Kalamkari through an artistic lens

Three artists attempt a convergence of traditional and contemporary kalamkari imagery through Varna (N), an exhibition in Hyderabad’s Salar Jung Museum

On the first floor of Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, Varna (N), a collective display of textiles and drawings attempts to show visitors what three contemporary practitioners of art can do when they take a fresh approach to the traditional craft of kalamkari. Anindita Chakraborty, Rajarshi Sengupta and Sharmistha Kar use imagery from the past and the present, natural dye pigments and embroidery to arrive at new narratives.

The result is artworks that vary from wall hangings, utilitarian bags and cushion covers. “We do not think of bags and cushion covers as lesser entities than artworks that serve as showpieces,” says Rajarshi, a PhD in Art History from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

He, Anindita and Sharmistha crossed paths at the University of Hyderabad. Rajarshi taught at the Department of Fine Arts at SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad (UoH). Anindita pursued her Master’s in Fine Arts from the UoH, and Sharmistha, who is now based in Canada, studied and worked as a lecturer at the same institute.

The dyers and the canal networks by Rajarshi Sengupta 

The collaborative idea for Varna (N) took shape in 2019, following several phone and online conversations. “We wanted to incorporate three of our practices — drawing, dyeing and embroidery,” says Sharmistha.

A few artworks turned out to be collaborative, with Rajarshi and Anindita working on the drawings, dyeing and then shipping them to Sharmistha who would then embroider to add a new narrative layer.

Varna (N) refers to both colours and narratives. Rajarshi dipped into his research on traditional kalamkari imagery. In the craftspeople’s studios in and around Machilipatnam, he found imagery representing the 17th and 18th Century East India Company era as well as South-East Asian cultures, as a result of trade routes.

One of the artworks bears images of men and women washing and dyeing the yarn and the cloth on the river bed. Rajarshi wanted to depict the dyers and their way of life that was interlinked with the river and the canal networks. While art history has several references to crafts and trade routes, he noticed that there is very little about the dyers. He developed natural dyes and whenever he was at the crossroads to develop specific hues, guidance came in from dye specialist Jagada Rajappa.

Sharmistha Kar gave final touches to the artworks with her embroidery 

Anindita also worked on portraiture and other drawings using natural dye pigments that are used in the kalamkari process. “At times, my work tends to be autobiographical.” Working with natural dye pigments on pre-washed paper posed a challenge. “The pigments react with paper in a way that is different from, say, watercolours. I learnt how much I needed to use, with time.”

The interplay of technique and imagery that blends the traditional and the contemporary is evident in the exhibits. One of the artworks, for instance, depicts the intricate details of a large tree. “We notice this tree often in the botanical garden (in Kondapur). Even in the early hours of the morning, the city is bustling and so is the tree; it is an ecosystem by itself, which we have tried to depict in finer detail,” says Anindita. Drawings such as these further come to life with subtle embroidery by Sharmistha.

A self portrait by Anindita Chakraborty 

The three artists look at Varna (N) as a metaphor for the layering of history, memory and experiences, building on the generational practice of making kalamkari textiles.

Artist Shruti Mahajan who was part of the inauguration of the display puts things in perspective when she points out, “I find it fascinating when parts of a story unfold to form a larger picture. A traditional technique such as kalamkari can be overwhelming. It is a challenge for a contemporary art practitioner to enter that realm and bring out their own strong voice.”

Varna (N) is on display at Salar Jung Museum till December 15.

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