Dressed to bedazzle;Arts in Scotland

5th June 1998 at 01:00
Gillian Macdonald enjoys the colours of an exhibition of textiles from Pakistan

Spangled mirrors, sequins, gold and silver threads, peacock blues and magentas - these are the lasting impression of a technicolour scene at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where Colours of the Indus, a journey through the textile regions of Pakistan, bedazzles the viewer.

Not only is this an exhibition to inspire artists and designers, it is a lesson in cultural and regional variations, from the intricate embroidered dresses of the Sindhi riverbanks, one of the earliest known locations of textiles and dyeing from 5,000 years back, to the rough cream and brown woollens of the cold, mountainous North West Frontier.

Dresses, headgear, slippers, veils, bridal face masks and prayer mats - mostly from the 20th century - all tell their story. It is a tale of extremes, with rural poverty and urban opulence, migrating peoples and ancient customs, but one of fine artistry and attention to detail even in the harsh climes of the North West where well-worn leather boots carry their multi-coloured woollen tassles and wooden pattens for muddy streets and fields are ornately carved.

Photographs behind the displays show the textiles in situ - a little village girl in Indus Kohistan wearing an ornate spangled waistcoat embroidered by her mother, huddles of women in beautiful shawls sitting cross-legged in the market on colourful floormats. Panels relate how young girls in rural Baluchistan learn to spin from an early age, while in the urban workshops of Karachi it is the men - professional craftsmen - who machine the opulent robes for ceremonial occasions.

The exhibition, which originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last autumn in commemoration of Pakistan's 50th anniversary, is imaginatively laid out with sections on each of the four main regions partitioned off by Mosque-like windows casting their latticed shadows on the scene.

Spotlights illuminate the exhibits in an area that is otherwise surprisingly dim. But this is a show to linger over, to savour the detail and learn about the symbolism and customs. More panels and photographs would have been useful, to convey just how much the traditional costumes remain a feature of life today. And it is regrettable that there is no special provision for schools, as the museum is currently without a schools officer. But for those seeking a fuller background and context, there is a fascinating, if costly, book to accompany the exhibition.

"Colours of the Indus"Royal Museum of Edinburgh,Chambers Street until June 28. Adults pound;3, children and school pupils free"Colours of the Indus: Costume and Textiles of Pakistan" by Nasreen Askari and Rosemary Crill. Merrell Holberton in association with the Vamp;A pound;29.95 hardback, pound;19.95 paperback.

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