The Story of the Calico Museum
by Martand Singh, 1980
Reprinted from “Treasures of Indian Textiles”,
Calico Museum, Ahmedabad, Marg Publications,1980.
The Calico Museum of Textile, only thirty-one years old, is today justly regarded as one among the foremost textile museums in the world and an important Indian institution. Its outstanding collection of Indian fabrics exemplifies handicraft textiles spanning five centuries and attracts large numbers of visitors from the general public, as well as increasing numbers of Indian and international research scholars. Most significant, it has become a major reference area for our surviving handicraftsmen and also for the Indian machine-textile industry.
The Museum was inspired by Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, who, in conversations with Shri Gautam Sarabhai during the 1940s, suggested the founding of a textile institute in the city of Ahmedabad, a major trading centre of the textile industry of the sub-continent since the fifteenth century. In 1949 Shri Sarabhai, his sister Gira Sarabhai and the great industrial house of Calico acted on this suggestion, founding the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, as the specialist museum in India concerned with both the historical and technical study of Indian handicraft and industrial textiles.
By the early fifties the Museum discovered its original intent, encompassed too large an area and concentrated its energies on the vast and vital field of handicraft textiles, devoting less and less time to industrial fabrics.
By the second decade of its existence the Museum launched an ambitious publications programme. The programme worked on two series, namely Historical Textiles Of India under the editorship of John Irwin, then keeper of the Indian Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum; and the second, under the editorial direction of Dr Alfred Bühler, fümer Director of the Museum Für Volkerkunde Und Schweizerisches Museum Für Volkskunde, Basel, who conducted a Contemporary Textile Craft Survey of India.
Inaugurating the Museum in 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru stated, “The early beginnings of civilization are tied up with the manufacture of textiles, and history might well be written with this as the leading motif.” And indeed, so well had the Calico Museum of Textiles fulfilled this brief that by 1971 the House of Calico decided that the excellence of the fabric collection and the invaluable research conducted by the publications department were such that the Museum should be an independent society.
That the Museum was able to accomplish the transition to an independent entity was due in large part to the enlightened administration by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai. From its very inception in 1949 the Museum was able to draw not only on their knowledge but also on their wide reputation as connoisseurs of the arts, which drew to the Museum scholars and administrators of international and national eminence such as John Irwin, Alfred Bühler, Moti Chandra and its present Chairman, Pupul Jayakar. With such outstanding talent to guide it, the Calico Museum of Textiles in its three decades of existence has been able to create and sustain a consistently high level not merely of scholarship but of excellence in all the many technical fields required to run a museum of this nature-acquiring the services of craftsmen, designers, artists, carpenters, tailors, lighting experts, etc.
The sustained funding by the Calico Group, despite the independence of the Museum Society, has allowed the Museum to grow both in volume and stature.
The Museum’s publications, which have now taken two distinct directions, give some indication of where the next surge of activity will take place. While the number of publications concerned with historical studies continues and increases, the second direction has resulted in research and publication of studies preoccupied with the technical and scientific examinations of textile processes such as looms, dyeing, printing techniques, etc.
*In 1982, Calico Museum of Textiles ran into serious problems. The Calico Mills (established as long back as 1880), which was funding the activities of the Museum got into grave financial difficulties, and its Board of Directors realised that it was not possible for the Mills to financially support the Museum. Aware, however, of the importance of the Textile Museum, and acknowledging its collection as a National Heritage, the Board of Directors decided to make other arrangements for the maintenance and management of the Museum: an agreement was arrived at with the Sarabhai Foundation which undertook to run and take care of the Museum, using its own funds.
Following this, the Museum was shifted from the Mills compound to the Shahibagh premises of the Sarabhai Foundation in 1983.
For housing the collection of the Museum, two different structures in the Retreat complex were used initially : the Sarabhai-ni-Haveli, and a complex of buildings around the old swimming pool, now commonly designated as the ‘Chauk’. The Haveli was used for housing the “Religious Textiles”, including Vaishnava and Jain artifacts in their historical and cultural context: the swimming pool complex, greatly modified and added to with facades of carved wood taken from old residential Gujarati houses built around a Chauk, was used to display large tents, carpets, costumes and textiles of Mughal and Provincial courts of India.
The two sets of buildings being close to each other, offered the opportunity to visitors to the Museum of being led from one to the other through spacious lawns, avenues and a bridge over a lily pond.