Intertwining Inheritance and Practice 

A fascinating piece of pictorial textile from a French collection generated quite an animated curiosity last year when it was exhibited in a number of Indian metropolises. Although it obviously was a piece of seventeenth century textile art of Kalamkari (Kalam = finger-wielded implement of drawing, plus Kari= workout), from the Telugue speaking region of south India, it was not an usual temple hanging. The unusual pictorial language, in which a fantasy world was visualised in the exhibit, was a hybrid Indo-Turkik. The narrative and the language, perhaps had led to its being enigmatically titled as Tapis Moghol. It was perhaps a made-to-order export item like so many other painted, block-printed and resist-dyed designed clothing exported to Europe from India, between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, generally called the Chintz or Cheentz, there. It is not that the exhibition suddenly awakened the practitioners, of the non-performing visual arts like painting, sculpture, installation and graphics, to muse on the history of interface between their kind of art practices, and textiles as socio-cultural artefacts and technological objects, but certainly gave a fillip to their phenomenological concerns. A quick overview of the history of interface between textile and other visual arts in India, may be useful in providing a historical perspective to contemporary praxis, to project which is the purpose of the present exhibition.

[read more=”+ Read more” less=”- Read less”]In the absence of archaeological finds of actual objects, how do we know about the antiquity, and experience the richness of the designed textiles of India of the past. An answer is, through the representations like, the one-shoulder-off floral robe of the supposed ‘priest’ statuette from Mohenjodaro, the diaphanous drapes with designs composed of floral motifs on the sculpted and modeled bodies of divinities and laity from the Kushana-Mathura days down to the Vijayanagara Kingdom’s time. Far richer and variegated are the representations of textile dresses with motif-composed designs, in the gamut of Indian painting from the 5th century Ajanta murals to the 19th century Pahari miniatures. However, as these representations are in stone and metal or in paint on surface, there is no way to know for sure whether the design were woven, embroidered, stitched, knitted, patch-worked, quilted, painted or printed. We can only guess. The purpose of representation was not keeping of evidence for the posterity, but of construction of signifiers for signification of the wearers’ status and occasion. The stray and sporadic archaeological remnants of the actual objects, like the 14th-15th century painted and printed pieces found from Al Fustat on the Nile, and the late medieval dresses of the royalty seen at various fort and palace museums do not do justice to the enormous variety and richness of the motif-composed textile designs of India, as indicated by sculptures and paintings. Although, on the evidence of a lone hand-manouverable block of stone with carved design, found from 5th century stratum, in Bannu, in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, is sure enough indication of block-printing of textiles, at least in that area, at that time. Literary accounts of European travellers and traders of the 16th to the 18th centuries also provide interesting information on painted, printed and dyed fabrics of various materials. But these are poor surrogates of visual evidence, either as actual objects or as representations.

It is extremely important to remember that, in total disregard of their representation in other arts, demand-fed textile designs, irrespective of their being objectified by weaving, embroidering, stitching, sewing, knitting, quilting, patchworking, printing or painting, came to stay and/or flourished with improvisation, and/or stagnated with lack of improvisation, and decayed with fall in demand. All these happened locally. Sometimes through trade, elements of visual appearance of designs, sometimes elements of technology of making travelled from one local tradition to another, depending on demand. Falling income, dwindling supply of inputs and rise of input-cost, availability of cheaper alternatives, inability of producers to adapt to changes in demand and falling demand led to the near demise of the indigenous textile crafts in the nineteenth century India. It is well recognized that not only the exploitative trade practices but also the semi-administrative policies of the Company government, and then of the Raj, created all the listed conditions to finish off the indigenous textile crafts. Moribund, though, some traditions continued to survive.

In the Gandhian era of Indian freedom struggle, attention was turned to rural India with Rabindranath motivating from another angle. With such a turn, the necessity for revival of rural and moribund crafts began to be felt. As the textile crafts engaged numerically the largest number of highly skilled craftsmen, these came into focus. After the independence, the Nehruvian welfare state took institutional measures for reinvigoration of the textile and other craft, with erudite enthusiasts like Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya and Pupul Jayakar in the lead. Institutions were set up for providing research and development inputs and marketing assistance. Traditions of textile crafts got new lease of life. Even the non-commercial stitch designed objects like the Kantha of Bengal and Phulkari of Punjab for home use, benefited from the resurgence. However, none of these ipso facto got represented in other visual arts.

Coincidentally with the stagnation of the textile crafts, but not as cause and effect, the drapery was losing its value as image in the non-performing visual arts, due to some skewed adaptation of Eurogenetic Modernist notions. Fortunately, however, India’s own trajectory towards modernity could not distract painters like Nandalal Bose and M.F. Husain from using of images of objects of use, like clothings, as significant images. Remember Nandalal’s Natirpuja mural and Husain’s Between the Spider and the Lamp or the Mother Teresa series. Situation, however, has been changing through last quarter of a century, again coincidentally with new interest in textile crafts. With the postmodernist jettisoning of the ideas of absolute autonomy and purity of each art (in terms of the materials and methods used), the connectivity with the phenomenal world of natural and man-made objects began to be re-established in the visual arts. This change in attitude to the arts made it possible for the re-entry of textiles as inputs into such visual arts as painting, sculpture, printmaking, installation and visual designs. This time, the textile related inputs, into the listed non-performing visual arts, are more variegated and multifaceted than just representations, in other media, of dresses and drapes.

