Weaving histories, weaving metaphors
A recent exhibition comprising the works of 17 artists — presenting textile as both a medium and process — offers a layered understanding of traditional, modern and contemporary India by creating a palimpsest of readings of the material form through the tropes of identity, nationalism, gender, the body, colonial trade, industrial labour and fashion.
The exhibition attempts to trace textile practices, traditions and histories in contemporary Indian art. It presents contemporary art practices that engage textile as a medium, metaphor and process.
As a medium, textile has an intrinsic meaning and conveys a context. The material’s history, its modes of production and its function as a cultural object inform its use in contemporary art practice. Textiles, both as practice and form, are inextricably linked to complex histories of legitimation and hegemony, colonial trade, industry, and the freedom movement. Textiles define culture through the relationship between body, cloth, selfhood, attires, identities and fashion. The narrative of textile embraces the early categorisations of art, decorative arts, craft and design. It also refers to the critiques of marginalisations in mainstream art history of the modern period, of creative practices that had been traditionally limited to women, such as embroidery, mending, stitching, that were associated with the domestic/private space. Juxtaposed with the Bhau Daji Lad Museum’s textile collection, the exhibition re-looks at the narratives invoked by many contemporary artists. The exhibition seeks to explore these trajectories in the works of artists who have approached the process of art-making by engaging ‘craft’ and ‘traditional’ practices, to address contemporary concerns. In the choice of material and process such art practices offer a nuanced understanding of the traditional, the modern and the contemporary creating a palimpsest of readings about the art form.
Ignition combines drawings on several textiles stitched into one panel; inspired by European medieval flags, traditional patchwork quilts, and the work of American artist Robert Rauschenberg.
In Anju Dodiya’s recent work, mourning the burning of books and clinging to them as a mark of civilisation has been a recurring image. Witness to a violent disregard of knowledge, these images of unease are consciously painted on upholstery fabrics, generally used in comfortable domestic spaces. Unbleached cotton or madarpat that generally provides the lining of furniture, becomes the ground for flame and ash in this work. The fire clouds of the red Indonesian batik fabric serve as a backdrop to this theatre of despair. This work attempts to take material attributes of textiles and transform them into spatial metaphors, engaging the viewer with cultural narratives seeping from the physicality of the medium of fabric. The rudimentary impression of the work is derived from temporary relief shelters/tents pitched at sites of displacement, construction, migrations and devastations. The anguish of these social ruptures that our world witnesses closely and repetitively is profoundly expressed in this work. Between the larger authorised grand narratives of development and modernity, these mass social ruptures imprint traumatic experiences on individual lives. The experiences, most often resonate with spatial sites and architecture which is evoked by the tent-like construction of the work. The medium of fabric marks the line between the private and the public.
Embracing the viewer within the space of the museum, the work opens up an experiential realm with this deeply personal, excrutiatingly visceral, private yet public space. The phenomenological experience of architecture within architecture attempts to create a double layering, a retelling of a well-told tale. The tableau represents textile’s ability to drape and fall, but also to hold itself taut, with harnesses and support; its capacity to shrivel, shrink, and get parched, much like the skin, when exposed too much. The work, as a temporary shelter, carries an association of a larger body that stands desolately, shapes and gets shaped, covers, hides, and yet looms above our fragile individual selves. It holds an authorial structure above the body of the public (like skin to our bones and body, and clothes to an individual’s civilising process), enduring and withstanding all the fissures that a social body undergoes in the modernising project. It directs attention to the abilities- techniques
that stand at that crucial juncture between the ‘pre’ and ‘post’ of the modernising project. The work attempts to address the relationship of the body and armour, where the armour is simultaneously a protective cover and a trapping device. Juxtaposed against the busts from the Museum Collection that represent Queen Victoria, Lord Elphinstone, and Prince Albert, the work acquires further allusion and associations, as it brings into focus the colonial and regal, as well as the local and indigenous. Itoperates through paradoxes: of strength and fragility, protection and entrapment, colonial and native, and of the feminine and masculine.
Shakuntala Kulkarni’s works are from her series titled Of Bodies, Armour and Cages. Kulkarni’s “wearable sculptures” as she calls them, traverse a space where historical objects like armour and elaborately designed costumes of different communities are brought together by re-articulating their usage and medium.
