Weaving tales of tradition in modernity

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It’s about bringing their unique art tradition to the fore, says Arun Wolf, editor, Tara Books. Talking about their latest offering, a hand block-printed book ‘Cloth of the Mother Goddess’ featuring a traditional Gujarati art form, Wolf opens up to Janani Rajeswari S about the creation process, exhibiting the book in London and the deeper meaning behind the venture. Tara Books is an independent publisher of picture books for adults and children based in Chennai, South India. Founded in 1994, they have a team of dedicated writers, designers and artists who strive for a union of fine form with rich content. Fiercely independent, they publish a select list that straddles diverse genres, offering their readers unusual and rare voices in art and literature.

Here, Arun Wolf, editor, Tara books, talks about a hand block-printed book ‘Cloth of the Mother Goddess’ featuring a traditional Gujarati art form. Excerpts.

Q: Creating a cloth based book depicting a traditional form of art is indeed an innovative approach. Is this a-first-of-its-kind attempt? If so, please tell us more about choosing to create it?

Jagdish and Arun WolfArun: At Tara Books, we have fostered an ongoing conversation with traditional art practices over the last 20 years. We work with artists from indigenous and folk communities in India by giving their artistic legacies the shape of a book. In projects like The Cloth of the Mother Goddess, we strive to push the boundaries of these art forms and of the physical book, while retaining their integrity and essence. For us, the tactility of the physical object is important and thus bringing out a hand blockprinted cloth book seemed the best way to capture the look and feel of Mata-ni-Pachedi (art form). As far as I know, there aren’t any other cloth books of this sort in the market. However, the history of block printing books dates back to the 19th century, particularly in China and East Asia. Sometimes, you need to look back into history to seek inspiration to move forward. Creating this book was actually an experimental project, although many of our earlier titles were screen-printed and handmade.

Q: Tara Books has been working with artists from various parts of India. What made you choose ‘Mata-Ni Pachedi’, a traditional art from Gujarat?

Arun: We chose ‘Mata-ni-Pachedi’ because of our long association with Jagdish Chitara, who created the images for the book. This is the third project we have worked on with him over a decade and this helped us understand the tradition better. The other projects are ‘The Great Race’, and the forthcoming ‘Brer Rabbit Retold’. However, we wanted to create a book that did not merely use his skills as an illustrator for stories but also reflected on the art form itself. The only other major book project on Mata-ni-Pachedi is Temple Tents for Goddesses in Gujarat, India by Eberhard Fischer, Jyotindra Jain and Haku Shah that came out in 2014. We wanted to do a book that was less academic and captured the essence of this traditional art form.

Q: Tell us more about the creator of the art for the book, Jagdish Chitara.

Arun: Jagdish Chitara, the artist, lives in Ahmedabad and belongs to a community of traditional textile artisans known as Vaghari. Originally nomads who moved along the Sabarmati River in Gujarat, they specialised in creating ritual textiles invoking the Mother Goddess. Vaghari artisans made this votive cloth for a clientele that was often as marginalised and impoverished as the artisans. Today, there are about 50 Mata-ni-Pachedi artisans and Jagdish is one of the prominent artists. He is remarkable in his ability to stay true to the roots of the art form, while also adapting it to new mediums and taking it forward. His entire family, including his wife Rita and four children – Paresh, Anjali, Neesa, and Sunil – continue to make these beautiful swathes of fabric, which is a practice, handed down over generations.

Q: How long did it take to complete the venture? Kindly elaborate on the journey.

Arun: The book was completed in about two years. The story and the idea of the project became clearer, once we conceptualised it with Jagdish. The challenge lay in realising the project in the way we had conceptualised it: a textile book using hand block-print similar to the work done on the original votive cloth.

First, Jagdish resized the traditional motifs as the original cloth measures around five metres or more in length. Then, we created the artwork of Jagdish’s paintings on the computer and separated each image into two colours: black and red. These separated files were sent to wooden textile block makers in Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh. There, the designs were traced onto blocks of teak wood and chiselled out painstakingly by hand. The project required 31 wooden printing blocks.

Meanwhile, a group of tailors in Chennai created the panels of the book using cotton cloth. Each panel needed to be reinforced by individually inserting a piece of cardboard as a backing. A special cloth cover was also sewn. The main cloth panel was sent for printing to a master textile block printer. Being a centuries-old artisanal skill, this required enormous concentration and steadiness of the hand, especially while registering more than one colour on an image. Each book was printed with 45 impressions, and our initial print run was 500 books.

Q: Does the book narrate a single story or is it a collection of stories?

Arun: The opening panels unfold into a cloth shrine that recreates the traditional Mata-Ni-Pachedi. It invokes the Mother Goddess and her attendant deities and worshippers (who all have their own associated stories). As is the case with many Indian art traditions, the images depicted don’t conform to linear time or lend itself to straightforward storytelling, because events recur. The story told on the back panels brings that narrative in full circle. When the shrine on the front of the cloth book is turned around, the panels on the reverse side tell the story of how the Mother Goddess came to be honoured in this form, and how the practice was renewed when it was faltering. The narrative here is sequential and the events happen one after the other, over a period of time. But for us, the project straddles the boundaries of being an art object and a book.

Q: Earlier, the book was on exhibit at V&A Museum in London. How was the whole experience and how was the book received?

Arun: Yes, the book was displayed in a special vitrine at the V&A Museum in London, as part of the India Festival, and was extremely well-received. I also gave a talk followed by a film screening at the National Library in the museum, during the launch the book in the UK in October 2015. We were very glad that this lesser know tradition could gain some recognition on an international platform. Sadly, more often something needs to be recognised abroad before it gains a stand in India. We hope the exhibition and event not only showcased the beauty of the art form, but also educated people about the richness and sophistication of the underlying concept.

Q: How do you think this book will empower artists like Jagdish?

Arun: We see artists like Jagdish Chitara performing more than a traditional or caste function. Depending on the status imposed on a particular caste of practitioners, the art is considered either deemed respectable or otherwise. Historically, this extends to casterelated artisanal labour as well, wherein artisans are not given the respect they deserve. This is something we wanted to question. When we invited Jagdish to work with us, we wanted to create, along with him, a new way of looking at his tradition. For instance, the success of the project has allowed Jagdish to build a small house for his family in their ancestral village from where his grandfather migrated to Ahmedabad in search of work.

Q: How do you plan to take this forward?

Arun: We would like to continue to work on projects like Cloth of the Mother Goddess. It has become a foreground for reaching out to many rich and varied artistic traditions in India, many of which are practiced by people belonging to socially marginalised communities. We are also increasingly looking at cross-media projects, involving both digital and physical mediums that will communicate the world of the artists and their art forms.

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