Connecting Threads at Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Since a whole bunch of news art shows opened up last week — it was Mumbai Gallery Weekend, when the galleries stay open longer — I’m essentially buried under my own notebooks. In an attempt to clear the backlog, I thought I’d just quickly jot down what I had on an older show, Connecting Threads: Textiles in Contemporary Practice, and next thing I know, it’s some 3,000 words. It’s hard out there for a critic with no culture pages, but all praise the internet for blogs on which word counts are nothing but a number.

FYI, Connecting Threads is on at Bhau Daji Lad Museum till February 12.

Earlier this month, Mumbai Mirror reported that there is a very real possibility that the BMC will take over the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in September this year. I wonder if this news would have hit me as hard as it did if there was a tiresome or boring contemporary art exhibition on at the museum because the only reason to worry about the museum becoming a purely government-run institution is that none of the people in charge will put in the attention that the space deserves. Since it opened to the public in 2008, the BDL has hosted enough strange shows, but even the least impactful ones have engaged viewers and made them think a little harder. Connecting Threads: Textiles in Contemporary Practice isn't one of those exhibitions; it’s one of the good ones. 

Enter past the turnstile, and you see Sharmila Samant's "The Bombay Weaves", an installation of a loom and 50 spindles. Each of them is a different colour and stands for a community. The labels range from regional and religious groups, to philosophical leanings (no. 20, a spindle with shining gold thread, is labelled "Humanist"). Visitors are encouraged to write down the number that they feel describes them. On the loom, white thread stretches taut for the length of the device and towards the front, where the actual weaving happens, there's the woven final product in which the white thread has turned into a multicoloured piece of cloth. I'm not sure if Samant plans to use the numbers that people put down to add to the woven fabric. The days I went to the BDL, it was interesting to see that many people had picked no.1 (white, "absent"). We could have had a shining cloth of gold if everyone picked no. 20, but that’s not where this pattern is headed and so — possibly for the first and last time — I found myself sad that cotton wouldn’t be replaced by gold zari. It says a lot about a city that it leaves a chunk of its residents feeling like they're invisible.   

The Bombay Weaves by Sharmila Samant

The Bombay Weaves by Sharmila Samant

"The Bombay Weaves" is both a reminder and potentially a reflection of how the city is made up of different communities. It also feels just a little bit romanticised, particularly because it uses a traditional loom, and maybe even a little laboured, which is an ironic word to use given the city's history of textile mill workers' strikes in the early 1980s. The installation also reminded me of the different roots of two words that are often (wrongly) used synonymously: fabric and textile. Etymologically, textile comes from the Latin verb that means "to weave", so the textile is simply that which is woven. Fabric, on the other hand, is born of the Latin "fabrica", something that is skilfully produced and was always associated with machinery and structure. 

The idea of manufacture, but by hand and with the intention of structuring narratives, guides Paula Sengupta's installation, which in its cabinet almost blends in with the BDL's permanent exhibits. Perhaps it's the fact that you can't really peer into the cabinet or that the writing on the glass front is easily-missed; or maybe it's just that the whole thing feels too laboured, but this one didn't do much for me. 

Just a few steps away from "The Bombay Weaves" is Manish Nai's untitled sculptural installation — a huge wooden frame with what looks like multicoloured poles from a distance and up close reveal themselves to be made of clothes. In contrast to the textile being made on the loom, these are pieces of fabric, made to perform a certain function, discarded when they had lost their utility in some way, and now repurposed to create a completely different structure. Add to this the layer that Nai comes from a family of textile artisans, and the work becomes an ode to survival and evolution.

Untitled by Manish Nai

Untitled by Manish Nai

It's fascinating to see these clothes that have lost all their softness after being heat-fused into these squarish columns. They've gone from being useful and malleable, to useless and then becoming precious (and expensive) primarily because they're no longer utilitarian.  

