The fabric of faith

Mata-ni-Pachedi, a traditional craft involving votive textiles, speaks for the discriminatedagainst Vagharis.

Published - February 18, 2016 07:56 am IST - Mumbai

Artist Jagdish Chitara belongs to the Vaghari community that has evolved an unusually imaginative art form to resist caste-based discrimination. Traditionally, they were barred from entering temples due to their lowly position in the Hindu caste hierarchy. So they began to paint their protector deities on fabrics that are used as portable shrines.

Chitara, who has been practising for over four decades, and has also worked with eminent painter and anthropologist Haku Shah, lives in Ashok Nagar near Ahmedabad.

He is in Mumbai to showcase some of these votive fabrics, called Mata-ni-Pachedi, along with his works on canvas and paper that have been inspired by the traditional art form. These are part of ‘Chandarvo: Painted Shrines of the Mother Goddess,’ an exhibition currently on display at the Artisans’ Gallery in Kala Ghoda.

Various goddesses appear on these cloths, bringing with them a whole universe of stories, iconography, and associations. Khodiyar is perched atop a crocodile, while Meladi rides a goat, and Vihat is on a buffalo. Chamundi comes astride a lion, but Vahanvati prefers a boat. Their intervention is sought to solve problems, help couples conceive babies, and fulfil all manner of wishes. Once the boon is granted, devotees make offerings as promised.

Apart from being a visual artist, Chitara is also a great storyteller. The tales from his father and his community spill out as he walks me through the exhibition. My functional knowledge of Gujarati gives me an opportunity to relish the details.

The stories are not about devotion alone. They are filled with the drama of human life: desire, jealousy, violence, you name it.

On one of the cloths, Chitara shows me a well with fish swimming in it. “These fish were daughters of a king who fell in love with another woman outside his marriage,” he says. “This woman told the king that she would marry him only if he threw all seven of his daughters into a well, and left his wife. The king agreed. But his daughters cursed him. If he was struck by guilt, and turned back to check what had happened to his daughters, he would turn into a two-headed deer. And that is exactly what took place.”

Another story is of a boy who was passionately committed to the worship of Khodiyar. Often, he would feed poor people in order to seek the blessings of the goddess. One day, the goddess decided to test his faith. She disguised herself as an old woman asking for alms, and came to his doorstep. Unfortunately, the boy did not have anything to offer the woman. Unable to let her go empty-handed, he asked his parents to use a large mortar and pestle from the kitchen, and crush him into pieces to be cooked as a feast for the woman. She was so moved that she revealed her true identity, and blessed the boy.

Some of these cloths have been painted using the technique of block printing while others have been painted by hand. Chitara has inherited over 300 blocks from his ancestors. The painted cloths use only two colours. One is black, made using iron ore, jaggery and tamarind powder; and red, which is made using an organic dye called alizarin, as well as alum, and tamarind powder. However, the works on canvas use acrylic paint.

Radhi Parekh, Director at Artisans’ Gallery, said, “The value of these works is in their sacred significance as well as their artistic merit. Temple Tents for Goddesses in Gujarat written by Eberhard Fischer, Jyotindra Jain and Haku Shah is an excellent book about this tradition of art, and the culture within which it thrives. It is sad that, apart from these academics, people have hardly paid serious attention to the art practices of the Vaghari community. They used to wash their fabric in the water of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad but their access to water is now limited by the embankments that have been built. Experimenting with canvas and paper relieves the artist of the traditional dependence on water.”

The exhibition also includes copies of Cloth of the Mother Goddess , a limited edition artists’ book published by the Chennai-based Tara Books. It was created using water-based dyes, and includes illustrations by Chitara, and has been designed by Catriona Maciver. This is a book made on cloth, not paper, and it attempts to recreate the traditional Mata-Ni-Pachedi. The reverse side of the book tells a story inspired by Chitara’s works, and written by Gita Wolf.

It’s the story of a community that has become so engrossed with matters of survival that it has forgotten to honour their protector goddess. Infuriated by their behaviour, she unleashes drought and illnesses. In their desperation, the community seeks out a shaman who advises them to appease the goddess by creating an image of her on cloth, and making ritual offerings. As soon as they pay heed, the goddess withdraws her wrath.

The book is accompanied by Arun Wolf’s film, which is also titled Cloth of the Mother Goddess . It gives an insight into the context in which Chitara lives and produces his work: not in a solitary studio setting, but surrounded and supported by his wife and children.

Mata-ni-Pachedi will be on display till February 27.

The author is a freelance writer

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