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Vadodara-based textile designer Medha Bhatt’s works of art using fabric discards tell stories that resonate with her clients

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Six trees, six cities. Representing each city, the trees narrate the story of a widely-travelled couple who lived in the cities. Created by textile designer Medha Bhatt, the mural-like art work was a gift to a couple celebrating their golden anniversary. Created with thousands of bits of textile discards, it is one of the signature pieces made by Vadodara-based Medha.

Calling it one of the most challenging pieces she ever did, she says: “My clients wanted the work to have an impressionistic look, a kind of Van Gogh effect on cloth. I covered the white base cloth completely with fabric discards.”

Since 2004, Medha has been creating picturesque works of art from fabric discards that she buys in sacks from tailoring shops in Vadodara.

Medha specialises in scenes of nature and the ecosystem. Birds perch on trees, dragonflies skitter on ponds, squirrels feed on berries, flowers peep in from the canopy; every work of hers comes alive with plants and animals. “Once my clients tell me what they have in mind, I get a better image of what they would like,” she explains.

Usually, Medha drafts a questionnaire to understand her clients and their interests better. When she found that the couple had lived in six cities, she decided to concentrate on the trees that symbolise the cities, each of which has a special place in the couple’s lives.

She is now working on a commissioned work for a couple who take care of physically challenged pets. Medha is also working on a piece that tells the story of Bhavnagar in Saurashtra, where she hails from. Commissioned for Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, she says it is an “expression of my native land. I have been writing letters about Bhavnagar to an artist friend who is curating the exhibition. She wants an expression on screens, which depicts the beauty, the landscape, the flora, the fauna ….the essence of my native land. It is called ‘Textile-as-letter’.”

Medha has been following the storytelling traditions of Kutch. Although the storytelling was more of the ritualistic and traditional kind, they included tales of nature, flowers, trees and birds in the format of motifs. “The works were all made of discards from tailoring shops. In Gujarat, one rarely come across scraps of fabric waste littering public spaces.”

How it began

Medha recalls that she first encountered bags of fabric discards dumped at waysides in 2004-2005 while working with the Zero Waste Centre in Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram, which was run by environmental NGO Thanal. They had just started their Save the Rice Campaign.

“From an artist’s point of view, I saw a story developing. As a designer, organic farming, environment and all that was new for me. Storytelling interested me and I encouraged the women at the Centre to illustrate these stories through scrap.”

More than the women, it was Medha who was inspired to begin working with nature. In 2011, she began her brand Forest Floor, which was later renamed First Forest. She depends on descriptive stories from her clients to make each piece unique and resonate with them.

A commission to work on a lily pond had her studying the ecosystem around such a pond. “Lilies do not exist in isolation. I see it as part of an ecosystem with reeds, bird, grass, birds and dragonflies. I weave a story around that.”

Ideating takes time but the real work begins when she starts going through the scraps to decide the colours in a work. A sketch becomes a reference point.

The makeover process

Fabric discards on a base cloth recreate the sketch. The pieces are attached to the base with long running stitches. Then it is given to her team to do the hemming for each scrap. Once that is over, Medha does embroidery to accentuate certain aspects of the work. “Perhaps, the dragon fly’s wings, leaves, petals, add a few shades of colours… I use only running stitch and, once in a while, chain stitch.”

Medha compares the running stitch, perhaps the most basic of stitches, to a pencil as she finds it the most versatile of stitches. “It can become the sun, a star, rain… almost anything, depending on how you have placed it. My hand and needles take me where I want. I find it liberating to work with running stitch.”

As the work progresses, she might change the sketch here and there. “Permutations and colour scheme reveals itself, scrap by scrap, on the work table. The play of light on a screen accentuates and changes the mood. My clients might see the running stitch as a line in the day time or as a shade of colour as the sun sets. Daylight reveals a new mood while twilight highlights another.”

The cost of the works begins from ₹20,000 and depends on the work that goes into a piece. Medha wants each work to be evocative for her customer. When a friend requested a neem tree work for her elderly mother, Medha wanted to know why she chose the neem.

“If they see the tree as just a motif, there is no sense in spending so much time on creating it. I embellished the tree with a bench underneath it, squirrels, berries, birds and flowers.”

Nature paints each leaf differently depending on how old it is. So, there are tender green ones, deeper green leaves, yellowing ones and brown ones that would fall once the wind blows. For the slender flowers of neem, Medha cut them out from an old skirt that had similar flowers.

Medha believes that when an artist does the storytelling, the client is first narrating a story, but as the artist takes time to do it, he/she becomes a part of the story. “The artist is also journeying with them. It takes heart and effort to finish it.”

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