The khadi march

It was while working on a visual arts project in collaboration with an American artist that Shelly Jyoti examined the politics of indigo — when farmers from Bihar’s Champaran district had revolted against the Britishe because they were forced to grow indigo instead of food crops, in India. “Gandhi’s first nationalist call came during Champaran Movement in 1917-18. This movement led me to dug deeper and inquire about his idea of non violence and swadeshi politics. I believe that the idea of swadharma and non-violence is very relevant in 21st century,” says the artist.

Since then, Gandhian ideals of swardharma, swadeshi and swaraj have been a recurring theme in her exhibitions — both India and abroad. Her upcoming show ‘The Khadi March: Just Five Meters’ again takes inspiration from this core philosophy and uses khadi — both as a symbol and as a material that expresses qualities of self-purification, self-reliance and independence. Elaborating on her artistic practice, she tells Metrolife, “An artist’s trajectory is a reflection of his or her persona and experiences. Creating art is a visual language of their expression. My works centre around the iconographic elements within the cultural context of modern history and contemporary times.”

“I belong to the post independence generation and have been raised on the story of freedom struggle and patriotism. Hence I engage with early history by exploring how the politics of nationalist era may be useful in considering the globalised economic challenges that confront India. Each time I create my art, I try to add a new element that can appeal to contemporary India, for instance, this time I have used new motifs like hands, the flag, chakras – all symbolic of self-reliance,” she adds.

Jyoti’s passion for Gandhi’s philosophy of khadi and non-violence has found artistic form through her collaborations with women artisans who specialise in kantha embroidery, along with ninth and 10th generation ajrak artisans from Bhuj with whom she has been working for almost a decade. “It’s a great learning experience and they are also very generous in sharing their techniques and processes,” she says. They, she says, enjoy the new element that she brings in their run-of-the-mill work.

The women who do kantha stitching have migrated from eastern India to Delhi for better work prospects. However, most of them live in a state of neglect in the city and are employed as household maids. “I engage with these women to do this running stitch, which gives them joy, and is also a means of earning livelihood,” she adds.

Historically, she says, kantha was done on old clothes to make swaddles and wraps for the family. The reason she uses running stitch is because it lends a traditional look but has a modern appeal. 

The exhibition features several khadi site-specific installations, 20 ajrakh textile artworks, a multi-media spoken poetry art and a documentary of ajrakh textile process. Ask her if it is easy to capture Gandhi’s philosophy in multi-media artworks, she says, “As a fashion designer and a painter, I find it easy to reach out to people through various mediums – be it garments, canvases, or even poetry. I try to being an element of nationalism in whatever I create. Be it my artworks or my poetry, it resonates with the ideals of Gandhi and how his ideas are still relevant,” she says. The Khadi March: Just Five Meters can be viewed at Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, from October 20 – 25.

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