From Kashmir To Azaadi - Rollie Mukherjee And Debarati Sarkar Needle Consciences With Their Embroidery

Oct 30, 2017

Upasana Chakraborty

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Embroidery and almost all other fiber and needlework arts are believed to originate in the Orient and Middle East. Human beings in the primitive era quickly found that the stitches used to join animal skins together could also be used for embellishing different household items. Recorded history, sculptures, paintings and vases depicting inhabitants of various ancient civilizations show people wearing stitched or thread-embroidered clothing. Fastforward from then to now embroidery or sewing as a technique of expressing oneself has come to be associated with a stay at home woman who distracts herself from her mid-life crises and loneliness by knitting clothes for the household to wear. We have come to be associated with a life-style which is fast-paced, multi-dimensional and depends on instant and mass production of utilitarian objects, so one of a kind pieces of art either end up getting shelved as something exorbitant and exotic or disappear down the dregs of history without a trace. This article is on two femme artists of our time who are breaking stereotypes by not catering to the unhealthy demands that this patriarchal capitalist system tries to bind art with, and going back to reclaim age old methods of expression in order to save histories of oppression from dissolving.

Rollie Mukherjee is an artist/critic based in Baroda, recognized majorly for her daunting series of artworks on the routine insurgence that the people living in the Kashmir Valley have been subjected to in the last couple of decades.

A resilient activist and reformer and mother of an emerging artist, Rollie exhibited a series of her paintings on Kashmir, early this year in Kolkata at the International Performance Art Festival and there I came across her pieces of kantha -stitch strung along with her paintings in the gallery at Deshapriya Park. A former student of Kala Bhavan, Viswa Bharati as well as MSU Baroda, Rollie’s canvases are layered like the miseries of the people she portrays in them. Her embroideries are similar, only she re-uses old textiles to create stunning works of art.

I interviewed her recently,mainly on what drives her to embroider alongside painting and here’s what the artist has to say-

When did you start embroidering ? What inspires you to embroider your art along with painting?

I started my embroidery based works in the year 2015. I decided to start on embroidering at a particular point in my life, when it was becoming difficult for me to frequently visit my studio with added new responsibilities of motherhood and uncalled multiple interruptions. It was easy for me to work at home. so I started learning it from my mother. I always had in my mind the brilliant kashmiri embroideries and felt my entire series on Kashmir would be incomplete without any embroidery based works and also at that juncture after working constantly on the theme of militarization ’occupation, violence, pain, resistance ,resilence ,death, mourning. Female agency ...........I felt the need to change my approach and rather than an obvious presence of violence and death in my work, I preferred a haunted emptiness and repressed angst in the fragmented wounded bodies and beings, as a site of sediment of agonies, loss despair ,hope. Love, memories and testimonies,. Scattered all over the fabric.

Do you think embroidery like painting helps us cope with our emotional selves better?

Different medium evoke certain expression and offers us a multiple possibilities in exploring varied facade of a language and also helps artist to cope up with ones emotional life as well. Embroidery works demands our highest level of patience and it’s almost meditative. It is base on repetition and a very control way of doing. It requires more time to fill a space compared to painting.

What sort of embroidery have you concentrated upon majorly?

 I have used simple katha stitch in my works with the already existing floral designs on the old bed sheets, which I have cut into smaller pieces of varied sizes .The beautiful floral designs stands as a contradiction to the katha stitches which are used as delineation also to bind the open wounds on the body and fabric. The cloth has been symbolically treated as human body-as a store house of pain, memories, wounds, scars. The torn cloth is sew as open wounds and the incision marks are left as incomplete in some works .so there is pain and an attempt to heal it. This creates a disruption in the aesthetic consumption and it evokes an irresistible pain. I have used different coloured threads, burnt marks as scars and used tie and dye and used paint to evoke emotions, history, time and interiority. I have used colours intuitively but at times symbolically too .The pink fabric of the bed sheet evokes twilight-a moment of transition from dream to reality, from mortality to immortality and from despair to hope. The blue spread of paint on the chest of the half mothers and half widows stress the inherent, ever present pain in their being-like an infinite blue sky- the grief never part her body and mind. The sublimity is shown wounded-the mournful existential angst seemingly thrives on life and death- being and nothingness .I have kept the borders unhemmed to show the withering and erosion of the very fabric of kashmiri society.

