From a Maharaja’s diamond-encrusted turban to cutting-edge digital skull prints, two sparkling new exhibitions are set to light up London’s gloomy, grey winter later this year. Running as part of the V&A’s India Festival, which marks the 25th anniversary of the museum’s Nehru Gallery, The Fabric of India (3 October 2015-10 January 2016) and Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection (21 November 2015-28 March 2016) explore the subcontinent’s rich heritage of handmade textiles and jewellery traditions.

The first of the exhibitions to open, Fabric traces the variety, virtuosity and continuous innovation of India’s textile traditions through everyday fabrics and previously unseen treasures, beginning with an introduction to the raw materials (silk, wool, cotton and natural dyes of pomegranate and indigo) and complex handcrafting techniques – block printing, weaving and embroidery – and culminating in a showcase of contemporary Indian designers (Manish Arora and Rahul Mishra to name just two) whose creations innovatively fuse traditional handicrafts with Western silhouettes and who are reinterpreting the sari for a 21st century audience.

Also explored is the impact of global trade, industrialisation, and nationalism on the textile industry, including a fascinating look at khadi, an indigenous cloth popularised by Gandhi in the ‘30s as a wearable declaration of independence. While you’ll want to get up close and personal with the minutiae of many pieces on display – the intricate mirrorwork, beading, appliqué and delicate Qu’ranic ink inscriptions on Mughal hunting jackets, talismanic shirts and Bollywood costumes – the jaw-dropping scale of others forces visitors to take a step back. Particularly awe-inspiring are the 17-metre-long Gujurati wall hanging, discovered crumpled up on a Brooklyn street corner, which engulfs three entire walls; and Tipu’s Tent, dating from 1725, whose 58sqm dimensions add a sense of drama to printed chintz.

Equally compelling, Bejewelled Treasures is a magpie’s paradise, reflecting India’s centuries-long history as an international market for precious stones and billed as “a fascinating insight into a great private collection” by Director of the V&A, Martin Roth. Twinkling alongside 17ct diamonds from the Golconda mines, emeralds from South America, rubies from Burma and sapphires from Sri Lanka are less well-known but equally show-stopping gemstones, such as rose-coloured spinels from Central Asia.

While the standout piece is undoubtably the vintage diamond and feather ‘turban jewel’ originally made for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, there are plenty of equally compelling designs in the ‘Contemporary Masters’ section, including Paris-based haute joillerie house JAR, heavily influenced by Mughal architecture, and Bhagat of Mumbai, who craft Art Deco-inspired pieces around antique cut stones. Not to be missed are the two specially commissioned films detailing the painstaking techniques of enamelling and kundan (a uniquely Indian style of setting gems in gold, in contrast to Western ‘open claw’ settings).

With all manner of side exhibitions, live music performances, debates and screenings taking place in and around the V&A to mark the Festival of India, Fabric and Bejewelled Treasures are the must-sees this autumn.

 Written by Selena Schleh. Images as per caption.

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