition. The scene is set with some stunning film made in Assam featuring the masked dramas in preparation and performance.

In 2016 the banyan from Monmouthshire Museums Collections featured in the exhibition at the British Museum ‘Krishna in the Garden of Assam: the cultural context of an Indian textile’. That exhibition focussed on the largest surviving example of the Vrindavani Vastra type of textiles, now in the British Museum. At over 9 metres in length, it is made up of 12 separate lengths of cloth woven in Assam, which were stitched together later, probably in Tibet, with strips of damask and brocade along the top. As it was impossible to display the original British Museum textile here in Chepstow, it has been reproduced by digitally printing onto fabric.

The British Museum textile and the lining of the Banyan, were probably made in the same workshop and at about the same time. They both have the same brown background colour, the strips of cloth are of similar width, and the same scenes are shown.

The textiles probably date from around 1680 and are associated with the worship of Krishna. They are decorated with the same scenes from Krishna’s life that also feature in plays and dance dramas performed to music and with elaborate masks that are distinctive to the region. The exhibition also includes some spectacular masks made in a monastery in Assam where the dramas are enacted at a festival in late October. The monastery is one of a number on the island of Majuli in the great Brahmaputra river. Some beautiful film made on the island during the festival is also part of the exhibition. And especially for young visitors, there are some cartoons telling the stories of Krishna defeating demons, which appear on the textile and are played out in the masked dramas today. As well as masks and textiles on loan from the British Museum, there are two large pages of manuscript from the British Library.  Commissioned by the King of Assam in 1836, text and wonderful illustrations are on material made from the bark of the sanchi tree – a writing material unique to Assam.

Assam is dominated by the immense Brahmaputra river and enclosed by mountainous terrain, including the Himalayas. The British Museum Vrindavani Vastra textile travelled from Assam to a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, while the textile that was cut to make the lining of the banyan that stars in the exhibition, travelled a different route to the West. Combined with a subtle Chinese blue green damask silk the dressing gown was probably made in Calcutta for a European man who had made his fortune in India to wear in the West. New light has been shed on the possible identity of the owner, and how it came to be amongst a collection of 18th century costume in Monmouthshire….

This exhibition at Chepstow Museum running until September 3rd, a special partnership exhibition created in conjunction with the British Museum, explores the origins of these two amazing textiles and their intriguing history.

There will be a programme of events in association with the exhibition, for more details contact Chepstow Museum on 01291 625981



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