Weaving metaphors for life

Strings attached: Artwork by Monali Meher and Anju Dodiya on display at the museum

Strings attached: Artwork by Monali Meher and Anju Dodiya on display at the museum  

A textile show displays works by 17 artists throughout the premises of Dr. Bhau Daji Museum addressing the ideas of gender, identity and nationalism

In the guise of textiles and fabric, there exist tales of identity, colonial trade, traditional craft practices, and fashion. An ongoing show at the city’s oldest museum, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad, which opened to the public in 1857, are narratives of 17 artists. The show curated by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta and Puja Vaish is titled ‘Connecting Threads: Textiles in Contemporary Practice,’ and cleverly juxtaposes the artworks against the museum’s textile collection. Four of the 17 artists – Sharmila Samant, Paula Sengupta, Reena Kallat, and Monali Meher – all explore identity through different works through a personal and a larger collective.

Connecting Threads…’ is bewitchingly scattered all across the expanse of the museum, often hidden in between the Victorian statues, and glass exhibits. On entering the time portal of sorts, one of the first objects that catches your eye is a colourful handloom, flanked by 50 spindles. Created by artist Sharmila Samant in 2015, the piece that she refers to as, ‘The Bombay Weaves’, represents the varied demographic of the city.

Threads of integration

Displayed in relation with the museum’s clay models from the late 19th - early 20th century that showcase Mumbai’s diverse communities, the interactive display nudges viewers to consider their own place in the metropolis. Numerous spools of coloured thread are titled with names of a particular community that have existed in the city since its birth. Ranging from Iranis represented by green thread, Tamilians with light maroon, Bohras with purple, and even a Humanist, identified by golden threads, visitors are encouraged to pen down their name and number of the spool that they feel an affinity towards. “If someone feels they share nothing in common with any of these, or feel excluded from the categorisation, they can choose the option of the white thread (1. Absent),” explain the curators. The threads are then integrated into the loom by weaver, P.P Raju, from the Chendamangala Handloom Weavers Co-operative.

Adjacent to the intermingling of the city’s past and present, stands a past of a different kind, one divided by borders. Artist Paula Sengupta’s work, encased in a wood and fibreglass almirah, holds fabric, garments, embroideries, trunks and other personal memorabilia that tell the story of her own family, and countless others whose lives were displaced by India’s Partition in 1947.

Titled ‘Rivers of Blood – Caste: Baidya, Village: Batisha’ and ‘Rivers of Blood – Caste: Baidya, Village: Kalia’ the work is a more tactile representation of her diary, filled with stories documenting her travels through Bangladesh.

In search of home

“This exhibit is part of a body of work I made in 2010. I travelled to Bangladesh in 2007-08, after which, my experiences and thoughts gestated in my head and heart for over a year,” explains Sengupta. Her parents’ ancestral homes lies on the other side of the dividing line, her father’s in the village of Batisha, close to the border with the Indian state of Tripura; her mother’s in the village of Kalia, a small distance from the Benapole border with Kolkata. At the age of 40, Sengupta set out to discover her roots across theBangladeshi border that is a mere two-hour drive from her Kolkata home. Sengupta’s mother travelled with her for part of the journey. “I experienced a peculiar sense of belonging and alienation all at once. I shed inexplicable tears for having lost what was never mine,” shares the artist.

Using, nakshi kantha, a quilting tradition from Bangladesh, where the kantha or quilt behaves as the script for a narrative, the artist has emphasised on the symbolism of identity. She was deeply impacted by the fact that her mother’s last trip to her homestead was when she was ten, and her most recent, when she was 70. “I found myself thinking that it took her 60 years to complete a journey that takes two hours. How great is the divide between our two nations?” questions Sengupta.

Past present

The curators touch upon the fact that since historically, embroidery, stitching and mending have been associated with the domestic space and femininity, the exhibition is mainly made up of a women entourage, with just three male artists (Manish Nai, Shezad Dawood and Desmond Lazaro). However, Mehta and Vaish think it is important to see the exhibition as a whole, not focusing on the gender driving the work, but the question of identity and nationalism.

In a rather nostalgic and simply displayed exhibit, artist Reena Kallat explores this concept of identity, through memory. Made in 2007, Walls of the Womb, is an autobiography exploring Kallat’s relationship with her mother, who she lost at the age of eight. The room reflects the colour red, bouncing off 12 sarees dyed in shades of red, using the traditional ‘bandhani’ technique. Each of the sarees are covered in her mother’s favourite recipes written in Braille. “When I became a mother in 2005, I began reflecting on my own childhood years, a past of vivid memories where I would spend time going through my mothers personal belongings, secretly try on her clothes, and soak in her joys of cooking,” says the artist.

With the help of the Khatri families in Kutch who specialise in tie and dye techniques, the artist converted her massive scrolls designed with Braille, onto silk. Her reasoning for translating the recipes such as sago vadas, khajur cake, cheese puffs, nargis kofta in Braille, lies in the fact that the language doesn’t belong to a particular religion, caste, or geography. “I would [also] often think about the notion of loss and how when you lose one sense, another is more sharpened,” she continues.

In her own skin

In one of the four works exhibited by artist Monali Meher, identity is explored in her own skin. Rather literally. In her work titled, ‘Wrapped Bridal Photos from 2005,’ that she revisted in 2008, a set of repeated photographs depict Meher standing in a rebellious or defiant stance, with decorative henna motifs over her body.

Originally made in 2004 as part of the Khoj residency, her earlier work “But I was never a Bride,” talks about her identity and status as a woman in Indian society. “It also indicates and stress upon the word “never” which suggest ‘time’ and also as one of the roles of a woman as a bride,” explains Meher. She later realised that this wasn’t an issue for her own identity as a woman, and that’s when she decided to transform the work, wrapping it in red wool. And just as Meher puts it, “I wanted to transform [the photographs] into something new, a new costume, a new skin.” The textiles displayed at ‘Connecting Threads…’ then manage to transcend, making personal histories, into a collective of memories and experiences.

Connecting Threads: Textiles in Contemporary Practice is ongoing at Dr.Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla, until February 17; Editor Art India, Abhay Sardesai, and art historian, Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala, will be in conversation with the curators and artists today between 2 p.m.-5.30 p.m. at the show.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 12:19:24 PM |

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