Haunted by quilts

Quilt specialist Paramjeet Bawa shares her artistic journey, born in Punjab and brought up across the world

Growing up in Punjab, Paramjeet Bawa was quite a natural with needlework. Her mother and grandmother had trunks full of embroidery and fascinating stories about each of those colourful pieces. “But my father didn’t like me doing embroidery. He found it very regressive. ‘Making your dowry? Why don’t you sit down with some books instead?’ he would say,” recalls the renowned Gurugram-based art quilter.

Destiny had different plans. After completing her MPhil in Microbiology, a newly-married Paramjeet moved with her husband first to Bangladesh, then Kuwait, Muscat and Dubai, where she honed her exceptional artistic talent. Over the years, the self-taught quilt artist won numerous awards at prestigious quilt exhibitions and shows, including the Birmingham Festival of Quilts and Houston International Quilt Festival.

Not by design

Miles away from home, Paramjeet craved social interactions, friendships, and a sense of belonging. That’s the sole reason she joined a quilting group several years ago. Soon, she met Leela Cherian, a Kuwait-based art quilter, whom she considers her inspiration. “I bought a quilt from her and just by staring at it, I learnt so much… I loved her flair! She can throw two pieces of fabric together and make it look like art,” says the art quilter, who impressed the world with one of her early works titled ‘Dust Storm’.

Although she enjoyed doing handiwork, Paramjeet had never used a sewing machine. She took a workshop to learn the basics of quilting — how to draw a pattern, cut it, and stitch it. “I loved buying fabrics, but the geometric designs and mathematical calculations involved in traditional quilts didn’t excite me. I wanted to create my own drama by using fabrics that sing loudly and beautifully, like watercolours,” asserts the wall quilt aficionado.

She is drawn to the abstract; spontaneous outbursts of vivid colours — yellow makes her happy — that tap into the therapeutic powers of art. For instance, when she was in the Middle East, craving for greenery, she made a vibrant ‘Confetti Garden’, with scraps covered with tulle and embroidery.

Similarly, after her dad passed away, when a childhood photograph refreshed happy memories, Paramjeet poured her heart out on fabric to create a portrait of her parents, with a beautiful embroidery done by her mother in the background. Not an obsessive-compulsive worker, by her own admission, the quilt artist is happy to make one quilt a year. “I do a quilt only when it haunts me,” she avers.

Love of teaching

The best way to learn, Paramjeet has discovered over the years, is to teach. “It’s very satisfying. Everyone has art in them, but at times you need someone to help you explore that artist in you,” says the master quilter, who first tried her hand at teaching with a tatting (technique for handcrafting lace) workshop in Kuwait.

Knowing how easy it is to get intimidated by all the jargons and technicalities of quilting — basting, binding, backing, bearding, and paper piercing, to name some — Paramjeet finds immense satisfaction in handholding novices and introducing them to the many joys of the craft. “There is a different kind of joy in creating something on your own from start to finish. A teacher needs to gauge each student for her own capabilities and gently — very gently — nudge them to do their best,” says the patient teacher, who finds Indian students to be the fastest learners.

For amateurs, Paramjeet recommends starting small, with a collection of fabrics and threads. Use as much scrap as possible, she says. If you can, it’s worthwhile to invest in a basic sewing machine with good free motion and two stitches — zigzag and straight line. Add to that, a good pair of scissors, rulers for measuring, rotary cutter, and you are good to go!

As a “trailing wife” who went wherever her spouse’s career took her, Paramjeet feels fortunate to have travelled the world and seen so much creativity. “You do not know what you can do until you do it,” says the accidental quilter, who has no qualms in admitting that she started out by copying designs from foreign magazines.

“You know, as Indians, we are jugaadu. When I started out, I didn’t have half the supplies, yet I made my quilts. It was thrilling. Today, I have everything, but the thrill is gone,” rues Paramjeet.

Since the last four years, she has been busy moving houses and settling back in India — with little time to be haunted by quilts.

Today, she seeks inspiration in artists like Arun Bajaj ­— popularly known as the ‘Needleman of Patiala’ — who prove that you don’t need fancy gadgets to make artistic masterpieces. “He’s the best in machine embroidery. He produces fantastic work, mostly portraits, with a very rudimentary machine and the cheapest threads,” gushes Paramjeet.

Do men quilt? I ask. Yes, some of the biggest rock stars of the quilting world are men. Ricky Tims, for instance. However, Paramjeet hasn’t had a single male student in her workshops so far. Perhaps, one of these days, it’ll happen, she hopes. In the meanwhile, the art quilter is happy playing doting grandmother to her nine-month-old grandson.

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