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Skeins of life

"Sites of Recurrence", an exhibition of feminine art, features embroidered panels that have been worked using traditional seams, motifs and colours. On show till February 17 at Dakshinachitra.


THE 7ft by 4ft panels are compelling visual poetry: threads and motifs depicting a people's inner consciousness, knowledge, ritual, magic and age-old elemental ways of relating to Nature. Part of Dakshinachitra's exhibition titled "Sites of Recurrence" featuring feminine art uses threads and stitches fundamental to each society. The embroidered panels are "an experiment that we literally lived through" says Dastkaar's Laila Tyabji. She worked with three groups of craftswomen, Lambani women from the Sandur Kushal Kendra, Karnataka, Sujni embroiderers from Adithi in Bihar and Banaskantha craftswomen of the Ahir, Meghwad and Mochi communities from SEWA, Ahmedabad. Tyabji literally forced the tribal women to think about their lives and identity, dreams and dilemmas - and translate them into the language of threads, stitches, motifs and narrative.

How did the tribal craftswomen perceive themselves? As women ably fulfilling many roles — cooking, threshing, winnowing, looking after cattle and children, taking part in village `sabhas', wage earning and above all, embroidering! Through their stitches, sequins, buttons and cowrie shells, and pieces of cloth interspersed with ancient motifs, they put images of themselves in, as makers of their destiny. Ganga Behn, Rani Behn and Jaumi Behn of Kutch, decided to portray a traditional `Tree of Life' — shade giving and bountifully fruitful! The enormous tree is magnificently appliquéd in varied colours, alive with the music of parrots and parakeets picked out in fine Ari embroidery and chain stitch. Amidst the birds and exotic flowers, women are seen performing chores such as cooking, feeding the young and attending village meetings. The finely executed panel achieves a harmonious balance, highlighting the tree of life, yet carrying the women's tales with it.

Chandra Devi and Lalita Devi from Bihar also portrayed women performing many tasks through a muted Sujni panel. The main figure is that of a woman bent over her embroidery and is delineated in bold chain stitch. The panel literally sings with bright flowers: on children's clothes and lehengas and on the fine tendrils and creepers, which form the background. A sense of self worth of a woman doing embroidery and earning money - is evident in the lovely Sujni panel, which depicts, as Chandra Devi said "what we women in Bihar do."

The Lambanis' response to the challenge thrown at them was to craft a woman with a dual personality on a panel with splendid patchwork and embroidery. While one half of the brightly accoutred Durga-like woman is seen wearing Lambani clothes glittering with mirrors and chain stitch motifs, the other half is dramatic with six arms performing the many tasks of a woman.

Shantabai, Gauribai and Parvati have used their traditional repertoire - mirror work, embroidery stitches on one half of the figure. Interestingly, to the women embroiderers, the nude half was symbolic of liberation and freedom while the clothed woman was about tradition and constriction! This panel is particularly powerful, not only in terms of patchwork and Lambani embroidery, but also because it is the first figurative form representing traditional Lambani craft.

The panels can be seen in the Tamil Nadu House at Dakshinachitra, East Coast Road, Muttukadu, till February 17.

PUSHPA CHARI

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