Have you learnt the art formally? Is there a way one can learn the art or does one come through with practice ?

I started painting when I was 4 years old. My father who was a photographer had a keen eye for precisions .and perfections. He provided me ample material for working and told me to practice more and criticized my works. My mother and siblings were my appreciators. After my higher secondary school, I took admission in Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, and west Bengal. And I did Bachelors in Fine Arts with Art History as my specialization. Then I did my Masters in Art Criticism from M.S.U Baroda. My journey as an artist has always been oscillating between theory and practice. And both have enriched my life.

I believe every individual need to have open arms to learning new things breaking constantly the set conditionings of what is being taught within the academic space. We can’t take it as a gospel recipe to cater on .A person who is honest hardworking and critically can question things and has a strength to overcome different challenges can become an artist. Academic space opens up easy accessibility to learning, discussions yet it can’t finally set or provide you courage to work .As an artist you need to draw inspiration from people of outside world .people from different discipline and learn never to quit despite immense hardship and failures. You need to withstand the pervading stress and always search for a new directional shift and free oneself from a restrictive conditioned framework.

What are the projects that you are engaged in at the moment?

Right now I am back to my struggle .I need lot of time to rethink my ways- till now what I did and what further I need to work. I have not yet planned anything.

Debarati Sarkar is a anarcho-feminist/activist, artist , actor and musician who juggles all of this by embroidering pieces of clothes etched with florals mostly with a word of mobilization. Debarati has this over-bearing modesty and shies away from exhibiting her embroideries even though she practices it relentlessly. In this interview she open up about herself as an artist and about the identity of one who likes to embroider.

When did you start designing?

I started embroidering very recently but I have been stitching ever since I was in school. It was a part of my extra curriculum activities. It started out as an obligation but then it grew on me.

What inspires you to design textiles?

In Indian society, culturally, stitching has been always associated with old spinsters -- the perennial trope of the unmarried aunt working a sewing machine to keep the hearth burning at their maternal home because nobody will marry them -- the society teaches its females to be exactly the opposite of this. But my affection for all things lost, silenced, snubbed and my general hatred for this society’s cis heteropatriarchal rape culture have made me take up threads as a medium of expression. The slow production process of hand stitched embroidery is a big fuck you to the mass produced, factory-made, labour theft, sweatshop capitalism.

I will take this opportunity to name a few contemporary feminist textile artists, such as Erin M Riley, Hanecdote, Michelle Kingdom who inspire me, because I think these sisters deserve all the appreciation of this artdude infested world.

Do you think embroidery like painting helps us cope with our emotional selves better?

Absolutely! I am glad you have mentioned this. It works for me. A lot. Embroidery has helped me cope with my mental health issues. It helps me calm myself down. It has proven to be quite therapeutic, since it is a very labour intensive and meditative procedure, embroidery helps me concentrate better and collect my mind to channelize it into creating something. The sheer joy of seeing a painting done in needle is a beautiful feeling and it does motivate me to create more, work harder to better myself.

What sort of embroidery do you concentrate on?

I started out with cross-stitch but currently I am working with bordado embroidery—I want to learn as many techniques as my mind and hands will possibly be able to retain, though!

Have you learnt the art formally?

No, maa taught me some stitching techniques when I was tiny: cross-stitch, kantha, chain-stitch but I taught myself how to do bordado embroidery some months back. This story goes like this (somewhat): one day I went out and bought three pieces of cloth and a handful of threads then just started on my first bordado based on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. And it would be safe to say that I haven’t stopped yet.

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