The clothes in this work are discarded clothing acquired from Nai's family — the notes specify his mother among other relatives — and the installation looks vaguely like a gigantic window with colourful grills. The way the colours and patterns are smashed together also made me think of Mumbai with its perennial space crunch, and the way it forces people to share space. You hold on to certain aspects of yourself, but the city also crushes you into a shape and form that will fit its contours and requirements.

Because of the way the works are laid out in the museum, it's unlikely you'd notice Nai's installation while standing at "The Bombay Weaves". Instead, you'd probably end up seeing the room full of Monali Meher's installations first. Dangling at eye level is a chandelier that's wrapped in red wool ("Auspiciously Red III") . Strings of wool drip off the chandelier like red wax and below it are 12 balls of the same red wool that's been used on the chandelier. It's like a yantra, but just a little askew. On one wall are objects — some domestic, all feminine — transformed because they've been wrapped in red wool. You can recognise some, like the pair of high-heeled shoes, by their shape. Others, like the kitchen implements, are partially wrapped, as though they're either submerging into or breaking out of a cocoon. Next to this hangs "Wrapped Bridal Photos from 2005" which looks a screen of red wool. It has two black panels joined by red wool again. Peer through the spaces Meher has deliberately left and you'll see images that look like negatives on the panels. They show images of a ghostly woman, her body covered in henna motifs, and now wrapped in red wool.            

Works by Monali Meher

Works by Monali Meher

Come out of Meher's red room of meditative repetition and you see Nai's installation, standing a short distance away, like a giant window or grill, containing the feminine, domestic world with its bars made of his mother and other relatives' discarded clothes. 

Make your way around this barrier and up ahead are Shakuntala Kulkarni's hollow women — cane armour that looks like the frame of a warrior woman. These restrict as much as they protect their wearer and in their craftsmanship is a certain sturdy artistry. After all, armour provides protection, but it also encases you in an ideal body. Traditionally, men's armour is made of hard, once-malleable-now-unyielding metal and soft but resilient leather — symbols of human industry and predatory behaviour, brought together by craft to be strong and solid. Cane, on the other hand, is flexible and capable of delicacy despite its tensile strength. It's particularly special to have these cane figurine/ armour guard the marble statues at the centre of the BDL's ground floor. 

Works by Shakuntala Kulkarni

Works by Shakuntala Kulkarni

As you go up the stairs, Meher's red wool shows up again. This time, it's wrapped around the golden curves of the balustrade, nudging us to remember all those who make wishes at pilgrimage spots and the master craftsman Daedalus who came up with the idea of tracing a way out of the labyrinth using a ball of string. On the two walls, towering majestically over the paintings of the men who had originally built this gorgeous structure are two paintings by Anju Dodiya, in which shadow-stained women fight the good fight against encroaching darkness. Both of them are watercolour and charcoal on fabric. Thematically, they fit in beautifully, but at a simple, visual level, I think they would have felt more striking if they weren't surrounded by all the gilt-edged, multicoloured excess of the BDL's interiors in the Grand Renaissance Revival style. 

Vices (Vanity) by Lavanya Mani

Vices (Vanity) by Lavanya Mani

Upstairs, the room next to the staircase is a dark, air-conditioned vault full of allusions to colonisation and capitalism, should you be inclined to look past the gorgeous visual appeal of both Lavanya Mani and Archana Hande's work.    

Mani's large embroidered pieces, with their jewel colours, gleam with opulence. I particularly loved "Vices (Vanity)", in which a woman in Elizabethan-esque attire (but dark skin) sits at a table that has a collection of objects that have a whiff of sin about them (a halved apple, an ornate bottle — poison? perfume? —  an extinguished candle, a skull). Designed like a playing card, the bottom half of the work is the woman's mirror image. It begs the question whether she's the queen or the one being played. 

Mani’s work is a reminder that international trade isn’t a new phenomenon and that the Bombay’s cotton industry was born out of the British Empire’s efforts to reduce its dependence on America as a colony (cotton from America was of higher quality at the time, but then the Americans went ahead and started demanding independence etc).