Kulkarni has been fascinated by the very structure and the grandeur of armour: masculine, stiff, strong, lasting and peerless in nature. Armour of the bygone eras were worn by warriors to protect themselves during wars. Made of metal and leather, armour was designed to look grand. The cane armour/costumes in these works refer to this grandeur. But the elaborate bamboo structures look relatively feminine, linear, fragile, and organic in nature, protecting the body, but suggesting a sensuousness and breaking the gaze by the joineries of the pieces of cane and the weave. In this work, Anita Dube transforms a skeleton, formerly used by her brother while studying medicine, into objects including a garland, a fan, and a flower, among others, wrapped in red velvet. The bones embody a juxtaposition between death and desire when covered by the opulent fabric.
Dube began deliberating the idea of death in 1996 when her father was first diagnosed with cancer. Coming from a family of doctors, she was exposed to studies of human anatomy and physiology from a young age. Dube’s work is autobiographical in the way it is suggestive of her reconciliation with loss and the inevitable end of relationships. Wrapped in red velvet and decorated with embellishments, the works represent a wedding trousseau. The objects symbolising death take on a new meaning, embracing the fragility of life, love, aspiration and beauty, through the second skin that they are provided. Archana Hande’s work features traditional wooden block prints to create a series of works on cloth that form a storyboard depicting characters, landscapes, and topographies of the city of Mumbai. These works are incorporated into a stop-motion film, complete with a script that discusses South Asian notions of feminine beauty, associated with fair skin, to highlight the persisting inequalities within the city. This kind of beauty is used to parallel the proposed “beautification” of the city that involves making it comparable to other metropolitan cities across the world.
Manish Nai comes from a family of textile artisans andfrequently uses discarded clothes, compressed to create minimalist geometric forms. The use of old clothes as well as their literal compression points toward ideas of saving space, and recycling, and promoting sustainability. Displayed within a frame, the work is placed as an architectural barricade in the passage, treading the line between painting and sculpture. The versatile nature of fabric is altered as the clothing is moulded into a series of slender poles. In doing so, the garments lose their unique associations with individuals and become part of homogenised forms. In this work, the poles unravel at the base, laying bare the poetics of the work’s coming into being.
Monali Meher wraps a chandelier in red wool, transforming it, challenging its function, and assigning it new meanings. The work is temporal, simultaneously referring to the past and the present. The act of wrapping red wool is timeconsuming and repetitive, highlighting the meditative process that the making of the work entails. Metaphorically, the chandelier represents female Shakti – the giver of light – by layering it with a red skin which appears to be dripping blood. The object then denotes the visceral and violent attacks on women. Desmond Lazaro was born into an Anglo-Indian family in Leeds, England. His parents migrated from Burma to Leeds in 1957. Lazaro’s greatgrandfather hailed from Madras in the 1800s. When Lazaro moved to India to further his fine arts education at the MS University, Baroda, he was captivated by the historic painting traditions of Rajasthan and began a lifelong journey of preserving them. He mastered miniature painting techniques by studying for 12 years under Jaipur Master Banu Ved Pal Sharma, one of the few living experts on this ancient tradition.
In this work, viewers are invited to walk along a passage of fabric panels that depict Lazaro’s family history. The artist employs intricate embroidery in these works made in collaboration with Chennai-based French embroiderer Jean Francois Lesage, that also reference Pichvai traditions of lacework. A short film depicting archival family footage from Lazaro’s home in England reveals that the wallpaper print in his family’s ‘best’ room translates onto one of his fabric panels. The association between the images and patterns within his work appear to be linked ostensibly with the artist’s memories.
The gold icon displayed on a wall quotes a message that was embedded on Lazaro’s grandfather’s passport enabling him to travel freely to England. In the light of the recent immigration crisis, the work also comments on the difficulty associated with free travel today.
