From the flag above the dome to carpets beneath the feet
There is little documentation available that talks about the procurement, design scheme and production process of the textiles used in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. To some extent this information is known for the post-independence period, but records remain scant there too. While Lutyens has left extensive drawings of his furniture designs, including that of upholstered furniture, his notes do not explain the choice of fabric he intended to use as upholstery, or how he visualised window drapes, lampshades, bed and floor coverings.
Judging from Lutyens’s aesthetic sensibilities as seen through other examples, one can infer that while some of his choices could have been bold, the overarching sensibility for the palette in textiles would be largely subtle and understated. He acknowledged the vast array of designs in India calling it the ‘home of pattern making’. While he wanted to showcase the best of Indian textiles, especially Khadi—hand-spun, hand-woven cotton fabric—his British clients thought otherwise. Khadi had become a symbol of India’s struggle for independence with Mahatma Gandhi’s appeal to all Indians to discard English-made cloth in favour of Khadi. The British government was more keen to see the use of British-made fabric and more regal colours such as red, maroon, dark blue and gold—to convey a sense of imperial grandeur. The trend of Indian floral patters—whether chintz, paisley or kin-khab—was already ubiquitous in Victorian interiors and fashion, and thus a perfectly acceptable element in the interiors for the Viceroy’s House.
The pile-carpet industry dates back to the 16th century, when the Mughals introduced the art of weaving fine pile-carpets, generally in wool (Chattopadhyay 1974a). Srinagar, Amritsar and Agra were some of the major carpet-weaving centres in India during the Mughal period. With the close of Mughal rule and decline in royal patronage the high quality of these carpets began to decline, as did the frequency with which they were made. Towards the end of 19th and early 20th centuries some of these carpet workshops were taken over and revived by the British.
Lutyens must certainly have been familiar with India’s pile-carpet industry as these textiles were known in Great Britain, the first Indian pile-carpet having appeared at the London Exhibition of 1851. It is said that for the carpets Lutyens had hoped to revive the high Persian standards of Shah Abbas’s age, and thus he borrowed 16th-17th century originals from private collections in India to reproduce them (Nath 2002). The large size of the carpets meant that they were made in two or three sections since the looms required to weave such large sizes were not easy to come by in the 1930’s.
The carpets follow a definite design, and similarities in motifs and patterns are evident from room to room. The pattern of diagonal rows of repeat flowers, apparent in Kashmir shawls, is evident in several carpets such as those in North and South Drawing Rooms, the Dwarka Suite and the officers mess of the President’s Bodyguard. By using floral motifs instead of geometrical ones, he wished to evoke the feeling that one was walking amidst a flowering garden. Carpets are shaped for specific spaces within the house. For instance one of them is referred to as ‘Bottle Carpet’, alluding to its shape. In other places the space and size of the carpet are delineated by the pattern in the flooring—generally a thin border of grey Kota or yellow Jaisalmer stone set in the white marble.
Coverings and hangings
Apart from the carpets, there is valuable collection of velvet and zardozi coverings and hangings that form a part of the textile collection. The colours of the velvet collection range from yellow to deep red and maroon. Some of them have a cotton crocheted fringe, with tassels, attached on all four sides. The design ranges from embroidered floral patterns to one that bears the Union Jack, the unicorn and the lion holding the British crown between them. Another has a central eight-petalled flower within which the words ‘Banarsi Das Mahavir Prasad Thekedar, Delhi 1860’ are embroidered in Devanagiri script. Their use is not entirely clear, it is presumed that they were used as either floor or bed coverings, or as wall hangings, where they were meant to accentuate the regal status of imperial power and the pomp that accompanied it.
After 1947: Independent India
On August 15, 1947, one textile, the Union Jack, came down on the ‘Dome over India’ and was replaced by another—the Indian tricolour. The ceremonial interchange of the two flags symbolised the more tangible changes taking place below as the Viceroy’s House gradually transformed into the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The new dispensation went about shaping the interiors of the house to reflect India’s nationalist ideals. Khadi found a loyal supporter in Mahatma Gandhi who advocated its use as a measure towards being a self-sustaining nation (Tarlo 1996). Alternatively, portraits of his were placed above models of spinning wheels, alluding to the connection between him and the transformative role the making of yarn for fabric played in India’s freedom struggle.
Soon after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru set up the Handicrafts and Handloom Board and pushed for the revival of the manufacture and use of Indian textiles, amongst other craft traditions in the country. The changes were seen in the choice of fabrics for soft furnishings, linen, drapery and staff uniforms. The carpets of colonial times were retained, as these were reminiscent of Indian themes and craftmanship. The British crown and other pre-Independence symbols were replaced by new Indian emblems. The Ashoka pillar and Chakra have become important national symbols seen embroidered on canopies and drapes, pelmets and wall hangings.
The shift from Victorian England, with its penchant for floral designs and regal colours, to Indian textiles with their rich contrasts—gold silk embroidery, fine muslin and the humble khadi—marked an important political and aesthetic transformation. The rich textile tradition of India that lay repressed under colonialism found a lease of life with the setting up of Handloom Boards after independence. Many traditions have been revived over the past 70 years and the Rashtrapati Bhavan has endeavoured to showcase some of this richness.
Rashtrapati Bhavan archives
Letter from Lutyens to ‘CO’, March 12, 1926, File No. Acc. No. 58 Rec/88 A&E, Rashtrapati Bhavan archives.
Letter dated October 12, 1949, File No. 27/ACM/87/pt I. ref encl 58A, Rashtrapati Bhavan archives.
Chattopadhyay, Kamaladevi. 1974. Indian Carpets and Floor Coverings. New Delhi: All India Handicrafts Board.
Nath, Aman. 2002. Dome over India: Rashtrapati Bhavan. Mumbai: India Book House.
Tarlo, Emma. 1996. Clothing Matters: Dress and its Symbolism in Modern India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.