Beyond rui and resham: Making a case for the surviving, old and nearly-extinct textile arts

ByEkta Mohta
Nov 19, 2023 06:44 AM IST

A new textile exhibition at the NGMA Mumbai, titled 'Sutr Santati: Then. Now. Next', showcases around 125 commissioned pieces that highlight India's rich textile heritage. The exhibition features works by poets, artists, designers, and weavers, including a jamdani wall panel that recreates a scene from the Ramayana in intricate detail. The exhibition aims to showcase the craftsmanship and excellence of Indian textiles and promote awareness of the country's diverse textile traditions. The exhibition will run from November 19 to January 7, 2024.

Designs on craftsmanship: A new exhibition showcases around 125 commissioned pieces

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On the Indian loom, the god-made effortlessly becomes the man-made. One example of this is a jamdani wall panel at ‘Sutr Santati: Then. Now. Next’, a new textile exhibition at the NGMA Mumbai, which ties together the works of poet Valmiki, artist Raja Ravi Varma, designer Gaurang Shah and weaver K Annaji Rao.

In 1880, Varma had painted a scene from the Ramayana in oil on canvas. The war is over, Lanka has burned, and Lord Ram is still unsure of Sita’s loyalty. With doubting Thomases in attendance, in the shape of sadhus and courtiers, Sita implores Mother Earth to take her back in her balmy embrace. This dramatic moment, titled ‘Sita Bhumi Pravesh’, which turns the court into a courtroom, has been loyally, and impossibly, recreated in jamdani by Shah and Rao.

Exhibition curator Lavina Baldota says, “It is one of our hero pieces, because weaving is such a geometric process. So, how do you get the detailing in the curves? The artisans have created so many layers and perspectives: the jewellery, the folds in the loosely-draped fabrics, the facial expressions of shock and helplessness and compassion. It took them three years to make it inch by inch. And, if they made a mistake, they couldn’t go back.”

With about 125 textiles by close to 200 artisans, craftspeople, designers and artists, ‘Sutr Santati’ is a beyond-beautiful showcase of India’s textile heritage. Something new has been attempted even with well-known techniques. Designer Tarun Tahiliani’s atelier took a mata ni pachedi by Sanjay Chitara and hand-embroidered it with metal threads, making the goddess’s sari look like a golden kavach. Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla’s studio has used their signature mirrorwork to mirror the lippan murals of the Rann. And, Gaurav Gupta and a crew of masters from Kashmir have rendered the kundalini in pashmina and aari chain stitch, aligning spirituality and embroidery and geography. “The piece is very unlike Gaurav Gupta, and that’s the point I want to make,” says Baldota. “Designers have broken their own boundaries to do something different especially for this exhibition.”

Continuity of thread

Like family heirlooms, Baldota inherited her love of Indian textiles from her mother. “Till today, I ransack her wardrobe,” she says. “When I got married, I wasn’t given any sequinned saris. My trousseau comprised all the weaves from different parts of the country.” Married into the Hospet-based Baldota Group, a leading iron-ore mining company, she continues, “My husband’s side of the family are Gandhians. My father-in-law (Dr Narendrakumar Baldota) only wears khadi. So, the emotion of the hand-spun is a big part of me.”

As the custodian of the Abheraj Baldota Foundation, she has been supporting weavers and designers for the past three decades. “It worked, but I wanted a platform where these works could be seen together. I wanted the public to see the finesse, workmanship and excellence we’re capable of. In this exhibition, they will understand that many hearts, hands and minds come together to create a textile. So, I’m like a sutr sutradhar.”

‘Sutr Santati’ opens with a revival section, spread across the first two floors. “There are a few extremely important revival works here,” says Baldota. Crafts hanging by a thread such as Kodalikaruppur saris (Tamil Nadu) and kasavu veshtis (Kerala) have been given a fresh lease of life. A sari in baavanbuti, revived by the Srijani Foundation, has 52 motifs drawn from antique textiles, artist Upendra Maharathi’s works and contemporary geometric practices. A saar bandha sari from Odisha, by Studio Punarnawa, is representative of one of the most ancient forms of fabric production in the subcontinent. “Just one weaving family, the Mehers of Bargarh, are still doing it today,” says Baldota. And, among the pieces from Rahul Jain’s ASHA Workshop in Benaras is a samite weave fabric, featuring blackbucks and paired ducks in a field so gold, as if woven with straw. “Textiles in real zari with multiple layers of brocading are unique to that loom,” she says.

Level 3 is split between indigenous (Kotpad weave, Toda embroidery) and sacred textiles (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in kalamkari, Ganpati in Sambalpuri ikat): “Because in India, we have dressed our gods the best.” Level 4 is the nationalist section with fibre tributes to Mahatma Gandhi, khadi and 75 years of azadi. And, the dome is the experimental segment with works designed by Anamika Khanna, Vaishali S, and others. “The best way is to see two floors at a time because there are many discoveries to be made and you need time to read the text,” she says.

While emphasising the use of natural dyes and yarn, Baldota points to a work in yak wool and says, “I want to show our materiality, because India is not just cotton and silk. I want everyone to question why they wear synthetic or imported cloth when everything is available in our country. When you do something with awareness, its value increases.” At the same time, she admits, “We’re literally seeing a resurrection of our textiles. Stores such as Swadesh and Aadyam Handwoven give a big impetus to the whole community. People like Sanjay Garg have made the sari so cool that even the cool kids want to wear it. So, everybody has to do their bit.”

The travelling exhibition has also done its bit for the ecosystem. “After seeing the show, Ritu Kumar contacted three clusters and started working with them,” she says. “One of our students was hired by Tarun Tahiliani, another has joined the Chanakya School of Craft. My goal is to create awareness. That’s why I don’t want to exhibit in any gallery, which are white-cubed, elitist spaces. We will stick to museums, so that anybody can walk in and enjoy the works.”

A must-see expo, the sheer breadth of the show is breathtaking, even for those who are familiar with the needlework of kantha, phulkari, zardozi, gota patti or chikankari. Because whether it’s an embroidered map of Srinagar or the tale of Kabuliwala, artisans have embellished the story with their handiwork. “It’s such a tactile process to feel a textile,” says Baldota. “We can’t touch these exhibits, but I know when you go close, they will touch you.”

‘Sutr Santati: Then. Now. Next’ will run from Nov 19 to Jan 7, 2024, at the NGMA Mumbai.

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