Detail from the block prints Archana Hande has made in collaboration with Tarak Das

Detail from the block prints Archana Hande has made in collaboration with Tarak Das

The tour de force in this room, however, is "All is Fair in Magic White" by Archana Hande, which turns the history and present of Dharavi (possibly the most famous of Mumbai’s slums and a hotly-contested mass of potentially-prime real estate) into a fable involving three rather charismatic lady adventurers and a small businessman. The businessman asks the women what is the connection between class and race, because the daughter he had when he was poor is dark-skinned while the girl born after her father became rich is fair.

One the wall are 12 block-printed works that Hande made in collaboration with block printer Tarak Das. The intricacy and neatness of Das's block prints is incredible. In one work, he not only creates a tiled floor on which there is a TV cabinet, but also includes images on the television on the screen (a plane flying towards a grove of trees). Next to the prints is a video.

A lot of what Hande talks about in the video and prints can be traced back to attitudes and ideas we’ve absorbed during our colonial history. At the same time, the technique being used to tell the tale — block prints — is a quintessentially Indian art and craft.

On their own, the printed pieces may seem a little random, but take 10 minutes to watch the accompanying video, which animates the motifs and details from the fabric pieces to create a fable that Aesop would probably applaud (animation by Sarat Nayak). My favourite frame is one in which a ship flies across the sky but we're shown the sky from the perspective of one down below and standing in a courtyard surrounded by gorgeously-crafted old windows and balconies. It's reminiscent of the airplane shots from Alfonso Cuaron's Roma. I don't mean that this is a copy — Hande's video is from 2009, so really, no — but that they've both used the idea of looking up and using that perspective as a sort of medium to connect flights of fancy with ground realities.

Screengrab from Hande’s video, All is Fair in Magic White

Screengrab from Hande’s video, All is Fair in Magic White

Step out of the room, walk across the model ships and dioramas showing scenes from everyday life of a Mumbai that's rapidly slipping into the realm of the documented and imagined histories, and you enter a room in which Anita Dube and Pushpamala hold court. On two of the walls, in black and white photographs, Pushpamala elegantly interrogates feminine stereotypes in selections from "The Bombay Photo Studio" series. They're lovely photographs and I wish they were out as a book because you really can linger over these. However, it's hard for any work to be able to commandeer a viewer's attention away from the macabre beauty of Dube's "Silence (Blood Wedding), in which bones are covered in red velvet and embellished with beading and lace. 

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Dismantled, the bones are no longer parts of a skeleton (used by Dube's brother while studying medicine), but elements of a bridal trousseau (take that Game of Thrones). Rejecting the skeleton that symbolises death, Dube repurposes the bones to make something that is preserved in glass boxes and destined for eternity (or at least something close to it). This work was made at a time when Dube was processing her father being diagnosed with cancer, but you don't have to be in that headspace to respond to this work. In fact, completely independent of Dube's personal context, "Silence (Blood Wedding)" works as a powerful statement on the fetishising of matrimony and weddings, the idea of a woman’s jewellery being her security (and the very thing taken from her by abusive in-laws) as well as the position a woman occupies in the structure that matrimony upholds. What's truly messed up is that even though you know they're bones that look blood-smeared, each of these items are just so utterly beautiful.       

From the not-so bare bones of Dube's sculptural works, you step into a red room very different from Meher's. Titled "Fruits of Labour (A Monument to Exhaustion"), Rakhi Peswani's installation is essentially a fabric tent in which you enter, only to find yourself cocooned in red fabric and a soundscape of dripping water in your ears. If it's in a large room or corridor, the installation feels like a canopy. In a more contained space, like the one at the BDL, the installation surrounds you. Hanging from the floral-embroidered top, on which you can see outlines of an assortment of objects ranging from clothes to scissors, are large, globule shaped sacks of red cloth. Hanging on the sides are ragged pieces of fabric, torn and frayed. The resemblance to a uterine chamber or a womb is obvious, especially with all the red. But Peswani would also have you think of migration, life in tents and seeing narratives about rupture and displacement in the physicality of fabric.

