Voices from the margins
Through their embroidery, women in Chile and India weave a sense of their selves into narratives of extraordinary vision and hope. “Selvedged Voices” is on in Chennai from March 20 to 22…
Magical Narratives: (Clockwise from top left); An arpillera showing children of political prisoners being fed in a community kitchen; Santhal women with Khatwa embroidery and a Sujuni panel.
Folk Art, termed by Yeats “the oldest aristocracy of thought and the soil where true art is rooted”, has historically been perceived as partially a woman’s space, instinctive to her many traditional roles as a nurturer and caretaker
of family and children, singer of lullabies, weaver and teller of tales going down the generations, decorator of home and hearth, joiner and embroiderer of stitches. Often many of these identities coalesced into one grand creative design as in embroidery where ordinary, talented women embroiderers stitched up stories mundane and magical, whimsical and fantastic, celebratory and sad. Or poignant and tragic when life pushed the women to the edge and the starkness and pain, the inner and outer poverty of their lives led their moving fingers to create embroidered narrative tapestries representing a cry of their selvedged voices.
Message of hope
Selvedge, a word which stitches together “self” and “edge” much as women as far off as Chile and India, living on the edge in the margins of society expressed their sense of self by stitching together narrative tapestries, now being seen as collectors’ items, and priceless pieces of folk art. If on the “Arpilleras” or tapestries created by Chilean women in Pinochet’s terrorist regime “shredded lives luminously reassemble on rough burlap” as Marjorie Agostin so poetically puts it, the Khatwas and Sujunis of Bihari women are an account of their lives, sometimes of joy, but mostly of deprivation. Dr. Skye Morrison calls these tapestries “accomplishments of ordinary women with extraordinary visions”. Created with loving hands yet portraying the grim realty of their lives, they nevertheless give a human dimension to violence in every form, even a message of hope and beauty. As Raniben Bhikha, creator of a panel telling a story of dams, ponds and people mused: “Once I saw a rainbow at the temple.” And then she put a beautiful appliquéd rainbow into the pictorial narrative…
“Selvedged Voices: Women’s Narrative Textiles from Chile and India” is a unique exhibition , a moving “moveable feast” bringing together the stitched narrative tapestries made up of the threads of identity, the history and hopes of the marginalised woman of Chile , the tribal women of Bhuj, the Santhal women of Jharkhand and Bihar’s “Sujuni” artists. This extraordinary exhibition has been curated by Dr. Skye Morrison, Professor and Head of Textiles at Sheridan School of Craft and Art design in Oakville, Ontario, Canada and an internationally acclaimed authority on Khatwa and Sujuni art. “Selvedged Voices: Women’s narrative Textiles from Chile and India” is being sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, and organised by The Crafts Council Of India, Sunita Shahaney, Honorary Consul of Chile in Chennai and The Confederation of Indian Industry. The Arpilleras have been loaned by the The Fundacion Solidaridad, an NGO in Chile which supports the production of arts and handicrafts.
And to keep rhythm with the haunting music of the stitched narratives and tapestries will be the folk and ballad music sung by Chilean musicians and the mesmerising dances of the Santhals.
Arpilleras are three dimensional appliqué textiles rooted in the old pictorial appliqué tradition of Chile. Colourful rags are used to create images and then embroidered upon on Hessian or burlap called Arpilleras in Spanish. Part of contemporary craft, they are generally full of vivid colour and “busy-ness”, movement, fun and frolic though sad events of daily life are also chronicled. It was only after the military coup of 1974 in Chile which led to the establishment of Pinochet’s regime that another genre of Arpilleras came to be crafted, as women’s voices were raised against the regime’s oppression and absolute censorship. According to Marjorie Agostin, Chilean poet and Professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at Wellesley College, U.S., more than 10,000 men, so called dissidents, disappeared under the Pinochet regime. It was the protest against this and to search for their beloved relatives that women “Arpilleristas” began one of the most unique forms of protest in Latin American history as Agostin puts it. They began to create Arpilleras or wall hangings made of scraps of cloth that narrated through the fabric itself life under Pinochet. Interspersing their Arpilleras with images, photographs and names of their missing loved ones, they smuggled out the tapestries in the hope of locating their relatives. They worked relentlessly in basements, secret meeting places, churches and NGO centres to create stunning works of folk art. Many of these desperate yet hope-imbued Arpilleras will be on view at the “Selvedged Voices” exhibition , a moving “testimony to the tenacity and faith of women in their struggle for truth and justice”.
“A woman imagining her missing relative through a wire fence”, “Groups of women going on hunger strike”, “Where are the 32 missing prisoners from 1979?”, “The oven at Lonqun where the mortal remains of 15 prisoners were found” are some of the poignant and haunting tapestries on view. Yet, amidst the horrible devastation, faith and hope do triumph in brightly coloured “Welcome to democracy”, “Women working in fruit harvest”, “Knitting workshop” etc.
India’s “Khatwa”, “Sujuni” and Bhuj artisans’ narrative tapestries and textile art forms “transcend time and space” as Dr. Skye Morrison puts it. They are graphically stunning pictorial commentaries on everyday life in tribal and small town India. Khatwa is a narrative and abstract appliqué form featuring chain and straight stitch embroideries with interlocking geometric and floral patterns done by Santhal women in bright and bold colours. Contemporary Khatwa panels are colourful, compelling portrayals of tribal life, social issues such as the spread of Aids, bride burning etc.
Sujunis were originally made by Bihari women using straight stitch embroidery on layered saris and dhotis quilted with threads drawn from the sari borders. The contemporary Sujuni, developed with NGO artisan interaction, features densely embroidered figurative and domestic imagery filled with patterned cloth and “given movement through the interplay of two and three dimensional space”. Today’s Sujuni embroiderers narrate stories about dowry, treatment of widows, the environment , the uses of cow dung and so on. Humour too has its place as in the “Dung Story” panel bordered with rows of smiling cows! Not only have the new Khatwa and Sujuni panels given their embroiderers an expanding world view and immense self worth, in their handling of social issues they have made their panels uncompromising art forms.
Kalaraksha’s lovely appliqué panels made by the women of Bhuj also present concerns such as the environment, the careful use of water, the devastation wreaked by earthquakes. Done in soft pretty colours, they are vibrant and spontaneous with an unmistakable touch of tribal art sensibilities. West Bengal’s beautiful Kantha embroidery narrative panels are also on display at the exhibition along with Soof, Sozini, Chikankari and Rabari embroidery pieces.
Both Indian women artisans and Arpilleristas will hold demonstrations of their skills at the exhibition site. Also on the anvil are technique, ideas and skill sharing workshops between the women artisans from Chile and India as well as interactive workshops and sessions between the artisans and The Craft Council of India. Hopefully, the “Selvedged Voices” exhibition, which concludes on March 22, will open up new markets for craftspeople in both countries, provide greater exposure for these beautiful narrative art forms and lead to a harmonious evolution of the crafts based on artisan interaction. And above all, strengthen the artisans’ common commitment to environmental concerns, justice and human dignity through their beautiful stitched folk art narratives.
“Selvedged Voices: Women’s Narrative Textiles from Chile and India” will be inaugurated in Chennai on March 20 at 10.30.am by Her Excellency Dr. Michelle Bachelet Jeria, President of the Republic of Chile.
When: March 20-22
Where: Tidel Park Auditorium, No. 4, Rajiv Gandhi Salai, Taramani, Chennai-600013.
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