Story of a 'sari warrior'
Can sari be a canvas for contemporary art? Well, so far, sari has remained cut off from serious art and design, even as it continues to revel in the glorious craftsmanship of our country’s fantastic textile heritage. But artiste Rajini Sarma Balachandran’s work on saris, which she refers to as jari, has perhaps unfolded them into a new horizon.
Ironically, jari came into being for personal reasons, propelled by emotional needs. Rajini, who studied graphics and sculpture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, had lived in New York for a few decades as a successful expatriate artiste before she relocated to hometown Chennai, a few years back.
She voices, “I had never really relinquished India. There was always a sense of feeling rooted and yet separated from India.” Coming back to Chennai after 45 years of living in the US, she found that the India she had known and lived in had vanished. “I came back with a suitcase of memories and found that it didn’t fit into reality. Moreover, I had also become cultured to a way of thinking that was western and cut off from the Indian stream of thought. I badly wanted to belong and felt I didn’t... and I panicked,” she says.
This was when she reached for sari, and it became her magic touchstone to reconnect with the past.
Incidentally, before settling down as an artiste, Rajini had completed her doctorate in political science at New York University and went on to teach at Rutgers University, Drew University and Trenton State University for about a decade, after which she decided to turn back to art. She started by training at New York’s Parsons School of Design, New York Studio and Arts Students League.
Then began a period of creating art panels using casein, egg tempera, gold leaf techniques etc, after which she moved on to graphics, furniture art and to sari art. Rajini has also served as a member of the Asian Advisory Council to the Governor of New Jersey.
A living garment
“For me, a sari is associated with memories... like my mom wiping away my tears with her sari’s pallu, my grandma spreading out hers to fan my face, me wearing it as a bride... I decided to take a sari safari into the core of India,” she narrates. This took Rajini into obscure villages and weavers’ homes across the country, and into the throbbing hubs of the sari industry, and she found herself drenched in a riot of colours and weaves. In the process she found some emotional solace.
This is perhaps what prompted her to use sari as a canvas for her art. “I am intensely emotional, and a sari’s canvas is a medium for expressing my emotions, my lived experiences, thoughts and feelings. It doesn’t hurt or talk back; it just receives,” says this artiste. She adds, “Besides, there are no known sari designers, even in the realm of the very, very expensive Kancheevaram saris. It has obviously been ignored by creative artistes though craftsmen have kept the torch burning.”
Being a painter, she worked on the sari in terms of composition, colour and pattern and re-invented herself as a ‘sari warrior’. “The philosophy behind jari is that creative endeavors should reflect your sensory experiences and lived world,” she asserts. Rajini creates imagery on the sari through textile elements and printed dyes, the way artists wield paint and brush.
Rajini is not oblivious to thefabulous textile heritage that the country enjoys. She dips into it, using it as a language and a tool for art, creating six yards of art that can be worn. Of course, sometimes such a confluence does fall into the realm of kitsch art, when you see a mix of traditions, weaves and motifs from Assamese tassar and Varanasi silk to Madhubani, Kalamkari and Kancheevaram and more. But to her credit, Rajini doesn’t confine herself to creating a sari as a costume. By harnessing it as a canvas, she makes each of her saris a work of wearable art.
The rules of the textile game are not dispensed with either. For instance, her Kancheevaram designs have classical rigour. They have creativity within boundaries, much like Carnatic music, even though they may sport rudraksham beads, temple architecture, kolam grids, Tibetan art, Chinese flames or free-style fine art. The structural logic is retained while versatility is introduced. She also has a reverence for Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra saris, which she designed at a time when Indian markets were flooded with insipid printed textiles from Manchester and Lancaster mills.
“I also realised that if sari has to survive, it must cater to future needs. Luckily, this quintessentially Indian living garment can be tucked differently to look prim, sexy, trendy, functional... It is a garment that can adapt to various climates and functionalities...” she muses. Thus began Rajini’s designs for the intriguing corporate sari range, which have been inspired by a range of templates from striped three-piece suits to Tamil Nadu’s traditional garment — veshti.
The idea seems to be this. A graceful woman can move like a Bharatanatyam dancer in a creatively patterned sari as exquisitely as in a Bharatanatyam costume; and she can look imposing in a corporate nuanced Kancheevaram sari, as effectively as she would in a three-piece suit.
The furniture art foray began for utilitarian reasons. “When I was living in New York, at one point of time, we could not afford to buy arty furniture. So I decided to work on plain furniture and convert them into art,” she informs.
Using the technique of decoupage, a form of collage art, Rajini inlaid art prints on furniture such as tables, chairs and wardrobes, storage containers and elaborated upon the prints with her own art, which eventually transformed the furniture surface into a seamless mix of exotic art. For instance, Rajini has created a wardrobe that sports extrapolations from Raja Ravi Varma paintings, chairs with Ajanta frescoes, mirror borders with classical art work, quaint containers and trunks with eclectic art prints.
Thematic furniture art
“There is an anecdote behind those chairs,” Rajini says, gesturing to a set of three chairs, on which we sit and chat. These chairs have a complex inlay of prints and imagery. In Ibsen’s masterpiece, Doll House, there is a narration of an old couple waiting to receive visitors, but nobody comes. Rajini shares candidly, “As a first generation South Asian immigrant artiste in the US, I was in a similar state when I started out, and my studio and gallery hosted empty chairs for quite some time. That was when I decided to fill up these three chairs — with Ajanta frescoes, Pahari miniature paintings, and I peopled the third one with Rajasthani paintings.”