Woven in Time

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They work with textiles and break the traditional boundaries of a craft

Warp and woof, quill and shuttle
Countless cloth and colours,
a thousand hanks and skeins
with ten thousand names,
ten thousand places.
But there is one thread only

—Bulleh Shah

WHEN SMRITI Dixit first started experimenting with creating art on textiles in 1995, she chose the clothes that were used to dress the gods in her home. They were accessible and the golds and reds were attractive. But it was also an act of rebellion. The puja room was the one place in the house that was off limits and it was taboo to use the clothes of deities in personal clothing.

But then, for an artist trained at the MSU, Baroda, and who worked in sculpture and paintings, working with textiles was itself an act of rebellion. “People asked me why I was doing it. But I felt that it was woven into my DNA. I had played with the clothes hung up to dry on the roof for so many hours in the day that they had become my friend. The human body has been covered with some form of cloth since we started evolving. And the hook, button, stitches allowed for deconstruction. A thread can be constructed and deconstructed,” she says.

Priya Ravish Mehra knows all about the construction and deconstruction of a thread. She came to textile art via the rafoogars (menders) who used to come to her home in Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh, when she was a child. She tells a story about her mother being fond of an ancient shawl that she was given as a bride. When Mehra was born, her grandmother gave the old, unusable shawl to rafoogars in the hope that they would salvage it and use it for themselves. When Mehra decided to do a show with the rafoogars recently, she brought her back the cloth, and told her the story.

The two methods by which rafoogars repair expensive and fine clothes are patchwork and tana-bana. In patchwork, a part of the same cloth is cut and stitched into place over the torn part. But, it was tana-bana—where threads from the cloth are pulled out from the inside portion and an invisible rafoo is done by intricate cross-stitching, which spoke to Mehra when she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. As fellow artist, Paula Sengupta, says about Mehra’s work, “The image of a single thread being strong enough to hold together a cloth that is torn, flawed and no long perfect, is simplistic. But it has such power and is so potent because it contains within itself a history which is layered upon other histories.” Mehra not only works with the construction and deconstruction of found fibres, she also uses a lot of her discarded pieces to create new artworks. Each of her pieces comes with a story—one installation that bursts like silk from a cocoon was created from a piece of wood pulp brought back from Bhutan that she treated and then unravelled strand by strand. Another, made with indigo, brings to mind India’s troubled relationship with the dye.

“Textiles take art to another level. It allows me to add thoughts and logic to my work. Art has to have a language that incorporates where we come from. It shouldn’t be put into brackets” - Puneet Kaushik artist

Paula Sengupta teaches printmaking at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata. Over the last 10 years, she’s moved to working with textiles, more so in the past two years. “I started working with textiles for three reasons. One is that I think that printmaking has a lot of affinity to textile arts. Rice paper and Nepali paper have a tactility that is almost like cloth. The second was that I was teaching art appreciation and the history of costume at NIFT, Kolkata, till 2003, which I had to first teach myself. It had a huge impact on my practice. But the most important reason is my mother and grandmother were expert seamstresses. I only wore dresses made by my mother till I was in Class VIII. My grandmother was from Khulna (now in Bangladesh) which was a major centre for nokshi kantha, a highly evolved pictorial narrative form. I worked with sewing and embroidery right through my PhD at Santiniketan. And then, when my mother died, I started working on textiles with single-minded focus. It seemed a way to stay connected. I disappeared into my studio and poured out my grief by creating embroidery on her handkerchiefs.”

These handkerchiefs are extraordinary works which contain her various histories, including the colonial legacy of Bengal. It’s also a legacy of Sengupta’s mother’s words to her: “If I’d been born 30-40 years later, I would have been seen as an artist like you and my work would have been taken seriously.”

Internationally, the world discovered textile art back in the 60s, with artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz and Sheila Hicks working on large-scale, site-specific textile-based projects. In India, there have been few artists who’ve straddled this grey zone between art and craft; internal and outward; feminine (and therefore household art) and the professional sphere. Textile artists like Gopika Nath, Mehra and Puneet Kaushik were all awarded scholarships to study Art in the West, where they realised the value that is placed on forms of weaving. Mehra studied tapestries in England where it was a dying art, and Kaushik saw the wide potential in America of textile art. Mrinalini Mukherjee was one of the few artists in the 70s who, under KG Subramanian’s tutelage, chose to create sensual and lush knotted sculptures with hemp ropes. She was lucky to study under Subramanian, who, with his background in weaving, toy-making and murals, was one of the few artists who didn’t differentiate between expensive and inexpensive materials or what are now known as the lower and higher crafts. But Mukherjee developed her interest and talent mostly on her own. Her works have made it into the public collections of the National Gallery of Modern Art (Delhi), Bharat Bhavan (Bhopal), the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Tate Modern in London. But as the artist Nilima Sheikh, Mukherjee’s friend and contemporary, points out, “For a very long time, the sculpture world, especially in Delhi and Baroda, didn’t accept her as a sculptor, because they believed ‘Woh toh kucch craft mein kar rahi hai’.”

“I can help my male contemporaries with painting and sculpture but men have a problem with sewing and knitting. It is taboo. When I started, people associated my work with fashion. But if I define what I do as handicrafts, it is wrong” - Smriti Dixit, artist

Similarly, Sengupta recounts a recent tale about giving a talk at a reputed club in Kolkata. At the end of an hour- long presentation, members of the audience still came up to ask her who had actually worked on the textiles. People presumed that there were artisans who did the actual embroidery and weaving.