‘The Bombay Photo Studio pictures’ were shot by J H Thakker, who took photographs of film stars for Hindi film studios in the 1950s and 1960s. The triptych features portraits of three women from different religious identities presenting their figures in rich detail without showing their faces. The carpet and the vases with artificial flowers placed on colonial-style tables, shaped like a fluted column, are from the days when ethnographic documentation of native people ignored their individuality, noticing in them only representatives of types, communities, trades, regions or castes. Pushpamala draws this connection by giving the titles adequately dated spellings. This series is autobiographical in nature. Reena Saini Kallat lost her mother when she was eight years old, and arrived at this work through the frequent contact with her mother’s sarees that have remained stacked inside a cupboard for over 27 years. The work comprises 12 sarees dyed in shades of red, using the traditional ‘bandhani’ technique. Kallat collaborated with Khatri families in Kutch to realise this work. Through the process of tie and dye, the un-dyed dotted areas remain white, where the untreated virgin fabric forms a text in Braille. The texts laid on these sarees seen in reverse print, are translations of recipes from her mother’s handwritten recipe books.
The associations with motherhood are carried through the symbolic use of the saree and the recipes from her mother’s books extend it further by evoking notions of nurturing and nourishing. The sarees, while beautiful, remain illegible. The dotted patterns forming the script in Braille disallow easy access to the content of the text, much like Kallat’s relationship with her mother, built on fragments of inscrutable memory.
The Textile Manufactures of India by John Forbes Watson is a set of 18 volumes consisting of mounted and classified samples of Indian textiles, called as “working samples” with a total of 700 fabric samples. Dr. John Forbes Watson was an army surgeon in Bombay from 1850 to 1853. In 1858, he was appointed as the Director of the Indian Museum and Reporter on the Products of India at the Indian Museum.
The compiled fabric pieces were cut from the textiles in the stores of the India Office in London, which was a repository of archives related to the British East India Company. The volumes of Textile Manufactures include turbans, garment pieces for men and women, dhotis, sarees, calicos, muslin, silks, woollens and “piece goods”. The Watson collection also includes rare samples of embroidery with gold thread and beetle wings.
Each page with individual fabric sample is numbered and labelled with detailed information: the name of the material, the quality, the community it is worn by the length of the fabric, its price, weight, provenance and the place of purchase — the key information necessary for English textile manufacturers. This display sets up a conversation between handmade textile traditions, industrial practices and consumerism. The placement of the work next to the embroidery piece from Sindh and the weaver’s house, from the Museum’s permanent collection, evokes the politics of the modes of production, as ‘handmade’ becomes a rarefied luxury item and many skilled weavers have lost their jobs to become factory workers.
Samant uses identical industrially produced bottle caps to create unique pieces. A FactoryMade Saree uses soda-bottle caps, linked with metal shackles to create a ‘fabric’ with motifs representing a Tangail saree popularly worn by women in Calcutta during Durga Puja.
Manisha Parekh’s collages, drawings, and relief works can be called self-referential. Whether with ink or graphite on paper, cut Japanese rice paper, or a simple jute string, she exploits the properties of these materials to create objects and images that seem to be derived organically. Her language of Bio-morphism brings a wide range of references to the works, such as molecular engineering, gene therapy, nanotechnology and microbial metabolism. Bombay Weaves is a metaphor for the various cultures and communities that together form the fabric of Mumbai. P P Raju, from the Chendamangala Handloom Weavers Co-operative is a master weaver who operates the handloom, and is the collaborator on this project. A spool of coloured thread is assigned to each of the communities and visitors are encouraged to participate by leaving their name and the number of the spool that represents their community or a group that they feel an affinity towards. If someone feels they share nothing in common with any of these, or feels excluded from the categorisation, they can choose the option of the white thread (Absent) and those who believe that religion and ethnicity may cause differences between people can select the option of the golden thread (Humanist). Based on choices made by the visitors, the weaver will integrate the selected colours of thread into the fabric.
Vices and Vices (Vanity) are a part of an ongoing series of works Lavanya Mani has been working on based on the seven deadly sins, a popular theme among early 14th-century European artists. The work, Vices (Vanity) refers to one of the seven vices, vanity, which was a popular motif of traditional still-life painting referring to the transient nature of physical beauty. A woman’s dressing table was also referred to as Vanity. The images describe an ongoing fascination with the presence of history in the life of mundane objects; playing cards have a long genealogy and occur in one form or the other in almost all cultures, and are a good example of the ways in which cross-cultural transmission and adaptation take place. They are universal symbols of play and leisure, but are particular in the local forms that they take. Likewise, the technique that her work employs, drawing on kalamkari and other textile traditions of the subcontinent is local, the works explore larger ideas of power politics, historical events and cultural exchange. In this work, Mani uses the kalamkari techniques to portray parachutes, planes and clouds that are collaged on top of naturally dyed cotton with Victorian-era inspired motifs such as that of Cupid. She collected these motifs from illustrations found in history books and moral stories. The work references the history of colonisation, through early travel and discoveries of (new) lands. Mani recognises cloth’s ability to transform, hide, and reveal; cloth is a natural storyteller and the artist layers cloth and paint in her works to draw out new narratives that are inspired by both Indian colonial history and Victorian Literature.
