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A feast for the senses: “India in Fashion” exhibition at NMACC Mumbai

By Simone Preuss


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Culture |In Pictures

India-inspired dresses by Christian Dior (left) and Tarun Tahiliani (right). Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Everything about the “India in Fashion” exhibition in Mumbai is grand - the scale, the designers, the materials, the show’s opulence and last but not least, the venue itself. Housed in the newly opened Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Center at BKC Mumbai, it spreads over 50,000 square feet (more than 4,600 square meters) and nine exhibition rooms and dazzles with a one-of-its-kind experience.

Curated by Hamish Bowles and designed by Patrick Kinmonth with Rooshad Shroff, the exhibition is dedicated to showcasing Indian fashion, but not only in India but also its influence on the world. Thus, visitors are not taken on a purely chronological journey but also on side excursions into the world of materials, silhouettes and of course, embroidery.

Michelle Obama in a dress by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan, which she wore in 2009 for the first state dinner with then prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, and his wife. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited
The Taeem Khan dress worn by Michelle Obama. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Any exhibition of this scale located in the very center of the behemoth that is the Bollywood film industry is almost obligated to give a nod to this omnipresent force in every Indian’s life. Like no other, movies fuel the imagination and that includes what the heroes and heroines, their sidekicks and the many minor characters wear.

After an introduction that looks at how Indian finery refined Indian silks and embroidery at court in the 19th century, there is the obligatory nod to Bollywood with “An India of the Imagination” that traces Indian wear from fantasy to film.

The influence of Bollywood on fashion and fashion on Bollywood - the three blockbusters “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” a.k.a. DDLJ ("The Big-hearted Will Take the Bride”) of 1995; “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” a.k.a. K3G (“Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness”) of 2001 and the more recent “Dostana” (2008), which was the first Hindi mainstream film to explore the subject of homosexuality. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited.

From there, visitors are “Gathered in a Mughal Garden” to admire a splendid display of opulent floral chintz dresses, which made quite the impression on the fashionable West and got picked up by European couture, as did muslin creations, shown in the next room through six summery and light creations.

Hand-embroidered chintz slit dress with balloon sleeves by Indian designer Rahul Mishra, commissioned for “India in Fashion”, March 2023. Floral patterns like the ones popularised centuries ago are still in vogue as these visitor’s pants from British retailer Marks and Spencer show. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited.
Various breezy creations in muslin. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited.

The next three rooms are dedicated to “India’s allure meets Paris couture”, with one room each dedicated to ensembles by Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent from 1960 to 1968 that were inspired by Indian fashion.

Chanel ensembles of the 1960s. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited
Yves Saint Laurent creations of the 1960s. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited
Christian Dior outfits of the 1960s. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

While transitioning from one theme to the next, one is struck by American fashion columnist and editor Diana Vreeland’s realisation (in 1956 no less!) that “pink is the navy blue of India”. No kidding, a trend that anyone who has been to an Indian wedding or even an Indian office can vouch for - pink is everywhere, proudly worn by women and men alike.

“Pink is the navy blue of India” next to Valentino creations. Image: FashionUnited
Christian Dior agrees with this pretty in pink gown. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Valentino’s creations await in the next room, symbolising “a marriage of East and West”, followed by the inevitable “Journey of the Sari” and a look at how this marvel of drapery has claimed its rightful place in the history of western fashion. Here unfolds the story of the sari’s constant reinvention, from Paul Poiret’s creation in 1922 via Elsa Schiaparelli’s interpretation in 1939 to Mainbocher, Madame Grès, Carolyn Schnurer, Hubert de Givenchy, and more recently, Cristobal Balenciaga, Ritu Kumar, Jean Paul Gaultier and Raw Mango.

“India’s most enduring garment, with its layers and draping, has captured the interest of fashion designers more than any other Indian form of dress,” confirms the accompanying text.

“The Great Exhibition London 1851”. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

From there, one gets to the only part of the exhibition that seems to be put together rather randomly. Titled “The Great Exhibition London 1851” in remembrance of the international event inaugurated by Queen Victoria that saw more than 100,000 objects on display, here, there are dresses, accessories and other objects that span various decades before and after the event.

According to the accompanying text, the Great Exhibition “marked a hight point in the complex colonial relationship between Britain and India”. “The fashion for Kashmir shawls and the use of the buta [paisley design] reached a height of sophistication in the 1850s and continues to appear in the work of both Western and Indian designers from Christian Lacroix to Anamika Khanna,” it continues.

Elegant pantsuit by Jean Paul Gaultier. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

India’s influence on fashion boomed in the 1960s and after when people started travelling to India and got inspired by the country’s fashion and culture. The exhibition honours this development with “The Hippie Trail”, a room dedicated to the playful and colourful creations of designers from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

1967 dress made from Bandhari cotton gauze made by Austrian-American designer Rudi Gernreich. Image: FashionUnited
Colourful creations from “The Hippie Trail”. Image: FashionUnited

Last but not least, the exhibition ends with a nod to “Traditions and Innovations”, a look at contemporary Indian fashion: “The identity of an Indian designer is intrinsically tied up with that of the country’s rich textile and craft heritage. India’s exceptional crafts community has brought its magical skills to the collections of the 21st century, forward-facing design visionaries.”

Embroidered dresses by Indian designer Sandeep Khosla. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited
creations by Indian designer Rahul Mishra including the “Sea Nettle Padded Jellyfish Cape Dress” (centre). Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

“In a final honeycomb of spaces, we celebrate contemporary Indian designers’ remarkable diversity and their ability to see India in many different guises. As the world opens its eyes to their contribution and to new dimensions of representation, Indian fashion designers are finally receiving their due in the modern lexicon of global fashion,” concludes the show.

Details from the back. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited
Richly embroidered dresses by Indian designer Manish Malhotra inspired by the traditional craft of Phulkari on velvet and organza, which were commissioned for the exhibition. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Putting together an exhibition of this scale was no easy feat and one can only applaud those who had a hand in it. The list of lenders itself is impressive, ranging from the archives of couture houses like Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and Balenciaga to designer Ritu Kumar’s personal collection and museum loans from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp, the Museum of the City of New York, the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles and Palais Galliera in Paris.

Sabyasachi asymmetrical Kedia, tulle lehenga and veil from the “Bater” collection, July 2015. Image: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited

Before you visit, here are a few tips: Don’t get discouraged when you try to book tickets online and it says “sold out”; there are walk-in tickets available at the venue. Also, make sure to take along good reading glasses as the exhibits are dimly lit and labelling fairly small. There is lots of staff in every room who gently but firmly discourages walking back - so make sure to gather all information and sensual stimulation you need before walking ahead. And last but not least, for some perusing in peace, ear plugs are recommended as the piped in music does not fit the otherwise calm and well put together exhibition.

A must-visit for any fashion lover in any case. “India in Fashion” at Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre in Mumbai is on display until 4th June 2023.

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