FROM THE STRUGGLE for independence onward, textiles and handloom have been crucial to Indian history. But we are now witnessing a movement where the history of Indian textiles is being revived and rewritten. These artists are at the vanguard of creating an acceptance of textiles and pictorial weaving into contemporary art practices. Sengupta attributes the association of textile-based practices with handicraft to colonial influences. “The history of India can be seen through its textiles,” she says. “These are pictorial art-making forms, not just pattern-making. But, for example, even at Rabindra Bharti University, we had to fight for the right of an art history student to work with kantha as part of his studio practice. He’d seen his mother work with it. But in our universities, it isn’t seen as a valid art form.”

“I can help my male contemporaries with painting and sculpture, but men have a problem with sewing and knitting. It is taboo,” says Dixit. “When I started, people associated it with fashion. But if I define what I do as handicrafts, it’s wrong. Take Subodh Gupta’s works as an example. He uses utensils in his works. Since they aren’t used anywhere else in the world or by any other artist, they automatically get defined as art.”

It doesn’t help that there are very few collectors of contemporary textile arts in India. Dixit’s works are in the Jindal and Kodak private collections and a few of Sengupta’s textile works have found a home in Priya Paul’s collection. But many connoisseurs believe that the maintenance and sustainability of textiles and fibre-based artworks are also issues.

“People need to understand the difference between artists and artisans,” says Shailin Smith, one of the few curators whose has worked continuously with fibre-based arts. “An artist’s intention is to innovate, befuddle, and create conversations. The artisan repeats what he saw his father and uncle do before him.” Her show, Fibre Fables, a part of The Raj Art Initiative, was the result of a year-long interaction of artists with weavers at a carpet-weaving factory in Panipat. With access to machinery as well as artisans, it helped the artists create the base fabric upon which they created layer on layer. Nikheel Aphale was among them, using tufting and threading to create calligraphic designs on woven carpet material. Kaushik used a kilim loom to weave together installations that used woven material, steel thread and yarn.

“The image of a single thread being strong enough to hold together a cloth that is torn and no longer perfect is simplistic. But it has such power because it contains within itself a history which is layered upon other histories” - Paula Sengupta, artist

“India has worked with fibres like banana, yarn, textile, thread, wool and cotton. In fact, the earliest Buddhist texts as well as janampatris were written on palm leaf. We need to respect folk and tribal cultures,” says Kaushik. He works with large-scale installations and cutting-edge mixed media, but with indigenous techniques. He is also on the board of directors for Dastkar (a non-government organisation working with craftspeople for the promotion and revival of traditional crafts of India), and has worked with the last surviving artists in Kangra who still create miniature paintings. “Fibres and textiles take art to another level. It allows me to add thoughts, expressions and logic to my work, and weave in society and even different social spaces. Art has to have a language that incorporates where we come from. It shouldn’t be put into brackets.” His 9 ft tall and 7.6 ft wide work, The Garbh: Layers and the Surface, was one of the most talked about installations at the India Art Fair in 2016. Tufted in red steel cord, cotton and wool fibre, and using convex mirrors that make you appear smaller and curled up as you would appear inside a womb, it allowed for a crossover between the intimate and the grand.

Kaushik goes on to say, “Traditional Tibetan bead and thread work is made with one thread, which holds three or four beads woven and embroidered in a canvas so there’s a vertical elevation from the surface. This makes for a very different kind of work. I’ve also worked with zardozi, macramé, crochet, threads made out of paper. A piece will often take four to five years, even when I have two or more people working with me to fill up the gaps and embroider the beads. But I believe that it’s important to use a material in the right context. When you stick to the core and know the way to treat it, fibre responds better. Today, mediums are not being used in a manner that will allow for long-term sustainability.”

Renu Modi, the gallerist who represents Sengupta and Kaushik, says that today, all mediums are merging into each other. But Smith believes otherwise. She feels that it’s the lack of encouragement to create a market for contemporary textile art that is to blame for the relative paucity of artists working in this field. “It’s for companies to put their CSR funds towards protecting and promoting various forms of art,” she says. “We’ve had any number of foreign artists and designers who hang clippings of India on their vision boards to inspire their collections, but they aren’t coming into India and holding conversations with artisans who will be inspired to create something new. There’s a Kutchi embroidery museum (the Living and Learning Design Centre in Paddhar village, about 18 km from Bhuj) that is bringing in international artists. Similarly, there are international design festivals across the world, but it’s necessary for galleries to take space there and allow our artists to show their works. This will allow international audiences to access our works.”

This does make sense. After all, an important event that changed the lifecycle of textiles in India was the Vishwakarma, a master weavers exhibition that travelled to New York, London and Paris in 1982. But that had the full backing of the Government of the time, as well as master artists and artisans.

From the intimate and feminine, which are the way textiles have usually been used, these artists are also using textiles to work on larger themes. Sengupta is using textiles to reclaim history. She travelled across Kutch and areas contiguous with Tibet and uses textiles as a material to tell histories of the place. She is now working on creating sketches of nature that are based on her own garden that she will then etch with hand- tinted colours and block-print to create Indian chintz yardage. This, in a way, is reclamation of the colonial appropriation of our fabrics and prints. Dixit, who believes that the materials tell her what they want to be born into, and thinks that there is as much possibility to create a bracelet as a house from them, is working on dresses created from price tags as a comment on consumerism.

All these artists believe that they’re producing a narrative that is an extension of India’s folk tradition. But, unless serious measures are taken, the story of Mrinalini Mukherjee will keep repeating. In the 90s, she gradually stopped working with hemp—perhaps because her sole helper, Budhiya, was too old to assist her, and the work seemed tedious to do alone. The world lost out on her individualistic, painstakingly knotted and fluid organic hemp sculptures to her beautiful but more commonplace bronzes and ceramics. Hopefully, other artists working in textiles will not have to make similar compromises.