It’s also one of those art works that really bring home how varied subjective responses can be. Depending upon one’s experiences and attitudes, “Fruits of Labour” could feel calm and comforting, or painful and claustrophobic. Perhaps the one thing that would be the same for all viewers is that the work makes you feel tiny. I’m not putting up a photo because whatever photos I have really don’t do the work justice. From the hanging globules to the ragged strips and the embroidered surface on which you can also see the outlines of other objects, the different elements of the work are masterfully placed to push you into deep into wells of feeling.

Emerging from "Fruits of Labour" to stand before the shrunken architectural spaces of Manisha Parekh's "Enshrined" series feels vaguely like a sci-fi trip, but in an underwhelming way. The dolls’ house-sized structures are made of rich, beautiful fabric and inspired by pilgrimage sites across South Asia. Compact in size and embellished with minimalist detailing, these personal shrines are stripped of all the chaos and pomp that we usually associate with temples. Instead, they are, despite their size, grand abstractions (grandeur = courtesy the fabric). On their on, the series is charming, but it barely makes an impact after Peswani's installation. 

From Manisha Parekh’s Enshrined series

From Manisha Parekh’s Enshrined series

Still, it's more powerful than the works in the final room, which are mostly neutral in terms of colour palette and in terms of tone, trying far too hard. A few large panels by Nilima Sheikh are on one wall and they have some exquisite print work, but the room's lighting reflects relentlessly off the glass. For short people like me, the panels are also hanging too high. It's hard to get a sense of the whole work, which is in muted colours and contains a galaxy of different elements. I love the way Sheikh weaves words, patterns and painted figures into her panels — her "Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind" is one of my favourite art works of all time — but "Rozgar" at the BDL just wasn't installed in a way that's viewer friendly. 

I have no shame in admitting that I didn't get the first thing about Priya Ravish Mehra's untitled works which showed the traditional style of repairing shawls (known as rafoogari). Hopefully, whole and real pashminas were not sacrificed for the cause of this series. 

Across the courtyard, in the special exhibition space, Reena Saini Kallat and Desmond Lazaro round off Connecting Threads.

Walls of the Womb by Reena Saini Kallat

Walls of the Womb by Reena Saini Kallat

"Walls of the Womb" is the third red room in Connecting Threads, and along with 12 floor-to-ceiling, silk, tie-and-dye panels, there's a display case in which you can see old notebooks opened to pages that have recipes written on them. The contrast between the high art on the walls and the everyday art in the books (recipes for Nargisi Kofta, Sweet and Sour Fish, Tomato Soup and Gulab Jamun) is beautiful and just heart-wrenching. On the panels, the white bandhani dots are the recipes written in Braille, turning the real into something as abstract and inscrutable as memory. Beauty, the rage of heartbreak, violence, the stability of pattern and the lyricism of the everyday are all woven together to create a structure that serves to preserve Kallat’s sense of loss at losing her mother when she was a little girl. 

I'm just going to retype Saini Kallat's note which accompanied the installation, because it provides the context for her work: 

"My relationship with my mother, who I lost when I was eight years of age, has been built around the objects she left behind: those sewn by her, stuffed toys she made me, photo albums, her personal books, stories related to me by other family members, besides my own faint recollections. I've spent a good part of my childhood going through my mother's personal belongings, such as sarees, cosmetics, bags, sometimes bringing them out of closed cupboards to look at while at other times trying them on myself." 

Few artists will explain as candidly the inspiration for their work as Saini Kallat does in that note. Sometimes, it doesn't really matter if you don't know the personal core of a work. Occasionally, though, knowing lets you wear the artist's emotions like an invisible cloak and when that happens, your own stories meld with the ones she's telling through her art.  

