A historian, fashion designer and curator, Martand Singh is notable as one of the foremost revivalists of India’s textile traditions and heritage. As the curator of several high-profile public exhibitions in the 1980s and 1990s, he helped showcase Indian handcrafted textiles on several national and international platforms.
Singh was born into the royal family of Kapurthala to Karamjit Singh and Maharani Sita Devi. He studied at Doon School in Dehradun and graduated from St Stephen’s College, New Delhi. One of his earliest ventures — co-founded with his friends Naveen Patnaik and Mahijit Jhala — was a lifestyle boutique called Psyche Delhi, whose inaugural fashion show was attended by Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney during The Beatles’ 1968 visit to India. He then worked at the Handicrafts and Handloom Exports Corporation under the cultural revivalist, Pupul Jayakar. He went on to serve as director of the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad for almost a decade between the 1970s and the 1980s.
The projects with which Singh’s legacy is most deeply associated are the seven Vishwakarma exhibitions he curated between 1981 and 1991, which were held across major Indian cities and in several other countries as part of the Indian government’s cultural diplomacy initiatives. The aim of the exhibitions was to present pieces that highlighted the diverse textile traditions of India and the specialised skill of its textile artisans, and brought to the fore the unique visual language of these traditions, some of which were in danger of being lost. He was still at the Calico Museum when he was asked to curate the first Vishwakarma exhibition. As he set out to research and develop the show, he encountered a lack of resources and knowledge about the traditional textile sectors. He reached out to the Weavers’ Service Centres – a nation-wide network established by the government of India in 1956 – where many prominent artists of the time also worked, involving them in the process of creating the exhibition. The Vishwakarma exhibitions were a commercial and critical success, and led to a rekindling of public interest in traditional Indian textiles and the revival of several weaver communities.
Singh also curated international exhibitions that were part of the Festival of India series sponsored by the Indian government in the 1980s and 1990s. He curated Costumes of Royal India (1985) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, working alongside American fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Another international exhibition he curated was Earth and Sky (1987), which showcased the textile traditions of North-East India. This exhibition opened in Russia and later travelled to Japan.
Singh was one of the founder-members of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), which was established in 1984. He was executive secretary of INTACH for several years, the chairman of the INTACH UK Trust, as well as a trustee of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur. He was involved with INTACH’s restoration projects in India and was a part of the project to restore Chowmahalla Palace, Hyderabad. In 1986, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian honour.
Singh also contributed to the Saris of India series, which sought to document the various handloom sarees produced in India, as a writer and an editor. The project was led by Rta Kapur Chishti and resulted in books such as Saris of India: Madhya Pradesh (1989), Saris of India: West Bengal and Bihar (1995) and the comprehensive Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond (2010).
In more recent years, among the exhibitions Singh curated was Khadi: Fabric of Freedom (2002), held in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata. The exhibition displayed 108 varieties of handspun and handwoven cotton fabric and 108 sarees sourced from across nine states, along with creations by contemporary designers. A special book catalogued swatches of the different fabrics displayed in the exhibition, each mounted on a card along with information regarding its count, process of production and source.
Singh passed away in Delhi in April 2017. A year later, a tribute exhibition titled A Search in Five Directions – Textiles from the Vishwakarma Exhibitions (2018) was held at the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum, Delhi. Curated by textile designer Rakesh Thakore, Rahul Jain and Chishti, and organised in collaboration with Devi Art Foundation, it featured thirty six textile pieces produced for the Vishwakarma exhibitions. In 2019, the Registry of Sarees – a Bengaluru-based organisation dedicated to documenting the sarees of India – presented an exhibition, titled Meanings, Metaphor – Handspun and Handwoven in the 21st Century, in Coimbatore, Chiralaa and Bengaluru. It showcased the textiles and fabrics from his 2002 exhibition on khadi. Another tribute exhibition, Khadi: Indian Craftsmanship, was organised by the Japanese fashion label Issey Miyake in Kyoto and New York in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
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