Mysteries of desert II by Gita Khandelwal
Mysteries of desert II by Gita Khandelwal

In January 2001 a terrible earthquake devastated the region of Kutch, India, leaving Nita Thakore very much aware of the strength of Mother Earth. That is why she chose ‘The Good Earth’ as the theme for the exhibition of textile art she would bring to France. Kutch is near to where Nita founded the Vadodara Centre for Contemporary Fibre Art and where she now teaches.

Working on the concept for two years, Nita was able to put together 200 textile art works ranging from patchwork and quilting to embroidery, ply-split braiding, weaving and mixed media textiles in 2 and 3 dimensions. Contributing artists included designers, craftspeople and self employed women’s organisations. The theatre in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France, where the Indian exhibition was set up, is a beautiful venue – the white walls and very big windows make for large flows of natural light. The very high ceiling gives an impression of space which makes you feel comfortable even when there are a lot of visitors, and the scene of the theatre can be used to put the biggest and most impressive pieces to their advantage

Landscape SEWA, Photographs by Elisabeth Fuchs.
Landscape SEWA, Photographs by Elisabeth Fuchs.

Ancient splendour and hidden treasures

I was truly amazed by the variety of styles, designs and techniques featured. Although I had heard about it, I had never seen Kantha work ‘in the thread’ before. I was really taken by the exquisite simplicity of using a running stitch on layered work to depict everyday life in bright colours: various rural scenes were featured in delightfully naive designs. Since then, I have learned that some Indian women use Kantha work to express concerns or questions about the society they live in such as AIDS, sex trafficking, bride burning, discrimination and the environment. Now I can see how this particular technique provides them with a wonderful means of uttering bold statements.

Homage to the Embroiderer III by Nita Thakore.
Homage to the Embroiderer III by Nita Thakore.

Hand appliquéd wall hangings and banners were numerous and many of them enriched by additional embroidery. Closely worked together in bright colours, groups of simple yet very effective straight stitches added a wonderful texture and a lovely colourful shading to the pieces depicting landscapes and villages made by the Self Employed Women Association (SEWA). Saroj E. Rathod’s panels called My Village I and II reminded me of pre-Columbian art, something I had not expected at all! Viewed from a distance some of the wall hangings looked as if their design was traditional Western patchwork, closer inspection revealed the Indian touch – Gita Khandelwal’s Mysteries of Desert II for example is a log cabin wall hanging in earth colours with motifs of plants and animals worked in dark coloured thread have been added using the Kantha embroidery technique. Khandelwal’s Mysteries of Desert I is a crazy quilt also made in earth tones. Houses, little characters and animals have been stem-stitch embroidered to make it look like fields from an aeroplane. Another quilt used the traditional squarein-a-square pattern, taking on a very special look because it was made of soft-furnishing fabrics.

Growth by Kripal Mathur
Growth by Kripal Mathur

Unanswered questions

It struck me that in an exhibition whose theme was ‘The Good Earth’ a lot of items featured characters, men and women, fishermen, peasants . . . I think I’d expected to see more work directly inspired by nature’s beauties. The fact that a lot of quilts were ‘inhabited’ probably tells a lot about the way Indian textile artists and craft persons alike can still feel strong bonds between themselves and the earth in their everyday life. I wonder what kind of designs the same theme would bring up among Western quilters

Godhadi by Shakuntala Kulkarni
Godhadi by Shakuntala Kulkarni

Choosing a favourite within this beautiful exhibition would be almost impossible for me. I was particularly impressed by Nita Thakore’s own pieces, especially her 3-D Homages to the Embroiderer. Although very different, I found Shakuntala Kulkarni’s pieces equally striking – hand painted and printed using natural dyes in bright colours with a predominance of red. Nobody could have claimed they did not respond to the usual definition of a quilt – three layers held together by running stitches – nonetheless they provoked a lot of debate among visitors because they showed naked women with the quilting made with very big stitches in a contrasting white thread – something we very seldom see in France! Something in these quilts was reminiscent of Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Once again it was really interesting to experience how a textile art exhibition can raise philosophical questions such as: What is art? Is quilting an art? Are there limits to what you can picture in a quilt? I appreciate it when a quilt exhibition provides not only beautiful and inspiring work your eyes can rejoice in but also when it stretches your imagination and gives you food for thought, be it about your next quilt or far broader topics

The Indian exhibition at the 8th Carrefour Européen du Patchwork marked a turning point as it was the first time it welcomed a non-European country as one of its guests. It was also the first overseas exhibition of contemporary Indian textile art of such an ambitious kind.

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 11 Number 5 - May 2003