Till less than two decades ago, Nilgai and peacocks roamed on the land in front of my home. Now buildings have replaced them," says Vadodara-based Kalamkari-chintz artist Lavanya Mani.
The unfortunate and rapid depletion of our forest wealth, the complete denuding of green cover, disgraceful pollution of our water bodies and the air are what worries the artist. And hence her latest work titled 'Signs Taken for Wonders’, exhibited at Gallery Chemould, Mumbai spoke about nature and the environment.
There are many artists who, through their work of art, have been expressing their anguish about the state of the environment and the need to take care of it. But what makes Lavanya different from others is that her 'canvas' is hand-woven cotton fabric, and the medium is vegetable and stone colours. She highlights her work with appliqué work using chintz and hand embroidery.
She says, "My works are works of art that happen to incorporate many domestic crafts that one does for love or some that one just takes for granted. Since I love talking about nature, I certainly can’t use chemical paints and so I decided to express my thoughts using a natural medium." She expresses her thoughts brilliantly in the large three-piece panel titled 'Herbarium’. The central panel has a large mountain held on a palm. "I thought of Lord Hanuman lifting the mountain Dronagiri to get the herb needed on the battlefield. Ancient crafts such as natural dyeing involve a deep understanding of botany, chemistry, and interaction with their natural surroundings. In the name of modernity and development, these things are getting destroyed." In another single panel work 'Parasite’, she has used yellow chintz to highlight pollution that is destroying our world. Lavanya says, "Disease and cultural contact are often fundamentally entangled and disease plays a primary role in the representation of otherness."
In 'Auguries’, another three-panel work, she has shown several birds losing the sense of their usual formation when they fly due to the changes occurring on planet earth. "Formation of bird flights was often a tool for divination by the soothsayers of yore. Auguries can be read as a portentous sign of something coming," she says.
The centrepiece is 'The Ark’, which is a canopy of a tent with several birds, plants, animals including sea animals getting clustered together. "If the destruction of our surroundings continues, I thought of Noah’s Ark which might be needed in the future to save the living beings," she says.
It was while studying — right from her graduation to the doctoral degree at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda — that she started exploring and integrating various aspects of textile dyeing, printing and embroidery in her work. While there, she also started studying about the 1970’s American women artists like Miriam Shapiro, Judy Chicago, Louise Bourgeoisie and many other members of pattern and decoration movement. These artists are known to have combined the women’s craft of hand embroidery (in India, especially in Gujarat, known as bharat kaam) into their work of art to highlight the history of women’s involvement in diverse forms of artistic production, which shouldn’t be relegated only to the club of hobby but should be considered a work of art like any paintings or sculptures.
This is what led Lavanya to study the traditional dyeing and printing process, especially kalamkari, because of its similarity to painting. Using kalamkari as the medium of her contemporary art practice needed her to study its context to historical and cultural dynamics. To that effect, she has been trying to explore the multilayered role that dyed and printed textiles have played in the history of colonial trade, the establishment of colonialism, and the economics of political domination and imperialism in India; while simultaneously drawing attention to the historical time when ‘high art’ and ‘craft’ became opposing categories that needed to be defined against each other in order to validate their existence. During her studies, she also discovered many connections between common phrases in English and the textiles, eg., to spin a yarn, to follow a thread of narrative, to embroider a tale, to weave a tale, to fabricate etc.
Elaborating on the method of painting, Lavanya explains, "Over the years, I have evolved a dyeing process that combines the traditional techniques used in Andhra Pradesh (kalamkari), Gujarat and Rajasthan. The cloth called madar paat or gada tuni is treated with a mixture of buffalo’s milk and a herb called myrobalan. Buffalo’s milk has very high-fat content which enables the dye to stay on the cloth and not run or spread. The drawing is done with a dye made from iron rust and palm jaggery (ferrous), which reacts with the myrobalan to produce a deep black colour. And the brush is the traditional kalamkari tool (bamboo wrapped with thread to hold the dye), and sometimes a regular paint brush, depending on the kind of line I want."
She further says, "The colour palette is very limited in this technique unlike in oil painting or water colours or any other ‘painting’ medium. Also, unlike others where one works from light to dark shades, in this process, the black is worked first and it is difficult to nearly impossible to rework once applied on the cloth. So one needs to be really sure where the colour is going." And looking at her work, Lavanya Mani is very sure of where she wants the colour to reach to get her thoughts perfectly on the piece of cloth.