I've wanted to see Kallat's "Walls of the Womb" for years (I'd seen photos when it was installed abroad, about 10 years ago) and while the display isn't ideal here, it's still such a powerful work that I think you can't help but feel moved. In the BDL, you don't feel surrounded by the redness, which means you can physically and emotionally step away from the intensity. I'd want the panels, with their coded messages in white, to surround me. Here you can step back and create a distance that lets you breathe, rather than feel overwhelmed.

From the lost matriarch to the remembered patriarch: In the adjoining room is Lazaro’s “Promise: The Family Portraits”, a set of fabric panels that are also hanging, but feel starkly different from “Walls of the Womb”. The material used in “Promise” is light and pretty, which is fitting for a story that is full of hope rather than tragedy. The panels offer glimpses of Lazaro’s family’s fascinating story of migration which covers Rangoon, Madras, Leeds (and Pondicherry, if you include where Lazaro is now based) through elements that are deeply personal (like the floral wallpaper pattern from Lazaro’s home in England) to fragments of public record (like a passport). On the wall is a piece of text that Lazaro turns into an installation – the words were embedded on his grandfather’s passport, the document that let him travel legally across political boundaries.

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An interesting parallel to the migrant story shimmers in the translucent panels of white on which pichhwai motifs of exquisite beauty have been embroidered by the artisans who work with Chennai-based Jean Francois Lesage. In the 1920s, Lesage’s grandparents bought an embroidery studio that belonged to Napoleon III’s embroiderer, Albert Michonet, and started the Lesage tradition of haute couture embroidery. Maison Lesage is now owned by Chanel and was run by Lesage’s father till he died. Today, Lesage — who wasn’t interested in embroidery until he came to India as a 19-year-old tourist — runs his own studio in Chennai and hangs on the walls of his home portraits of south Indian people he doesn’t know but refers to as his “adopted ancestors”. Lesage came to India to set up his own embroidery studio in 1991 and in 1993, he founded Vastrakala, which has made it possible for 200-odd, third- and fourth-generation embroiderers of Sriperumbudur continue a family trade that was dying a slow death till the Frenchman came along. Technically speaking, Lesage is a migrant worker in India; one with financial, racial and cultural privilege. This serves to make him a cherished visitor, rather an unwelcome addition, which is the experience of most migrant workers.

Lazaro’s “Promise” also made me think long and hard about collaborations and the whole ‘artist or artisan’ debate because not only are the embroidered panels the most beautiful parts of the installation, the other panels feel infinitely grander and more poetic when seen through the embroidered ones. Lazaro’s own training is in painting and in addition to studying art formally, he also apprenticed with a master of the pichwai tradition of Rajasthan. The painted panels of “Promise” aren’t the most striking examples of Lazaro’s work, which otherwise uses the colours and detailing of the pichwai but on canvases that are large and subjects that are modern. The idea of literally layering his own story — symbolised by the pichwai motifs that have been embroidered by others – with that of his family, whose stories he himself paints, is rich with complexity and almost impossible to pull off singlehandedly. Without the embroidered panels, I’m not sure I would have even remembered “Promise”, but without the painted panels, those panels would be gorgeous (and impractical) curtains.

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I’ve been back to see this show three times now and it’s only the last time – when I told myself I’d just zip through the museum to take the photos that I wanted of the works that I liked – that I managed to finish my tour in less than an hour (50 mins). My only complaint is that curators Tasneem Zakaria and Puja Vaish didn’t include anything in the exhibition that looked directly at the city’s relationship with textile mills (residential and commercial complexes in central Mumbai are built on plots that are graveyards of the once-thriving textile trade) and the trade union movement that broke Bombay in the 1980s.

 There’s time for at least one more exhibition before September and I hope it’s a cracker, but if it isn’t, at least we can remember BDL Museum as it is now, adorned with Connecting Threads

Deepanjana Pal