Brigitte Singh: ‘You need to be a kind of cowboy to survive’

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The pioneering block print creator Brigitte Singh recounts her three-decade long textile journey to Ritika Kochhar

The Printress of the Mughal Garden | Edited by Bishwadeep Moitra | Mapin Publishing | 276 pages | Rs 3,950

BRIGITTE SINGH IS a pioneer in every sense of the word, although it’s hidden under her diffident, charming and grandmotherly exterior. The sixty- three-old lives with her daughter in Narad ka Bagh, a haveli in a village in Amer, around 20 km from Jaipur. It’s a patriarchal area and the villagers at times speak of her with disdain—this foreign woman who has visitors from all over the world, and yet has only one guard to protect her and her atelier. And yet, print makers in Jaipur proudly claim to re-create Singh’s prints, and textile designers in Delhi speak about how fashion labels use her nine layered intricate block- printing by machine-printing the base and then using just two layers of block prints on top.

Within the atelier, she employs seven-eight artists including a creative master, his son, two block-makers and printers. But she is the one who creates the design, chooses the wood for the blocks, the colours that each design is dyed in, and even decides whether it will be used for a quilt, jacket, dress, table cloth or shoes. The atelier only prints around 40 metres of cloth a day, but what Singh produces are masterpieces that textile experts from around the world throng to buy. Her collections can even be found at London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Singh is uncompromising. Legend has it that she’s turned away an ambassador’s wife who arrived at her atelier without an appointment. Another time, she was asked to refurbish the entire zenana quarters in the Nagaur Fort, Rajasthan, which was being turned into a luxury hotel. She decided to drop the project because she felt it was impossible to do it justice in four months, which was all the time she had in hand. It took the personal intervention of Lady Hamlyn (a British friend and philanthropist) to get her to agree to do the work.

She has employed the same uncompromising attitude in her biography, The Printress of the Mughal Garden (edited by Bishwadeep Moitra; Mapin Publishing; 276 pages; Rs 3,950). The impressive tome has articles by textile experts from India and abroad like Jasleen Dhamija, Laila Tyabji, as well as Rosemary Crill (senior curator in the V&A’s Asian Department). The essays, Dhamija’s in particular, is a veritable history of block-printing design in India; Sanganer village’s contribution to print making; how the textile collection at London’s V&A Museum offered Singh early inspiration; and even how her London buyers view Singh’s works. Singh even explains in detail her entire process of preparing blocks and colours, the origin of her best-known designs and how she has used them on various items.

It’s a voluminous work that its editor, Bishwadeep Moitra, feels will help guide the textile industry in India, especially students of our 700-odd textile design schools. And it’s not just a book. There are five photographs marked with a symbol. Scanning them with your phone leads you to a mobile app called Books Plus that plays videos documenting the block- carving process, the printing workshop, the stitching process and Singh narrating the stories of Jaipur print and her creative journey. The book has already been nominated for an international textile book award, and played a major part in the Franco- Indian festival recently.

Singh’s creative journey started in France where she was born to ‘straight and conventional parents, who had a clear picture of right and wrong, and strong moral values’. “It’s not that we didn’t know suffering, or missing things,” she says, over the phone. “My three brothers and I were taught that you can lose material things, but you can’t lose what’s in you—your heart or hope. Out of the four of us, three of us have an atypical life.” The leftist, intellectual environment of the EnsAD, her Paris art school, was, however, a misfit for the old-worldly Singh and she dropped out, but her sense of balance, harmony and proportion was already formed.

She was drawn towards Eastern miniature painting. A visit to Amsterdam, where she didn’t have to pay to see the Mughal drawings by Rembrandt in a museum, was an eye-opener. However, in the early 70s, the two art centres she knew of— Isfahan in Iran and Herat in Afghanistan—were unreachable. A friend told her about Indian miniature art. Within days, she got in touch with the Indian Embassy in Paris and shortly afterwards got a two-year scholarship to study miniature art in Jaipur. Her mother thrust some cash into her hand as she got on a plane to come to India and this came in handy when there was no one to meet her with her stipend at the airport. She caught a taxi to the French Embassy which sent her onwards to the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. She was passed from official to official till she lost her temper. The scholarship funds miraculously materialised and she was put on a bus to Jaipur. Here again, at the Lalit Kala Academy, she was told that the master miniaturist who was to teach her had retired. He was finally summoned, but within a few days, Singh realised he expected her to only make copies.

She finally found a teacher, Bannu Sharma or Bannuji, and she married Surya Vijay Singh of Nawalgarh, the son of Kunwar Sangram Singh. Her father-in-law was a leading collector of Rajasthani miniatures and the director of the Sawai Man Singh City Palace Museum for 10 years. He also ran a traditional atelier with skilled printers and hand-ground pigments.

