Luminous imperfection: Baghs – Abstract Gardens at The Brunei Gallery

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‘Baghs – Abstract Gardens’; Brunei Gallery, open until 25 September, 11-5pm Tuesday- Saturday. Free entry. 

Entering the exhibition currently on show at The Brunei Gallery, one is met with shimmering waves of red and gold, as the light and wind catch the closest of the shawls, baghs or phulkaris, as they ripple through the air towards the viewer.

It is this sense of movement of light across the surface of the textiles that permeates the show entirely, pulling the viewer in and around corners then outwards again towards the textiles. They invite the physical movement of our bodies through space. As viewers we find ourselves eagerly exploring surfaces, in the hope of catching a motif or pattern unexpectedly highlighted from a new and unusual perspective. This experience is something that Aldous Huxley might have felt alluded to the ‘antipodes of the mind’ – embroideries of colour and luminous perfection so great, that one almost forgets that one is standing there, physically looking at the textiles in person…almost.

Karun Thakar’s stunning exhibition brings together an exciting group of shawls or baghs (‘gardens’) and phulkaris (‘flower-work’), constituting a rare opportunity to see these hand embroidered textiles side by side, singly and as a group. Collected on numerous trips made by the curator himself to the previously undivided Punjab state of India, which now simultaneously includes the Pakistani region.

Often made by women and occasionally by men, the shawls are most regularly associated with weddings, made in the home by family embroiderers as a devotional, symbolic act in itself. Months of labour were invested in their making, for what would ultimately be brief periods of being worn as ceremonial head coverings. The baghs would then be folded away and stored afterwards, kept as a record of their owner’s eventful day. 

As with any artwork of such great beauty, its scope to become bound up with a means of production meant that baghs would too eventually find themselves destined for a more commercial export market – a shift that the exhibition encapsulates well. Narrative, pictorial representations give way entirely to repeat patterns and geometric designs which could, presumably, be more readily repeated by the embroiderers themselves in order to meet demands of an increasingly global world, with international trade on the rise. Meaning here too exists behind the abstract pattern work, notable in the chand or moon bagh, said to be used in the ‘Karwa Chauth’ ceremony whereby a day of fasting would be followed by an evening of looking at the moon, through a sieve, in order to secure its blessing.

Equally charming and playful moments can be found in the now indigo blue Foyle Gallery to the rear of the space. Here, decorative ceremonial jewellery is displayed alongside the embroidered fabrics giving us closer connection to the individual wearers of these garments. It’s a moment too, where the viewer can see clearly some of the decisions made in the process of making the baghs – stunningly delicate gold and pearl nose rings sit beside their pictorial representations in the embroidery, now simultaneously occupying both realms.

The baghs also carry with them an interesting counterpoint to perfection or being simply ‘too beautiful’. Only after being immersed in the exhibition for quite some time does one start to see flaws and imperfections in the stitching and the designs. A section of repeat pattern that doesn’t quite meet, or a seemingly randomly placed black diamond in an otherwise perfectly sewn golden lattice. I even started to noticed odd beads incorporated into the surface of a fabric that otherwise had none. These punctuation points or visual disruptions are far from accidental or arbitrary mistakes. On the contrary, they are devices employed against perfection, so that the baghs do not engender one too many envious glances, or even jealously and all of its destructive power, by virtue of the ‘evil-eye’. 

It’s an interesting thought, that something can be so transcendentally beautiful that it might become a danger to its owner. Or so successfully transport us to another realm that we need to be reminded of ourselves and our place in this material realm of imperfection, or that we might otherwise lose ourselves entirely.

Alex Whittaker is currently studying the Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art at SOAS. 

Read curator Karun Thakar’s discussion of the exhibition

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