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Pakistan stands proud at V&A

Annalisa Barbieri on a show which puts its crafts on a par with those of India
  • @AnnalisaB
Pakistan has as fine a heritage of arts and crafts as India, but has long been overshadowed in western eyes by its larger neighbour. This week a major show celebrating the textiles of Pakistan - the first of its kind outside the country - opens at London's Victoria and Albert Museum in an attempt to put this right.

Colours of Indus: Costumes and Textiles of Pakistan opens on Thursday with a dazzling array of shawls, dresses, saris, shoes and turbans in vibrant colours and fine threads. The skills on display are in danger of dying out as the country becomes more urbanised.

Although the show is billed as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the creation of Pakistan, the co-curators, Dr Nasreen Askari and Rosemary Crill, believe its importance is in giving Pakistan a separate identity from that of India.

"Pakistan has not had a distinctive existence, it's always been subsumed - India has a much more productive PR, its traditions are much better documented and understood," said Dr Askari, who spent three years working on the show.

Even within the V&A itself the department that deals with South Asia is called the Indian department. "So for me it was very relevant that I burrow into the bowels of the museum and separate Pakistan from India and give it its own platform," she said. Dr Askari began collecting in 1971. Her first piece was a dowry cloth, given to her by a patient while at medical school in Sind (Dr Askari is an oral surgeon). Since then she has been constantly adding to her personal collection.

"I'm the despair of my family as I travel to villages as much as I can when I go back," she said. Other items are from the V&A itself, or borrowed from museums and private family collections.

The exhibition follows the journey of the Indus - Pakistan's main river - across four provinces, from south to north, and provides a fascinating "woven" representation of Pakistan's topography, with local variations in weaving, embroidery, dyeing and printing.

It reveals that in neighbourhoods near running water, for instance, there are printing techniques that need water, while in regions which are hostile and encourage a more nomadic lifestyle, embroidery flourishes. The Sind region's varied terrain, with flourishing mangrove swamps, plains and deserts, is reflected in the diversity of the garments' decoration including tie-dyeing, weaving, printing and embroidery.

Although these arts still exist today, like all handicrafts around the world, they are not as practised as they once were. In Pakistan it is printing and weaving that are most in danger as they are the most labour intensive. But even in embroidery, modern ways encroach - the stitches may not be as fine as they once were, the dyes synthetic and brighter. Where once great works of art may have been made by entire families now they are commissioned out - and are expensive.

Colours of Indus runs from 9 October until 29 March