India is a rich repository of traditional crafts and age-old techniques that is not just integral to our heritage but also helps place us on the global map. In an attempt to demonstrate the diversity of our textile traditions, the National Museum, Janpath, and Abheraj Baldota Foundation are showcasing the exhibition ‘Sutr Santati’, which was inaugurated on Thursday by the Ministry of Culture.
Curated by Hospet-based textile revivalist Lavina Baldota, this exhibition—it is organised as a part of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav—has, on display, specially-commissioned textiles created by making use of homegrown processes such as hand-weaving, embroidery, resist dyeing, printing, painting, and appliqué, among other forms of yarn and fabric manipulation. Apart from well-known names from India’s fashion industry including Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, Gaurang Shah, Manish Malhotra, Sanjay Garg, and others, artisans such as Arjun Meher (Sambalpuri Ikat), Balram Krishnamoorthy (Kanjeevaram), Imran Qureshi (Himroo), etc.; textile artists such as Jatin Sharma, Jignesh Panchal, Jayshree Poddar, Julie Kagti, and more; students of Jaipur’s Indian Institute of Craft & Design, Mumbai’s Le Mark School of Art, and The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (MSU); and organisations including Chanakya School of Craft, Dastkari Haat Samiti, and others, have participated in this exhibition. In an interview, Lavina speaks to us about the curatorial process, how this helps build a circular economy, and more. Edited excerpts…
This exhibition has more than 100 textiles on display, and bringing these artists together must have not been easy. Give us an insight into the curatorial process.
This exhibition celebrates 75 years of India’s independence through the continuation of textile traditions. What I wanted to do through this exhibition was to represent the traditional textiles of India with a modern or a contemporary language so as to appeal to youngsters in India as well as to people globally. These textiles are not necessarily only to be used as attire, but can also be used as art. I wanted to change the textile language by moving it from crafts to art. Each work is commissioned by me. Different artists, [design] students, designers, and foundations have worked on it.It [the curatorial process] took me two years; I have done it on my own by connecting with different people. The agenda is to inspire the future [generations] to appreciate our heritage. If there is awareness, they will appreciate it [our indigenous textiles and crafts], and if they appreciate it, they will aspire for it. That is how our craftspersons can survive.
Tell us about the artists you have collaborated with…
I have tied up with different design institutions; they sent their students to different places such as the Northeast [states in India]. In this exhibition, we have pan-India textiles and have covered all clusters. We also have a few revival pieces.
There are a few artists [in this exhibition] who have never worked with textiles before; I inspired them to work with textiles in their art form. For instance, we connected Sukanya Garg [a Delhi-based painter] with artisans in Gujarat, and she used bandhani and embroidery [zardozi] on her artwork [the artist’s piece ‘Antarman’ uses the visual language of cellular biology to create iterations of the crescent moon]. There are many other stories that are new to contemporary India.
Tell us about the crafts and techniques apart from the known ones—ikat, ajrakh, chikankari—that you want to shed light on through ‘Sutr Santati’?
There are a lot of textiles from clusters in Gujarat such as, Kutch clusters, and textiles in the Bengal clusters, which are not very expensive. But, the thing is that people are not aware of it. Any person, even the younger ones, interested in these textiles can make something cool from it [the textiles]. So, if a designer takes up three clusters and works on their collections from there, it would create a different story.
For instance, Gaurav Gupta has never worked with traditional Indian textiles. In this exhibition, he worked with Kashmiri artisans on a shawl with pashmina. Seeing that piece, even my daughter was like ‘Oh, this is so cool, I would wear this anytime’. If it is cool, youngsters want to wear it. By doing this we also get to keep our traditions alive and give work to the artisans.
Post the pandemic, fashion—designers as well craft clusters—was massively affected. How does this exhibition bring back the focus on artisans?