The apparel images of Aditya Basak’s muralish paintings are, on one hand, signifiers of vulnerability of female beings who can be denuded at will in male dominated societies, and on the other, lordly doings of the tightly dressed up powerful males; they may be divinities, demi-gods or men wielding secular power. Aditya visualises the concept through pseudo narratives of disjointed episodes – referring to disrobing of women in Indian mythology. Alongside these, he constructs episodes, based on his reading of the history of India’s textile trade in late medieval times, which he visualises as denudation of craftswomen by crafty European traders. The mythic and the allegoric dimensions of the visual narratives are evoked through half-revelatory twilight luminosity of Aditya’s colour and the seeming semblance to the ancient mural that he gives to his character images.

Anju Dodiya’s mixed-media (watercolour, acrylic and charcoal) drawings, on handmade paper pasted on out-sized cloths, although do not have much to do with textile imagery, cloths do their presence felt in her work as active support-material, unlike in conventional panel painting, where the support usually has a passive role. The active support, especially that provided by woven fabric is a legacy from the medieval Persian, Chinese and Japanese art, which the early moderns of Bengal avidly pursued. Following the historical tradition, Anju uses the woven texture of the cloth-support effectively, like a miniaturist.

Archana Hande, in her work, simulates a pictorial route-map, across ethno-territorial borders, to indicate trade-motivated movements, including migration of textile materials, techniques of making, weaves, motifs, patterns, designs etc. etc., that have been affecting life styles, albeit differentially, in the orient and the occident, through ages, fascinating how trade-and-travel affects visual culture; thanks to Archana for vivifying the knowledge.

G.R. Iranna’s painterly image of the Carpet is an exercise in looking at a manmade object of exchange not as a commodity, but as a perceptual entity, with sensuous – both visual and tactile qualities. It is the pattern constructed by weaving that has to be looked at, it is the feel of the texture that has to experienced to value the Carpet. The carpet’s value is not what the trade dictates; nor does its value depend on its being used as the jainamaz by the namazi to meditate upon.

For over two decades now, Jayashree Chakravarty has been establishing herself as a conceptual landscape artist, combining macro-level mapping with micro-level observational factuals. At the macro-level, she has been visually translating her comprehension of the physical geography of her residential region into configurations of visual notations. At the micro-level, she has been constructing images, if not of microbes, then of small aquatic and marshland creatures and weak flora. In a map composed of connotational image-residues of a region, she would configurate disparate images of floristic and faunistic life, threatened with extinction. This has indeed been the resultant of conceptual abstraction of her experience of her residential area, being transformed from a marshland to an urban sprawl. However, where does, textiles figure in it? One does not know, how Jayashree, like the modern pastoralist poet of Bengal Jasimuddin, found similarities between cultivated fields of alluvial planes of Bengal, saturated with water, and the surface patterns of Bengal’s own Kantha, design-stitched multi-layered cotton quilts. But by pasting paper upon paper, often leaving air-pockets and giving coats of wax Jayashree gives to her surfaces the feel of gently undulating alluvial planes with fluvial flows; on such surfaces, the contour lines she draws to define motifs and indicate planes, strongly resemble the kantha stitch in look and feel. Nature meets craft in her work.

Alternating her practice between printmaker’s and art historian’s, Paula Sengupta turned to lace knitting with crotchet, net weaving, embroidery, patchwork stitching and wood-filigree, not just to become a complete miniature installation artist, but to create evocative simulacrums as evidences of social history of a people of a period. After being engaged in the construction of telling images, through dresses and furnishings of domesticity and typical family history that could be fitted into a larger frame of social history, Paula has turned her attention to the will to preservation of cultural identity, as a motive force of history. The indefatigable Himalayan trotter, Paula, this time has done simulacrums of the Tibetan thanka (tempera paintings on silk supports depicting divinities, deified lamas), not however for usual religio-ritualistic purpose, but to create visual signifiers for the political will of a people. Situated on a branch of the famous Silk Route, the trade in luxury silk not only caused misery to the weavers and the artisans in the past, in the present also loyalty to silken thanka is inviting trouble for the Tibetans under Chinese domination.

Shrabani Roy weaves, knits, stitches, sews, patchworks, with cotton, jute, silk and woolen yarns of myriad hues, often combining materials and techniques, to make objects which are not so much functional. She is a painter whose wherewithals are from the textile field. Her images are generally from domestic life, although she often creates landscape suggestivity with images of objects culled from domestic life. For this exhibition she has done images of hearths of poor rural kitchen. The hearths are emitting smoke of myriad colours, suggesting (but not depicting or describing) flowers; the flower suggestion immediately start giving to the lowly mud-hearths suggestivity to vases. The smoking hearths of Bengali rural poor get generically related to still-life-with-flower-vases kind of painting.

Surojit Sarkar’s back-illuminated box-installation can be seen- and – read as a prologue to the exhibition itself. Comprising digitised reproductions of bit of actual old stylus (Kalam)-drawn textiles, inter-spaced with written equivalents of the same visual narratives, the installation supplies a key to the understanding of what Kalamkari is all about, but not what the show as a whole is.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee is a celebrated fashion designer of India, from Bengal, and as such he is deeply involved with textiles, like all other fashion designers. But what prompted us to invite him to participate in this exposition is his enduring engagement with the history of Indian dresses, as heritage to transform. Let his artist’s statement speak for him.

Pranabranjan Ray[/read]

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