Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
Tradition and beyond
Exclusive extracts from the chapter "Pigment-Painted Textiles" taken from the book Tradition and Beyond: Handcrafted Indian Textiles to be published shortly by Roli Books; General Editor Martand Singh; text by Rahul Jain and Rita Kapoor Chisti.
This book is based on a selection from the Visvakarma series of exhibitions held between 1980 and 1990, so named after Visvakarma, the Hindu deity ascribed to be the original creator of arts and crafts. The exhibitions were initiated by Martand Singh with the support of the offices of the Development Commissioner Handlooms and its allied institutions in the country, most especially the Weavers' Service Centres. The hundred and forty selected examples of textiles employing different techniques included samples of pigment-painted, dye-painted, resist-dyed, printed and woven textiles. Even though they represent the decade 1980 to 1990 (significantly, the latter part of fifty years of India's independence), they reveal aspects of developments in traditional textiles in the pre and post-independence years as well as the potential of future developments in this field. Each of the seven exhibitions that comprised the Visvakarma series, attempted to explore an aspect of possible contemporary relevance in the ginge of the inherited skills of weavers, dyers, printer/painters and tie-dyers. A brief introduction to each as given below, would serve to make their purpose and scope self evident.
Over several afternoons during the winter of 1997-98, on a warm open terrace in South Delhi, seven years after the last of the Visvakarma exhibitions, Rahul Jain and I, hereafter referred to as RJ and RKC, respectively, began cajoling and compelling Martand Singh (MS) to recall the prevailing and changing circumstances in each of the areas he visited as design curator of the Visvakarma series. Though numerous design interventions had been made both before and after independence, the sheer expanse, scale and attempt at excellence of the Visvakarma series was unprecedented, both in geographical and historical terms. We hoped that a conversation about the state of the art as it was then and its ongoing development would throw light on some of the essential questions revolving around textile evolution.
R.K.C.: Were there several areas of pigment painting you scanned before you selected the ones you worked in?
M.S.: I was really very interested in the Andhra Pattas, of northern Andhra Pradesh. When I went there, they were making them but the quality was very poor. They were narrative paintings, folk, itinerant similar to the Rajasthan phad (literally, a painted spread in Rajasthan), except that in this case, they were wholly religious whereas Pabuji of the phad was a minor deity. These were all Vaishnavite (narrative legends associated with the life of the god Vishnu) inspired by the Vishnupuran, Devibhagwat and so on. They were really stunning. There was one made for the first Visvakarma exhibition and it is in the catalogue but it was poorly drawn; so I never put it into the exhibition. I always thought it was the derivative of a patachitra. Nathdwara was all right in comparison. I lost contact with Nathdwara eventually because I realized I was dealing more with a printing and you have to draw that distinction between a painting and a textile.
R.K.C.: How did you go about the field of pigment-painted pichhvai textiles of Nathdwara?
M.S.: It so happened that Dr. Kalyan Krishna (art historian and scholar, Benaras Hindu University) was writing a book, his second volume on pigment painting. There were a number of festivals associated with the Nathdwara shrine and the traditional pichhvais hung behind the deity corresponded with each. The first one I made was the padma pichhvai.
R.K.C.: What was your reference point?
M.S.: Photographs that he had taken of padma pichhvais, I got them all and chose this one. I was trying to find something that was not overly religious. By that I mean, without the figure of Krishna. So there were two or three we could attempt: one was the morkuli pichhvai with the peacocks, the gopashtmi with ten cows and third, the padma pichhvai with the lotus. By then, the practice of the craft had already shifted from Udaipur to Jaipur, my idea was to return the painting to Nathdwara from Jaipur, though it would have been easier to do it in Jaipur. But there was a man called Dwarka Das, a very fine and skilled painter, in whom I had confidence. However, the pictorial was not what I was in search of. I was essentially in search of someone who painted in the traditional manner with mineral pigments. I found him though the Weavers' Service Centre in Nathdwara. As the paintings had become very expensive, twelve and fifteen thousand rupees each, the temple was not really interested in buying any of them.
R.K.C.: Were they hung behind the deity?
Amr Vastra Kosh
M.S.: The deity takes on a swarup (a form), and he is dressed accordingly everyday. I believe the change is seasonal and there are twenty-eight of these.
R.K.C.: Where was the immediate provocation in the pichhvai, technically or thematically?
M.S.: The trouble with the pichhvai, if you ask me, is the border. Whichever pichhvai I have seen apart from the Golconda ones, the border is ineffective.
R.K.C.: Was the Orissa tradition any different?
M.S.: What really interested me in Orissa, were palm-leaf paintings. These manuscripts are truly magnificent. Their miniaturisation is very sophistcated, but that is to do with the small scale of the palm leaf. Patachitra was a little more complex because here there was the predominance of Jagannath (a form of the god Krishna, presiding deity of Puri, Orissa, eastern India). The temple market had deteriorated but there were still many patachitra painters then, perhaps even more than there are now. What we introduced was the large patachitra in the miniature style within the traditional colour format, which had disappeared or was disappearing. Secondly, the painting had become entirely figurative; everything else in the painting - the tree, the animal or bird - had become minor accents to the deified figure of the theme.
