Orientalism and ‘The Fabric of India’

                                             fabric “… she had arrayed herself in an infinity of shawls, turbans, and diamond necklaces, and had mounted upon an elephant to the sound of the march in Bluebeard, in order to pay a visit of ceremony to the Grand Mogul.”

Becky Sharpe imagining ‘India’ in ‘Vanity Fair’  Thackery (1847)

Said (2007) and Fanon (2008) both draw attention to the structure of colonialism in European critical thinking and the ways in which these hidden intellectual structures contribute to the construction of ‘otherness’ in relation to non-European cultures and practices. Said characterises orientalism as:

“…a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemiological distinction made between the Orient and the Occident”

Said 2007

In Said’s dichotomy the ‘Occident’ invariably is presented as the calm, rational more ‘civilised’ parent figure of a child-like, emotional and unsophisticated ‘Orient’.  For Said, it is this mind-set which has justified the continuing cultural imperialism in the mind of the ‘Occidental’; as an act of munificence in which the ‘Occident’ bestows its greater knowledge and systems of material culture on a thankful ‘Orient’.  Fanon pushes this view further, seeing colonialisation as a process of objectification in which colonial oppressors dehumanise a subjected population:

“Racism is a particularly complex and powerful set of structures for imposing objectifying relationships”

Fanon 2008

Fanon also looks at the issue of dependency in relation to black post-colonial identity, noting that the gaze (Lacan, 1981) of the Other, in this case the culture of imperialism, causes a sense of personal and historical alienation in an individual:

“When the Negro makes contact with the white world, a certain sensitizing action takes place.  If his psychic structure is weak, one observes a collapse of the ego. The black man stops behaving as an actional person.  The goal of his behaviour will be The Other (in the guise of the White Man), for The Other alone can give him worth.”

Fanon 2008

In relation to ‘The Fabric of India’ exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert museum in 2015, despite the best efforts of the museum to re-contextualise the re-presentation of their Indian textile holdings, acquired at the height of colonial Orientalism, at the time of The Great Exhibition 1851, tell-tale reminders remain. In the Director’s foreword of the book issued to accompany the exhibition (Crill, 2015), like an over excited Becky Sharpe (Thackery,  1847) Martin Roth exoticises and romanticises Indian textiles as ‘glorious prizes’ and ‘unseen treasures’ emanating from the ‘opulence’ of 17th century Mughal courts.  Like a proud father, on seeing the progress of a child, Roth comments:

“The political force of cloth is also made clear, especially in its key role as a focal point for India’s movement towards independence, a goal achieved under Mahatma Gandhi in 1947”

Martin Roth (Crill, 2015)

This is a particularly neat trick as it manages to reference the oppression of a nation under British colonial rule without once mentioning ‘oppression’, or naming the ‘oppressor’.  In fact, one is almost invited, by the structuring of this comment, to imagine a history in which a struggling India was helped towards its goal of independence by a magnanimous British Raj. As far as Fanon’s observations around the difficulties concerning post-colonial black identity issues, it is interesting that a section of the exhibition is dedicated to Indian chintz developed for the colonial market and that Roth (Crill, 2015) remarks that:

“ India’s designers and makers… exciting new ways of using traditional skills and materials… are contributing to India’s growing profile… and its very identity as a nation”

Which could be construed, within Fanon’s framework (2008), as a case of  ‘black skin white suits’.


Crill, Rosemary .(Ed) 2015. The Fabric of India. V&A Publishing.

Fanon, Frantz.  2008. Black Skin, White Masks (Get Political). Pluto Press

Lacan, Jacques. 1981. The Four Fundamental concepts of Psychoanalysis Norton 1981

Said, Edward W. 2007. Orientalism. 25th Anniversary Edition. Penguin Books.

Schmidt,Richard. 1996. ‘Racism and Objectification’. Fanon A Critical Reader. Eds.Gordon,L.R.,Sharpley-Whiting, T.d.,White, R.T.  P41 Blackwell 1996

Thackery, W.M. 1847. Vanity Fair . Penguin Books 1987