Chepstow Museum invited Rini Kakati, FASS, NRI Assam Co-ordinator for UK as a guest to celebrate “Hidden in the Lining – Krishna in the garden of Assam”. Vrindavani Vastra exhibition at Chepstow Museum in partnership with the British Museum organized by Anne Rainsbury, Curator, Chepstow Museum, Bridge Street, Chepstow, Monmouthshire NP16 5EZ from April 13 – September 03, 2017.
This exhibition is centred on a remarkable object, which to outward appearances is an elegant 18th century gentleman’s dressing gown, known as a banyan. What makes it very special, is its lining. This is made from a woven silk textile from Assam in north-east India. It is one of a group of similar textiles 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.
Only about 20 pieces of this type of textile survive today, in collections around the world.
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 spectacular film made on the island during the festival will also be part of the exhibition.
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 explores the origins of these two amazing textiles and their intriguing history. The exhibition opens on Thursday 13 April, coinciding not just with the start of Easter, but with the Assamese New Year Festival of Rongali Bihu.