The reason I decided to do this exhibition was because of the pandemic. During the pandemic, many craftspeople, especially the weavers I was in contact with, kept calling me. Many designers cancelled their orders as they could not pay them; these weavers had bought yarn but had no money to weave the textile. It was a sorry state, and single-handedly, I could only help them for a few months. So, I decided to put them on the forefront; [I wanted to build] a repository of craftspeople and let them connect with each other, and move forward. Even when design students start working with these clusters, there is hope of moving it forward.
You mentioned that this exhibition helps build a circular economy in India. Can you elaborate…
I come from Karnataka and here, we have Kandu cotton—it is grown in a few acres by just two sets of farmers, and not many people are aware of it. It is an indigenous cotton like Kala cotton in Gujarat and red cotton in Ponduru, Andhra Pradesh. There are many indigenous yarns, and if we can support clusters and designers pay heed to them, they can get the cloth done and, this way, the farmers will grow more cotton. So, it helps build a circular economy.
I also decided to work with eco-friendly dyes; it is good for the environment and us. This way, the environment is taken care of, our physical well-being is taken care of, employment to farmers, weavers, spinners, craftspeople who do embroidery, etc., as well; everyone is connected.
Making textile is a multi-pronged process—somebody combs the cotton, somebody produces the yarn, somebody does silk farming, etc., it is such a long process by the time it goes as a finished product to the market.
While choosing the best from your curation might be difficult for you, can you mention any three pieces that the audience must not miss?
Frankly, it is really hard. But I can tell you two pieces that I am very proud of. One is by a student of the Indian Institute of Craft & Design—she made a white piece in Kota Doria, and it is themed on Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam [a Sanskrit phrase that means ‘The World Is One Family’]. I think it is spectacular coming from a student.
Another important piece was done by an MSU student using Bagh Phulkari. Today, I know how tough it was for me and for her to connect [with someone] for that silk cloth, which is dyed using natural dyes, and then go back to Punjab, and get it [Phulkari] done in the right way. It is not easy to revive a textile. And then, for the students to be able to come up with such fantastic displays, really shows that we have a future that is looking up. I am very excited about these two pieces, especially because I know the hardship that we went through to make it.
Among the others, there are many that were pretty challenging. I can’t pick one, but the 500-count muslin Kamdani, which Anjul Bhandari displayed, is very spectacular. There are so many that I cannot pick a favourite. I think every person pushed their boundaries, every participant reflected my vision, and they worked so hard in creating something that they normally would not have.
You have stressed on how this exhibition is about showcasing indigenous crafts and textiles to an urban, young audience. Do you plan to take it digital and how do you plan to connect with the younger generation through this exhibition?
My viewership includes design students who will visit and conduct a study of this exhibition. It took me two years to curate this, and it has not been easy. In fact, I am still learning so many things, which are already in my exhibitions. There are many new things being pointed out to me about techniques, the hardship, and the history of crafts.
Through a digital exhibition, we will get to reach many areas [and students as well as people] that would otherwise not have a chance to come to a city and view it. And, at their own time, they could click on two pieces in a day, and then click on a video that will take them through the history of it, the way it is done, the people who are doing it. I think it is very important to have a digital exhibition, although to see a textile is something else. But to see a textile as well, you need larger spaces, and it [physical exhibition] is not accessible to everybody. It is not my agenda to show this only to the elite.
As a curator and textile revivalist, what’s next for you?
So many people have worked so hard in this exhibition and I want to give them their due. For the next one or two years, I am going to focus on taking this to a museum abroad; I am going to talk to MET [The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York] and others, to see how I can promote Indian crafts internationally. If people see our textiles and know about it, maybe they will give jobs to Indian artisans.
Also, the digital exhibition will be on display in two months. Then there’s a book Mayank [Mayank Mansingh Kaul is the special advisor of ‘Sutr Santati’] is also writing a book on this so, we will have written content as well that will become sort of a directory of the traditions done today, rather than just singing praises of what happened many years ago. It is important to also understand what contemporary Indian textile is, and how these are being used. I want to consolidate all this. So, it will not be fair for me to wander into something else while this is going on. I am very India proud and heritage proud, so that is always the theme of anything that I do.