Being a textile girl, I think textiles are one of the important things that gave India its identity. One of the things that fascinated me was the number of unbroken traditions

IN NEARBY SANGANER, she found a printer who had swatches of prints from the 18th century and who was ready to make blocks to reflect those prints. Experienced collectors in London were stunned at their quality—a new print that was almost an exact reproduction of the original centuries-old design. Before she left England for France, she’d received a business proposal from a premier furnishing house wanting her to print the scarves as yardage.

Within the next couple of years, Singh settled into her vocation—finding inspiration mostly in Mughal-era miniatures and prints, which also reflected Western flora and fauna that had seeped into the ecology of Indian art, right down to our printing and weaving, from trade and visitors in those periods. In 1986, she held an exhibition in the medieval town of Angers, France, and this led to a childhood friend setting up a shop in Paris, Le Jardin Moghol (The Mughal Garden), which sold her designs exclusively. Over time, this partnership broke but her reputation grew as she started holding exhibitions and selling to more buyers. Garments started forming 80 per cent of her sales as she reverted to the simplicity of the clothes she wore while growing up and was inspired by costumes from the East and West alike, like Elizabethan jackets and Afghani coats. Singh’s hand-printed textiles soon became something of a legend; the red poppy print that launched her career is on permament view at the V&A.

In India, however, the lines of provenance blurred. Traditionally, a block print was limited to the village where it was printed, with different prints for different castes, and prints remained within a community for generations. There was no concept of copyright, and printers in Jaipur freely copied her designs till it became part of their vocabulary. Her printer’s son started copying her designs; he even opened a shop in Jaipur. He then started taking orders directly from a businesswoman, siphoning off Singh’s latest collections. When she finally fired him in 2004, he took along with him 23 years of printed samples. This became the period when imitations of Singh’s designs started being found everywhere—from tony shops in Khan Market to boutiques abroad.

With this betrayal, Singh stopped working for two years. But she used this time to build her house in Amer. Her atelier is housed here, as well as her workshop, where everything except the weaving and the washing of the cloth is done. Singh faithfully documents every process in her book, including the thought process and her personal notes on her most famous designs. Her workshop and water-filtration process, in particular, are well known by textile experts for being environment- friendly and inventive.

Given her past experience with being copied, wasn’t she hesitant about documenting her processes? I ask. “You have big offices in India that deal with Intellectual Property Rights but they end up protecting big people. I can either do work or fight battles,” she replies. “My strength lies in continuing things. Being small made me strong. And I had this desire to do a book. The recognition of people like Laila Tyabji and Jasleen Dhamija makes me feel good. A book done by a person outside this country could not have the same value. A large portion of my clientele is Indians who know their textiles. I don’t need to tell them what I’m doing. But when one does very special work with a priority given to love rather than money-making, people can see the difference. We sell whatever we prepare. This is not very easy and we are very lonely. In India, we work without protection. This is sad, but that is the story of textiles. Trade is ruthless. The British stole from India. You need to be a kind of cowboy to survive,” she says. “Everything that had to be stolen has been stolen. I was ready for that. When people steal, they don’t say, ‘I have copied from Brigitte Singh.’ I had no protection at all. I never took it as a compliment that people copied from me, but I do realise that the moment you do something desirable, someone will want it for themselves. The minute you sell something, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. I’m going to be 63 soon. I’m getting tired. I’m closer to the closure of my workshop. Somebody else will take up block printing.”

The conversation turns to the farmers’ rally and the plight of craftsmen with the slashing of the handloom sector’s budget allocation in the 2018-19 Union Budget by more than a third from Rs 604 crore to Rs 386.1 crore. She says, “Being a textile girl, I think textiles are one of the important things that gave India its identity. One of the things that fascinated me was the number of unbroken traditions. Revival is different. Here, the traditions have never died. The sheer size of India has saved it. Craft has survived for so many centuries and some of it will survive. But we have over 20,000 artisans and they are struggling with taxation. They need to be protected. One important thing to mention about India is that a large amount of craftsmen have come to craft through tradition and obligation. Some pockets of government policy are killing craft, but not in every area. I have six workers and most of them are young, so it’s very much alive. But it’s fragile. Tradition is like a glass jar that can cross centuries but can break in a second. Life is a mystery to me. But I’m not a historian or a philosopher, so I take it as it comes. I’m happy to do something beautiful and I think it’s important to do it with love.”

It’s this ease with the worlds of beauty and wearability that makes Singh’s works special. She’s taken India’s crafts to their rightful place alongside our finest arts, while creating sustainable livelihoods for many.