The fine art of damage control

The fine art of damage control

They form the invisible link in the creation of a fabric and yet remain its unsung heroes," says Priya Ravish Mehra about rafoogars. The textile expert has, for the past several years, been working relentlessly to get the nimble dexterity of the craftsmen who darn and repair damaged cloth acknowledged and recognised. "They are an important part of any fashion house or fabric manufacturing unit but will not be referred to as such because doing so might raise suspicions that the fabric or garments created there could be damaged," says the 57-year-old whose recent talk at the India International Centre in Delhi centred on the darning tradition of the rafoogars of Najibabad, and her journey with them "to make their invisible work visible."

Love for aesthetics

Having grown up in this little town in Bijnor district, Mehra's childhood was spent in an environment replete with art and aesthetics. Both her parents were alumni of Santiniketan. "So, appreciating the beauty in everyday things happened subconsciously - be it in nature, objects or textiles, etc," she reveals. She recalls how her home was always the go-to place for rafoogars walking in to meet her father - the famous sculptor Jitendra Kumar and one the earliest National Award recipients - whenever something interesting came to them for rafoo repair. "They knew that my parents would always appreciate a good piece of art and their work that went into restoring it," she smiles.

She adds, "For my parents, there was no distinction between what does or doesn't constitute fine art. For them, the whole art experience was meant to be enjoyed." It was this experience with the aesthetics of textiles that would later make her decide her future course of action, despite completing her graduation in Science. "I had even started pursuing my post-graduation in Maths when thoughts about 'what next?' other than teaching started cropping up," she smiles sitting in the backyard of her Sultanpur home that overlooks a beautiful garden, where she grows a number of flowers and vegetables.

And when the "option-list did not throw up anything too creatively satisfying," she decided to follow her heart and study textiles with a degree in Fine Arts (Textiles) from the Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan. Ask her if this was something that made her parents happy and she says, "Not really, because they had been there during Tagore's time."

But they relented because K G Subramanyam, the famous artist and
Padma Vibhushan awardee, whom they knew well, was the professor of painting and design at Kala Bhawan. So, they felt this was, perhaps, the right time for me to be at Santiniketan."

The turning point in her life came when after Santiniketan, she got the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Textiles's research-based projects on the saris of India headed by Martand Singh, the 'textile man of India'. Mehra was assigned the task of exploring and cataloguing the weaves and designs of Bihar and Gujarat. "Seeing the work of the craftsmen of these states, I was completely enamoured. Even though I had seen my mother wear the best of handloom saris and come across some of the most amazing weaves and traditions through my parents' interest in them, this was still a fascinating experience," says the textile connoisseur who, in visiting the remotest corners of these states, got to savour not just the work of the village craftsmen but also the architectural heritage dotted all across.

Not an easy journey

Remembering the time she was researching the weaves of Bihar, "where almost nothing was available because of the conditions prevalent there at the time," what worked as her reference point were the gazetteers that had been put together by John Forbes Watson in 1866. "After him, no one had done any documentation or research on the subject," she informs. "When my brother Tushar Kumar, who was writing the travelogue and photo documentation for this project, and I, went there, everyone said, 'Kuch bacha nahin hai'... But despite that, a book came out and there were over 10 styles that emerged."

Cataloguing these traditions did not come without its share of challenges. Mehra cites the example of the 'janta sari' that was forcing the shift of production from traditional and regional handlooms to 'subsidised garment for the masses', resulting in the loss of quality and skills. And although the main thrust of their work was research and not designing, "this was happening inadvertently as we would always be telling the weavers about the importance and beauty of traditional fabrics and designs," says Mehra.

But she could also empathise with their problems and concerns. "I remember how when we managed to find two block printers in a Gujarat village and asked them to create samples for our project, one of them refused saying that in doing this work for us, that would take him about six months, he would lose his regular clientele, and thus couldn't afford to break that thread of continuity. This was a telling state of affairs because attempts at reviving tradition can't happen without local customers, proper government backing and financial support," she says.

Armed with all this knowledge, in 1992, Mehra went on to pursue a postgraduate degree in tapestry weaving from the Royal College of Arts in London and West Dean College, Sussex. "The exposure there helped me further appreciate the vast traditions that our country had to offer."

And on her return two years later, she got involved with Delhi's Tihar Jail project to teach the art of weaving to female inmates. "I was keen to impart the knowledge and techniques I had learned abroad to a new set of learners, whose work would not pose any competition to the traditional weavers," she states.

With an enthusiastic lot of learners who were not just getting a stipend but also earning with whatever their creations were fetching from exhibitions, Mehra's training continued till the inevitable started happening. "They started reproducing the designs deemed popular, as against their first few works that were made with a lot of creative expressions as their heart and soul had gone into it," she says.

For more than 15 years now, Mehra has been working to highlight the work done by rafoogars whose 500-year-old craft of darning and repair, she says, stands threatened in this age of throwaway culture. "And the onus of its revival lies not just with these craftsmen alone but also with the government and the people."

A beginning will be made when the present generation instead of discarding a torn dress lets a rafoogar work on it. "Something that will give them a feeling of respect and appreciation," says Mehra who has also been fighting a decade-long battle with cancer.

"Rafoo work has also become a metaphor for my own life where you accept that just like each piece of cloth needs darning and repair, so does the body. You must not ignore the damages but accept them and then work to heal them in the best possible way you can," she adds.

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