That's when I saw a manuscript with a forest of trees and foliage in the Bhubaneswar museum with Binode Maharan, the patachitra painter. It was the beginning of a dialogue with him. My job was to miniaturise the form - that's why the trees. What I wanted was a hundred and eight different trees. I asked him to draw a tree on a piece of paper and he drew a kadam tree and then I got him to do two paintings; I think they were eight and half square inches of trees. I asked him to fit nine different trees into this one space. When he did that, I realised he had the skill. I didn't eventually get a hundred and eight, but in the first piece, I think there were sixty.
R.K.C.: Of all the painters you met in Puri and Cuttack, he stood apart?
M.S.: There were two other men, one of whom was Bhagwat Maharana who did the astra patachitra later. These were comparable talents. There were certain sizes you could do the patachitra in, which was interesting unlike Nathdwara. The whole treatment of the cloth was so complex and there was the question of the fine line, At first we kept the borders to just a line. In astra patachitra, the second time around, the intertwined snakes border from Konark was the only that was acceptable.
R.K.C.: What led to the painting on tussar?
M.S.: There is a distinction between patachitra and the painting on tussar which was initiated for the Visvakarma exhibition. I came upon the possibility of using tussar as a ground fabric when I saw some paintings that were ornamenting the walls of a hotel in Bhubaneswar. I cannot remember whether the association was with colour or fabric, because there were hundreds of trees - rather ungainly trees in different colours in poster paint. But it interested me and then I found Kailash Meher who was a weaver at the Weavers' Service Centre, Bhubaneswar.
R.K.C.: When you saw the range of the patachitra artists with their vibrant themes, life forms and so on, thematically did you find them more pliable than Nathdwara?
M.S.: Yes, strangely yes. Only because they were in trouble - there were so many of them. Whereas Nathdwara was limited to two or three artists.
R.K.C.: Aren't there many more now?
Amr Vastra Kosh
M.S.: Now yes, many more.
R.K.C.: Did they all come out of these two or three workshops?
M.S.: Yes, they were all students of the master painters.
R.K.C.: What were the notable achievements in the Orissa intervention in pigment painting?
M.S.: Tussar painting became an established form with the use of a single colour. The crucial question was to minimise the decorative aspect.
R.J.: I think this problem recurs everywhere, in every medium you want technical excellence with minimal visual excess, like cutting or paring down something to its essentials. This is the theme through the whole series of exhibitions. Everywhere, the attempt was to eliminate what was thought to be ornamental excess.
M.S.: That's why the best work out of Orissa was certainly those long trees on tussar.
R.K.C.: How did you choose the size?
M.S.: By the length of the cloth available. It was an eighteen feet by thirty-six inch format.
M.S.: We have only these two areas then, Nathdwara pichhvai and Orissa patachitra? Were there any others?
M.S.: I was told there was a school in Basohli. I never saw anything from it. Pigment painting has now grown in so many directions with the introduction of other painting materials, especially poster paints. It has become a huge trade for tourists in Jaipur and elsewhere.
R.K.C.: Coming back to pigment painting, did Mrs. Jayakar mention anything about pigment-painting areas before you went in search?
M.S.: She never worked in this area. It never really interested her either, because when she was involved, the old ones were still available. That's why people like Gira Sarabhai, Ahmedabad and their collections are remarkable because they were the ones who went out, at a particular moment in time, recognised what was truly beautiful and bought the old pieces coming out of temples.
R.K.C.: And beyond that?
M.S.: Nobody was interested in the contemporary, nobody was commissioning them.
Amr Vastra Kosh
R.J.: The historic reference for the painting tradition are the old samples, which were probably aged versions of the original, which had acquired an overtly painterly quality. The final product in Visvakarma may have been technically as competent and artistically well visualised, but they are unnecessarily compared. Where do we stand?
M.S.: You know, there was always this problem with colour because somehow the contemporary palette was always not good enough. And I remember, I had one pichhvai done with cows and we stained it with tea after it had been painted. Somehow or other, I was used to this age-tinted palette.
R.J.: What seems most interesting about pigment painting, is that most of the tradition here, as in a lot of arts of traditional painting, is its flat application of colour. In its fresh state, it simply cannot have that kind of patina and visual depth, as something that has acquired these with age.
R.K.C.: That interests me, because that's the divide that takes place between the earlier generation and ours. I remember a discussion on this subject many years ago between you and one of the collectors. "The contemporary was not worth touching, because it was never good enough," they said.
M.S.: You see, I think all of us including Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar faced the same problem, which was the human face behind the product.
R.K.C.: In that case, you think that is why Mrs. Jayakar didn't touch "patron-based" arts?
M.S.: Yes, in some cases she never did.
R.K.C.: That's another big difference between the earlier generation's work and yours.
M.S.: Their area of reference was not very different from mine, but they never went beyond a certain point, even though she had the foresight to get K. G. Subramanyam and all those extraordinary artists to work in the Weavers' Service Centres. They were the ones who were going to instill the new spirit. But the fact of the matter is, that even today, the problem is that we're still walking backwards into the future. Because the area of design reference is so vast that you're always borrowing from it. If I were to ask, think of a wholly contemporary textile, it would be difficult! Because you're constrained by a vast plethora of design reference and that was why, in the Visvakarma Rasa, I did directories of design from each area. The purpose of these was that, in a single piece of cloth could be re-produced the entire directory and put into a book; then these could be made available for everybody. It was there and therefore it was of the past.
R.J.: This contemporisation of tradition is a very complex problem because the person who makes, has to be convinced of it. Then it has to be of such a nature that it becomes a part of his traditional vocabulary in his own mind, for it to be carried forward.
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