Ahalya Matthan - “It allows you to come close to precious historical textiles”
In The Saree in Nine Stories, the latest publication from The Registry of Sarees founded by Matthan, the saree transforms into an art object that allows the reader to interrogate the past and understand the present
Why and how was the The Registry of Sarees formed?
The Registry of Sarees was started as a research and documentation centre initially to enable cultural learning through weaver and practitioner engagement as well as learning events. I had just founded the #100sareepact in 2015 and was looking for more meaningful and impactful ways to understand and build a relationship with handloom in our country beyond the wonderful world that social media had thrown open to me. In 2016, we had about 22 such events completely free of cost for practitioners. Diverse people from the field such as indigo practitioner Brij Ballabh Udaiwal, designer Ashdeen, revivalist Jaya Jaitly and weavers from a co-operative in East Godavari were hosted in Bengaluru so that our community could connect with each other.
In 2017, I met Mayank Mansingh Kaul, whose role as both educator and curator allowed us to broaden our scope of vision. We began collecting historical textiles with a very focused objective – to build a tangible and physical “registry” of hand spun and handloom textiles of India. The collection could only have grown and been built with the committed support of Mysore Saree Udyog, our corporate partners whose expertise and long family background in textiles have also furthered both research and conservation through a laboratory as well as a commercial platform, Yali.
The purpose of building a “registry” was threefold: to enable design within the practitioner community that now includes farmers, spinners, weavers, their families who work in pre-loom and post-loom handloom technologies as well as designers, connoisseurs, and patrons; to publish research and documentation in the area of hand spinning and handloom and thereby enable research and documentation in the area of hand spinning and handloom weaving; and to create comprehensive curatorial projects that further equip us to share our learning and grow our community.
The Saree in Nine Stories is a stunning publication that originated from the exhibition, Red Lilies, Water Birds curated by Mayank Mansingh Kaul and held in Hampi last year. Tell us about this exhibition, how was it conceived and why Hampi?
The idea for the exhibition was first conceived in 2017. I had several candid conversations with Kamleshji and Dineshji of Mysore Saree Udyog, curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul and my husband Rahul Matthan that encompassed many things including the idea of India. We also spoke about strengthening the #100sareepact into a more encompassing space to include people from all sections of society – it had been treated as a wonderful movement where principally women “showcased” their sarees on social media with their stories and I was actively seeking an education and looking for ways to be a part of the larger community of makers and artists and learners as well.
We also began collecting historical textiles in 2017 guided by Mayank Mansingh Kaul. It had always been our intention to have such exhibitions of quality in rural India and South India principally so that the makers may also be a part of such experiences that otherwise only happen in Delhi, Mumbai, or Kolkata. The desire for a special location like Anegundi, Hampi was very much expressed in 2017 but we had no idea how to make it happen. Between 2017 and 2022, we managed five other beautiful exhibitions and continued working through the pandemic.
The idea to have the exhibition at Hampi was concretised at a dinner held at the home of Beatrice Aranha Corrêa do Lago much later in June 2022. Beatrice, at the request of Malvika Singh had very kindly hosted Yali, a commercial sister concern that makes available hand spun and handloom products that stem from the research work of The Registry of Sarees Trust. When Malvika Singh suggested the idea of the exhibition, Shama Pawar who has built The Kishkinda Trust in the belly of rural Hampi was also present and she instantly agreed to support us. Soon plans were made to visit Hampi and things began to roll.
How did the book idea come about?
Every exhibition that we have done so far including Meanings, Metaphor; Handspun and Handwoven in the 21st Century (at Chirala, Coimbatore, Bengaluru) Beeja Arambha at The Red Fort, and smaller exhibitions like Raaga; the practice of Cotton and Coffee, Red Lilies, Water Birds (at Hampi) have been accompanied by a researched catalogue of either the work or the pieces.
Red Lilies, Water Birds has been really well received and is special for the curatorial stories and the diversity of the narrative, the quality of production and also for the accessibility it gifts the reader. It allows them to come close to precious historical textiles that are otherwise seen only in paintings or museums. What began as a catalogue has certainly turned into a collector’s item.
Does the Registry of Sarees intend to bring out more textile-based publications? How would you select what to publish?
Through the exhibitions we have been really privileged to meet an array of people-practitioners, independent scholars and academics. We do have a roster of work that we are committed to publishing. Publications largely depend on the researcher’s ability to align field research with academic rigour. The truth is that while there are a plenty of people who are willing to directly research private collections or those in museums, there are very few who can commit to other kinds of work around subjects like identity, mythology, circular economy that inherently form the crux of a textile maker’s life. We are interested in deeper narratives around textiles – and field work requires a humility to surrender oneself to the practitioner’s environment.
The Saree in Nine Stories contains text alongside images of the sarees from the exhibition. You have kept the text to a minimum and the images are overpoweringly beautiful. Is there a reason for such a design choice?
This is a decision that the curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul arrived at with the design team that included Barkha Gupta (Creative Direction) and Shweta Mulekar (Graphic Design). This was done so that the language of the textiles could speak to the reader more than cursory words. The strength of the images shot by Shibu Vijayan (it is not easy to shoot historical textiles!) whets your appetite and invites you to seek more knowledge by your proximity to the sentiment the images impart.
Will you consider setting up an archive of these sarees? What are your future plans?
The Registry of Sarees (Trust) is set up as a research and documentation centre because it is home to two large collections of historic textiles. We also have a conservation practice to enable the preservation and archiving of all these textiles. The people who use the centre use it like an archive – essentially you flip through a roster, pull out what you would like to study and then spend time with the piece. We request that people make appointments so that the staff is always at hand to help with both the textile as well as the library.
Kunal Ray writes about art & culture in India. He teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.