Priya Ravish Mehra has documented the life and work of skilled darners or Rafoogars of Najibabad in Uttar Pradesh besides giving them international exposure to them through workshops and seminars.

Textile artist, designer and weaver Priya Ravish Mehra is weaving a story of a community of craftsmen who have seamlessly merged their lives into the warp and weft of India’s rich and diverse textile tradition. Priya believes that clothes reveal a lot about the person and his/her life. Inspired by the long and multi-hued textile tradition of India, she left her post-graduation in mathematics half way through to study fine art (textiles) at Visvabharti University, Santiniketan. She followed it up with a postgraduate degree in tapestry weaving from the Royal College of Arts in London and West Dean College, Sussex, on a Commonwealth Fellowship and Charles Wallace Trust scholarship. The daughter of parents who had studied in Santiniketan during the time of Tagore, she was exposed to the vibrant art and craft of the country from a young age.

“We hail from Najibabad in Uttar Pradesh, which is about 200 km from Delhi. There is a large community of skilled darners called Rafoogars in our town and whenever they came across an exquisite piece of work they would come to our house to show it to my parents; it could be a Pashmina shawl or a Jamawar or an exquisitely worked sari. Perhaps that was when I fell in love with the distinctive fabrics and needlework of India,” recalls Priya who is now based in Delhi.

After completing her studies and while working in the field, she was encouraged by her friends to write something on the Rafoogars. During her research she found that the Rafoogars had been mentioned in several writings from the Mughal period onwards but there was no kind of documentation on the Rafoogars or their work. Although many places in India had their own version of the darners in the local community, the Rafoogars in Najibabad were a class apart. She decided that she would document their lives and their work before the seams of a tradition were irrevocably snapped as was happening with many weaving communities in India.

“I call it ‘making invisible visible’. The Rafoogars are supposed to do such fine work that is almost impossible to make out where the cloth has been damaged and darned. Since their work was invisible, the craftsmen behind the work may have also been invisible,” reasons Priya.

She says that the work is done almost completely by Muslim men, many of whom may have come from Kashmir. They were surprised when Priya wanted to know more about their lives and their craft that gave new life to clothes. “I had to convince them that their work is something unique and at a time when most youngsters do not even know how to sew on a button, it is important to record such fine workmanship,” she explains.

She plans to bring them under an umbrella organisation with their own office and website so that people anywhere in the world would be able to contact them for their unmatched needle work. “Although the use-and-throw culture is now rampant in India and in many parts of the world, there is always that frayed or torn garment, sari or shawl that one keeps for sentimental reasons. If only people knew about such a community, they could get that repaired or restored,” points out Priya.

Determined to give them an international profile, Priya has taken groups of the Rafoogars to Australia, Oakland in the United States and Scotland for various workshops and seminars on textiles.

“In Scotland we invited the local people to bring a damaged piece of cloth or dress and tell a story on why they had kept it and also join the Rafoogars with their knitting or tapestry work. It turned out to be such an emotional get-together. While narrating the story of their piece, many became a tad teary as they recalled the person who owned it or why it was special to them,” recalls Priya.

Around about the same time that Priya was beginning work on the Rafoogars, she was diagnosed with cancer. Battling the emperor of maladies has not sapped her spirit in spite of three recurrences. She says: “I see my life being mended by this project much the same way the Rafoogars give a new lease of life to old and worn out clothes.” She was in Kerala for an Ayurveda treatment that she says is a kind of detoxification for the system.

In the meantime, Priya wonders if there are Rafoogars or their equivalent in South India. She also plans to hold a workshop and demonstration of Rafoogars and Rafoogari in Kerala. And, of course, the book on Rafoogars. “Publishers are asking for it but I am writing it in between my treatment and, hopefully, the book should be done soon,” she says.

Tryst with textiles

Three months arts residency in Scotland, with Cove Park and Deveron Arts, Huntly.

Presented papers on ‘Rafoogari’ at the 9th Biennial TSA Symposium 2004 in Oakland and at the North American Textiles Conservation Conference in Mexico.

Created a New Delhi Residency to facilitate partnerships and cultural exchanges.

She participated in the Common Goods Project along with two Indian Rafoogars at Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Australia to restore and recreate the Eureka flag during Commonwealth Games in 2006.

She has worked as a research consultant in the states of Bihar and Gujarat for the ‘Saris of India Project’ sponsored by the Development Commissioner Handlooms, Ministry of Textiles.

She is co-author of Saris of India: Bihar and Bengal published by Wiley and Eastern and AMR Vastra Kosh. She’s also research author for Saris, Tradition and Beyond published by Roli.