A Gandhian tryst: Shelly Jyoti’s The Khadi March

Artist Shelly Jyoti revisits Gandhian philosophies with her show The Khadi March: Just Five Meters, through multi-media artworks using khadi textile, Ajrakh fibres and Kantha embroidery to talk about self-purification, self-reliance and independence. She spoke to The Goodwill Project.

LR-Shelly JyotiWhat does Mahatma Gandhi mean to you?

Gandhi’s philosophies were not only a fight against the British regime, but also about creating communities with moral values, dignity and self-purification of individuals. I feel Gandhi is an engima that will traverse human lives and humanity for generations to come. In the twenty-first century, as the world faces the many challenges posed by globalization, the necessity of non-violent practices seems that much more urgent.

Do you believe in Gandhi’s proposition that by buying five yards of khadi, we can transform the lives of traditional artisans?

In the context of the Indian struggle for Independence, Gandhi promoted the production and consumption of handspun cloth, or khadi, in order to bridge the divide between urban and rural populations as well as between the high and the low castes. Gandhi’s conceptualization of khadi aimed not only at the revival of a handicraft, but was also critical about creating a self-sufficient, self-reliant civilization in rural India. After 70 years of India’s independence and industrialization, urban citizens have benefitted and grown manifold, but the 700 million living in villages still live in similar poverty, poor infrastructure and illiteracy. I am confident that a ‘five meters campaign’ can bring changes in lives of weavers, spinners and many unremunerated citizens in villages. I aim to engage urban communities in the lives and livelihoods of rural Indians.

What was the experience of working with Ajrakh artisans and women working with Kantha?

I have been working with Ajrakh artisans for more than a decade now. I work with Junaid M Khatri, the tenth generation of Ajrakh craftsmen. These craftsmen are very generous in sharing the technique with textile enthusiasts. Their participation is very meaningful in implementing my story on fabric, for example, in my current exhibition. Creating many different charkhas and chakras for the ‘Flag series’, ‘Lending a hand’ series, Angarkhas and blouses as well as sharing the history of Gandhi’s ideas on khadi, their involvement makes my artwork alive.

My work is different from the normal assembly line printing job for artisans. It’s more time consuming and challenging for an artisan as it’s not a mere repetition of the block. Each block has to be carefully thought and blocked within the parameters of my design thought process.

LR-Ajrakh textile installationWhile working with Ajrakh as a medium of my visual expression and with those who have inherited and are passing on the textile traditions, I have been able to consider the critical relationship between the materials and traditional processes used in Ajrakh production to develop a deeper understanding of the critical role that cloth, fiber, natural dyes, and environment each play in my Ajrakh art scrolls.

I have gained a nuanced understanding of the relationship between traditional artisans and a contemporary artist like me in maintaining and innovating my own style with this particular textile tradition that has a history of 3500 years. Ajrakh artisans came to India in 1600 CE. I work with ninth and tenth generation craftsmen living in Bhuj, Gujarat. The technique is very laborious but has a dazzling quality. They have niche clients for their fabric production, from domestic and international markets, and remain occupied all year long.

The women working doing kantha migrated from eastern India. They live in congested conditions in Delhi and NCR and do household chores. I engage these women to do this running stitch, which allows them the joy of expressing their identity, and earning a livelihood. Historically, Kantha was done on old clothes to make swaddles and wraps for the family. The relevance of running stitch has a traditional look but modern appeal. This threadwork has taken on a new dimension as embellishment in today’s garments.

How did it feel to work with blocks that were centuries-old? What does it say about India’s craft tradition?

I mainly work with 200 to 300-year-old Ajrakh blocks with the idea of documentation. One of the blocks that I use a lot is called Gurda Kaleji and is similar to fostat excavations that took place in Cairo many years ago. Ajrakh is among the oldest types of block printing techniques in Indian craft traditions on textiles, still practiced in parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India, besides Sindh in Pakistan.

Ajrakh is a method of printing in which designated areas in the pattern are pre-treated to resist penetration by the dye. Ajrakh textile traditions take 20-odd individual steps in producing the cloth. Pre-soaking the cloth in a mix of camel dung, soda ash and castor oil, to mixing the dye-resistant pastes from gum and millet flour and blending secondary dyes from an array of natural sources, such as yellow from turmeric, brown from rhubarb, orange from pomegranate skin, red from madder root and black from a boiled syrup of scrap iron, chickpea flour and sugar-cane molasses. Ajrakh prints were dominated by geometrical shapes.

How do artisans fare in today’s mass-produced mall culture?

They cannot mass produce because of the limitations of a laborious technique that the Ajrakh process is. There are infrastructure challenges. Ajrakh needs a lot of water; there is a request to give an underground pipeline connection from nearest rivers.

FINAL WHITE WALL copyHow did your art come together? Tell us about a few key pieces and how you have visualized them. What statement do they make?

My installations, artwork, and poetry explore how the politics of an earlier nationalist era may be useful in considering the globalized economic challenges that confront India and many other parts of the world today. For instance, The Yarn Wheel will be a site-specific installation made up of 1000 bunches of handspun cotton yarn capturing the meditative process of the spinning wheel in stark contrast to machine-made thread. Just Five Yards is a site-specific installation made up of nine khadi handbags inspired by Gandhi’s quote in Young India wherein each bag with the logo of ‘Just Five Yards’ articulates the spirit of swadharma towards our nation.

How do you plan to bring together Decolonizing Khadi Hand Towels onsite?

The installation ‘Decolonizing Khadi Hand Towels: A Moral Consumer’ is inspired by a Khadi Bulletin published in 1921. It was clearly aimed at India’s urban English educated communities, challenged to support their own poor cultivators, rather than foreign mills. Gandhi encouraged the middle-classes to become, what Rosalind Williams termed, ‘moral consumers’ by forging a national community through return to traditional forms of production and new modes of consumption. I plan to hang these towels using a fishnet. This is to expand the idea of using swadeshi in order to support spinners and weavers in India.

LR-Part of The Yarn Wheel installationHow does Connecting Gandhi’s Nation speak of social change?

‘Connecting Gandhi’s Nation’ is a site-specific installation of contemporary blouses, Ajrakh Gandhi caps, Ajrakh stoles, sculptured buttons, Ajrakh samplers under Fashion Segment: Clothing and Accessories. In this installation, I am exploring the role of clothing as a catalyst of social change. Khadi here becomes a cultural means for enacting a renewed outlook. The choice of khadi clothing means a lifestyle change that is aware of the livelihoods of spinners and weavers who are sustained through the handicraft.  I am exploring the idea of khadi as a visual expression of national identity for the 21st century by connecting urban consumers and rural producers.

What inspired you to pen poetry, which forms part of your multi-media presentation, after visiting Dandi?

My aim is to inspire India’s 300 million urban populations to pause and to consider their ‘swadharma’ as allegiance towards their nation. A focus on Swadharma possesses the potential not only to reclothe urban India, but also to build new bonds between urban and rural populations, investing in communities across the nation with a common cause and purpose. I had visited Dandi in 2013 during my research for my show titled ‘Salt: The Great March (2013-15) and felt the need to collaborate with rural population but the idea of five meters came much later in 2016.

(Shelly Jyoti’s solo show titled The Khadi March: Just Five Meters is being held at the Visual Arts Galley, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi from October 20 to October 26, 2016, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.)

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