Priya Ravish Mehra worked with Rafoogari, a traditional form of darning used to repair tears and moth holes in textiles. She became interested in Rafoogari upon realising its absence in the context of textile history. Through first-hand research, meeting rafoogars and documenting their work, she sought to raise historical awareness, as well as appreciation of their skill. Considering that a skilled rafoogar’s work remains invisible as it must blend seamlessly with the rest of the fabric, the laborious effort of the artisan goes unnoticed. In Mehra’s adaptation of Rafoogari, she consciously makes the darning visible, drawing attention to its technique as well as to the flaws of the fabric. This acknowledgment of imperfection along with the notion of making the process of mending apparent, metaphorically represents Mehra’s own life. She battled cancer for over 12 years, before succumbing to it last year. This site-specific work, a temporary alteration of the staircase, is an acknowledgement of the various transitions the museum has undergone since its conception, its various avatars and name changes, and its layered history as the city’s first museum built after the Crown took over from the East India Company. It represents a threshold, connecting two spaces, through which the artist draws metaphorical meanings of transformations through time. By treating the architecture as body, giving it a second skin, the artist further seeks to symbolise a dressing of the wounds and struggles of the past.
Acrylic on vintage textile
Shezad Dawood interweaves histories, realities and symbolism to create richly layered artworks. The original textiles, on which Dawood’s works are based, were created by nomadic weavers in South Asia through the 1970s. Composed of discarded scraps from textile factories, the fabrics also attest to an earlier, more utopian globalisation, where patterns from Lagos, Kyoto, Shanghai and the Netherlands informed the palette of pattern and colour.
His vintage textile pieces form a key element of the artist’s multi-disciplinary practice. Intervening on the textiles’ quilted surfaces, Dawood adds layers of screen print, paint and shorthand to create a bricolage of elements. By working with the textiles’ pre-existing narratives and highlighting their resonance with other cultural phenomena, he questions the established binaries between different value systems and cultures.
Nilima Sheikh’s Rozgar series draws from a 19thcentury manuscript depicting professions in Kashmir. Sheikh recreates figures of artisans and their tools, by hand on tracing paper. She articulates her understanding of miniature painting traditions and layers her works with textual references to reflect on contemporary socio-political and cultural discourse. Sensitive to the historical and ideological locations of the artisan, the absorption of ‘craft’ as raw materials into ‘art’ as well as the continuity of labour, Sheikh resignifies circulating West/Central and South Asian lineages under the signs of the artisanal imprint, labour and the production of beauty. ‘Tehvar’ in Urdu means festival. While away on a residency in Pakistan, the artist created this work to allude to the idea of ‘home’ in a foreign land and the history of Partition which left two nations severed, with connected cultures from the past. The artist collected household objects that were similar in Indian homes. She wrapped them with red wool to make them personal, referencing festivals, celebrations and rituals.
The work evokes histories of Partition and the resulting displacement of people and livelihoods. Fabric, garments, trunks and other personal memorabilia are put in cabinets, resembling the vitrines existing in the Museum. The objects displayed together speak of how cultures transcend national boundaries, and how a mass displacement of people leaves residual memories and traditions carried across borders. This is vividly represented through clothes and personal collections passed down through generations. The cabinets further evoke the layered history of the objects and the making of a personal archive/museum.
Connecting Threads: Textiles in Contemporary Practice, curated by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta and Puja Vaish, was on display at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai from 2 December 2018 to 17 February 2019. The exhibition featured the works of artists Anita Dube, Anju Dodiya, Archana Hande, Desmond Lazaro, Lavanya Mani, Manish Nai, Manisha Parekh, Monali Meher, Nilima Sheikh, Paula Sengupta, Priya Ravish Mehra, Pushpamala N, Rakhi Peswani, Reena Saini Kallat, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Sharmila Samant and Shezad Dawood. All images and texts are published here with the permission of the Museum.