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Tapestry Of Metaphors

The recently concluded exhibition, Connecting Threads, adopted textile as a medium to create visual and spatial metaphors that traced complex histories through contemporary art.

A type of weave, a skill of embroidery, and even a pigment of a dye have the faculty to trace back histories of its origin. That’s the power of textile – a medium that transcends class, religion, and geography.

India has been abundantly blessed with rich ancient textiles and techniques that are unique to different parts of the country – some that are labour-intensive, some that resonate with geographical identity, while some with its ethnicity.

Installation of Shakuntala Kulkarni, Untitled, 2011-12

Connecting Threads: Textiles in Contemporary Practice, an exhibition curated by Zakaria Mehta and Puja Vaish, recently concluded its successful run at Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. It showcased works of contemporary artists who have invoked metaphoric narratives through the medium of textiles. In the process, it provided nuanced understanding of the tradition, craft, and its modern interpretation.

Anita Dube, ‘Silence (Blood Wedding)’ (front) and Ah (a sigh) (back)

Some of the big names from the Indian art scene like 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, Shezaad Dawood had showcased their work.

The exhibition transcended mere celebrating of the rich textile history of India; it weaved together the intersecting socio-cultural issues, political histories, commerce, and modern day concerns. Curator Puja Vaish says, “Fabric talks most beautifully about histories. It tenaciously traverses back through various transitions spanning different centuries and geographies.”

Installation view of Rakhi Peswani, ‘Fruits of Labour (A Monument to Exhaustion)’, 2013

Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum was an apt venue for this exhibition, where these installations are strategically juxtaposed with the museum’s original exhibits, and together with the ethnographic documentation of the museum created a cohesive tapestry.

Sharmila Samant’s The Bombay Weaves, a metaphorical tableau that catalogs various cultures and communities which form the fabric of Mumbai, was an interactive installation. Colour coded thread spools represented the diverse demography of Mumbai and referring to these historical categorisations of community profiles, Samant reimagined its impact on contemporary India.

Installation view of Reena Kallat, ‘Walls of the Womb’, 2007

Manish Nai has created a screen that also acted as a physical partition within the museum. Nai used old discarded clothing which he collected from his mother and other relatives. The clothing was compressed in a mould using heat which allowed them to maintain the shape. The final structure disassociates the individualistic identity of the used garments and creates a monolithic homogenised form.

Running Thread, a temporary alteration of the museum staircase, was an acknowledgement of the various transitions the museum has undergone since its conception. This site-specific project was executed by Netherland-based artist Monali Meher. The thread work also alluded to the sacred red threads that are often tied over structural elements in Hindu temples as a prayer ritual.

Intersecting with the British documentations of textile which are part of the museum exhibits, Lavanya Mani and Archana Hande’s work presented an abstraction of western influences, trade patterns and cultural adaption. Mani’s Vices, a painting on kalamkari, explores larger ideas of power politics, and cultural exchange. Puja further elucidates, ‘In these curated works, Lavanya has harnessed her deep understanding of traditional craft to highlight culture hybridisation. These works beautifully portray how excessive westernisation has diluted the purist form.’

Through a customised block printed story board – Archana Hande has created a tongue-in-cheek story on fabric that comments on the rapid urban growth, while using Dharavi slums as the backdrop. The boards are also adopted in a motion film format.

While Dube’s iconic works, Silence (Blood Wedding) and Ah (A Sigh) were counterbalanced with Pushpamala’s work. For Blood Wedding, Dube transformed a skeleton – formerly used by her brother while studying medicine – into objects including a garland, a fan, and a flower, etc., wrapped in red velvet. The bones embody visceral notions of death and desire when covered by the opulent fabric. Whereas Pushpamala’s photographic work celebrates attire and identity, which finds resonance with ethnographic work of British documentation present in the museum.

Rakhi Peswani‘s installation Fruits of Labour was an ode to labour. A tent like shelter overlaid with personal clothing, this fabric structure derived its inspiration from relief shelters/tents pitched at sites of displacement, construction, migrations, and devastations.

Displayed in the Kamalnayan Bajaj Special Exhibitions Gallery, Neelima’s Sheikh’s Rozgaar series pays homage to artisan and craftsman of Kashmir valley. Rich textile traditions are layered with political histories, labour, textiles workers, while articulately juxtaposing tools with weapons that reflect the current situation in the valley. Whereas, Shezaad Dawood drew inspiration from his childhood – his work Point and I will Follow represents memories of partition and alludes to connected cultures, multiple geographies and evolution of traditions through his work with vintage textiles.

Fabric is a versatile material that weaves not just tangible embroideries, but intangible memories as well. Reena Saini Kallat’s staggering installation, Walls of the Womb that was displayed in the Special Project space, is an autobiographical series, where Reena reimagines her deceased mother’s memories. The work comprises of 12 sarees dyed in traditional bandhani technique. Using the handwritten recipes from her mother’s book, she abstracted them in Braille and boarded them on crimson sarees.

Another installation displayed here, of the celebrated artist Desmond Lazaro takes you down the memory lane. Desmond venerates his multicultural identity through his work Promise: Family Portraits. He mapped his personal history with the political history on fabric through embroidery, painting and a video. He collaborated with Chennai-based, French embroiderer, Jean Francois Lesage, to embroider his personal memories that take references from Pichvai traditions of lacework.

While these chosen works were from various artists across the country, they all talk of human stories – personal and political both. Ultimately, textiles just don’t fashion bodies, they fashion histories, commerce and humanity.

Text By Shweta Salvi



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