Terry Grimley meets Kanchan Malde, whose collection of Gujeratit textiles has just gone on display in Birmingham
One of the characteristics of folk traditions seems to be that they die out. Just as with English folk song at the dawn of the 20th century, by the mid-1960s the writing was on the wall for traditional Gujarati textiles.
By that time, Kanchan Malde, who came to Britain from East Africa but whose roots were in Gujerat, and her husband Moti were regular visitors to India. Kanchan had inherited an interest in traditional textiles from her mother and was herself an accomplished embroiderer.
"From when I was young I have seen my mother working, doing embroidery and beadwork," she explains. "So it was in my mind all the time. In the beginning my mother gave me a few pieces, and that's how I started collecting.
"From the mid-1960s, we used to go to India most years and helped people to have schools in villages. Embroidery was not useful to them and so they gave things to me, so every year the collection was growing."
Moti adds: "By 1965, Kanchan found out these things were vanish-ing. The modern style took over from the Hindu craft. She was very alert about it and found out that these things would disappear very soon.
"This is where serious collecting started, and it went up to about 1970-75, and then stopped because things were not collectable any more."
Actually the collecting has never entirely stopped because friends are always keen to give them gifts when they visit India. But relatively few pieces have been added since 1980.
There are more than 2,000 examples in the collection, ranging in date from the late 19th century to one made 15 years ago. It is stored in a warehouse rather than the Maldes' home in Bedford, but parts of it have been on almost constant display over the last 20 years, visiting 24 major museums across the UK.
The exhibition just opened at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery's Gas Hall is the largest selection ever shown in one place, but still represents only about 15 per cent of the collection.
It incorporates a wide range of items, from children's clothes to a complete wedding marquee, all reflecting the distinctive colours and techniques, including mirror and beadwork. "This is my interest, and now it seems like this is my life," says Kanchan.
But it is not just about collecting for its own sake, points out Moti, but about documenting Gujerati textiles and explaining them to the world. The name and location of each maker has been recorded.
The rich colours of Gujerati textiles are a compensation for the parched look of the landscape in this part of Western India. They were created with the aid of specialist dyers using vegetable dyes, and the replacement of these by synthetic colours is one key aspect of the transition from an authentic folk tradition to a more commercial product tailored to export.
"In the old days, our ladies didn't go out to work they were farmers' wives," explains Kanchan. "When they went farming with their husbands, when they took a rest they would do embroidery.
"There are many people in this country who have left their cultures, and so this is how they can find out about them. So many youngsters love to see these pieces."
n Mirror, Bead and Thread: A Celebration of Gujerati Textiles is at The Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until Sep 10 (MonThur, Sat 10am-5pm; Fri 10.30am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission free). Related free family activities take place from 1pm-4pm every onday, Wednesday and Friday until Sep 1; Family Fun on Sat Aug 12 1pm-4pm including traditional Indian storytelling, Indian music and a Gujarati wedding.