In art, adversity has its uses. Ask Delhi-based artists Rahul Chaudhary and Pankaj Saroj, who were stuck in a cashless situation in a small town in Uttar Pradesh on the evening of November 8. Since September, the two had been travelling across the country on a yarn bombing project — a form of street art in which the artist transforms public spaces with colourful knits or crocheted yarn or fibre. On the night of November 8, the artists were left with just four Rs 500 notes.
Over the next few days, however, many locals came forward to help them tide over the cash crisis — the hotel owner asked them to pay “whenever” they got back home, restaurants offered free food and many others accepted the old currency to bail them out.
In those moments, the artists say the yarn that they had been knitting and wrapping at various sites became a metaphor for the “community ties” that they shared, and the “bonds” that they forged with people they met en route.
Bombing for a cause
Over the last decade, yarn bombing or yarn storming has become popular in countries such as the US, UK and Australia. Knitting and wrapping objects in colourful yarn, or making objects out of threads is often done as an act of subversion, and as a means to reclaim public spaces. At times, it may be done merely to add colour to an otherwise drab environment.
The mother of yarn bombing, Texas-based artist Magda Sayeg, started out in 2010 by wrapping stop sign poles and fire hydrants in “something warm, fuzzy and colourful”. In a Ted talk on her work, Magda says her work became popular because it offered people something “relatable” in a fast-paced digital world. Other yarn stormers in the UK describe their work as “kooky and eccentric”.
Chaudhary and Saroj, however, contend that yarn bombing has its roots in Indian culture. “Haven't we been doing this for centuries? Our grandmothers have been knitting; we tie rakhis, and also wrap threads around trees in dargahs,” says Chaudhary, who focusses on knitting, while Saroj works on larger sculptures using the macrame technique (knotting strings in patterns to make objects).
The idea behind the yarn bombing project, says Shailin Smith, curator, Raj Art initiative (part of the Raj Group in Panipat), was to “celebrate” the lives and stories of the weavers working at the group's carpet factories in Panipat. The route for the journey was chosen keeping in mind the weavers’ migration patterns, she says.
With that idea and kilos of yarn sent in batches from Panipat, Chaudhary and Saroj started ‘bombing’ tea stalls, small shops, rickshaws and trees — and even a non-functional hand-pump — in towns and cities that fell on their way from Delhi to Mumbai, and Lucknow to Majuli.
How did the locals react? "We got everything ranging from sheer curiosity and scepticism to heart-warming enthusiasm,” recalls Chaudhary. In the district of Bhadohi in Uttar Pradesh, curious onlookers started asking the two what this “prachaar (advertising)” was for. “The district is a big centre for yarn, and people thought we were advertising for some factory. It was hard for them to believe that we were doing it for free,” says Chaudhary.
However, once they noticed the bright yarn on an e-rickshaw, many started requesting the artists to “decorate” their shops, windows and bikes. Rickshaw-pullers in Kolkata did so after sensing that the ‘bombed’ rickshaws were attracting more clients.
Now, buoyed by their experiences, the artists, currently working on a rhino sculpture in Assam’s Majuli island, are preparing to come back to Delhi next week. They began with Delhi, and had wrapped the yarn at a few sites in the Mandi House area. But some of it was pulled out. The journey might be ending (once they move to Panipat from Delhi), but the artists feel that much like “the yarn found its way into people’s lives”, it will find some form in their work too.