Lavanya Mani’s first solo show presents a range of images which together compose a portrait of the artist as a young woman in the making. Two works exemplify this clearly. First Love might be read as a look back at those moments in a woman’s formation when she inscribes, with each gauche doodle, the presence of love into her life. A heart made in the angular forms of origami is stitched in the centre; it appendages read as the wings of a bird that cannot soar or more prosaically, as a sari blouse, showcased in a local tailor shop. Swirling strips of floral-printed cloth pattern the space around, creating a constellation of sentiments and nostalgia. All this is layered on a kalamkari textile made by the artist, with an image of a Cupid ready to strike this helpless heart, pinned like a collector’s butterfly, even as it desires the promise of an epistle of love in return. If First Love stands as the exteriorization of girlish experiences, Signs taken for Wonders, the largest work in the exhibition, is the artist’s exploration of fantasy in the production of human destiny. The horizon is dominated by an applique batik of a “wool plant”, a daydream about the exotic cotton bush seen by a foreign traveller centuries ago. At the ends are a papaya and a banana tree, compelling as any biblical tree of knowledge, and in the background is an ocean, on which racketeers, wanderers and proselytizers transport their hopes, which here appears to ferry forward pieces of another country. The two humans are a European who points his hunting rifle at a shepherd and a cowering, but rather generic native, taken from some books made in a western elsewhere. The entire scene, except for the imagined and real flora, is compressed to the bottom creating a kind of pressure cooker of meaning against the larger, turmeric yellow sky.

It seems that Lavanya Mani has taken up the task of arraying and encountering the things that have engaged her passions - textiles, autobiography and history - through her art, with an earnestness that even Jane Austen’s heroines would readily admire. The evocation of European modernist literature is deliberate; in Lavanya’s work, there is a kind of celebration of the novice who desires to become vulnerable and receptive to the world. Any incipient critique in her work does not function to pepper human experience with cynicism; instead, it is part of an embryonic Künstlerroman, a fictional narrative which documents an artist’s journey to maturity. This melange of descriptions, ideas and techniques provides insight into the real and admirable struggle that every act of artistic creation must initiate, i.e. the search for a personal language and a visual vocabulary that allows expression of individual thought and emotion while communicating with others.

Delving into three aspects of her work: the exploration of textile techniques, middle-class femininity and inherited knowledge, experience and objects, supply this reading with great texture and weight.

Textile Techniques

The most obvious and tangible mark of Lavanya’s individual artistry is her use of the kalamkari technique. Kalamkari, like Shahrazad, has been garnering widespread attention for centuries and stays alive, in spite of impending peril, by its capacity to tell new stories. Like any young artist drawn to a technique that has a larger identity and history than her own, she too has to grapple with two central issues which are perhaps best articulated through the following questions. How might an artist, like Lavanya, wrest tradition from the past, learn from its current bearers without misappropriating it or them? If she succeeds on this count, how does she carve out a space in the contemporary art world without becoming over-identified with and hence engulfed by that tradition? How can she confidently own her decision without dissimulating about her desire?

Kalamkari technique is well documented though difficult to master. Cotton cloth is literally fattened and tinted with a concoction of buffalo milk and myrobalam, a fruit high in tannin; the fat keeps the drawing precise while the myrobalam reacts with the ink made of iron rust and palm jaggery to produce a satisfying black. Then using a kalam or bamboo pen, the artist draws the images. Other colours are introduced according to the preference of the artist or the client; these are done through the use of mordants, a technology till recently unique to India, which when boiled and washed (once for each layer of colour), react with various dyes and produce fast colours. Essential resources include natural herbs, fruits and minerals, rivers in which to wash the large expanses of fabric and a dry, hot climate.

Lavanya has learned kalamkari, but in an unconventional way. She sought out friends, workshops and kalamkars to teach her about the processes and materials. She travelled to Andhra and Gujarat, the two main production centres, and acquired the skills. Gaining access to knowledge was at times challenging as she does not come from a hereditary artisanal community. But a commitment to the art led her to engage with these difficulties and develop a hybrid technique. Lavanya has taken elements from various traditions, especially in the use of mordants, to develop a wider palette and a painterly approach. Kalamkari lines are very graphic; narratives based on epics or puranas are usually constructed in multiple registers, with one central image and a frame. Kalamkari made for Islamic clientele in India and elsewhere followed some of these strategies but also introduce new motifs with an emphasis on pattern and empty space. Lavanya’s The Scarlet Letter, for example, is based on wall hangings or curtains made for the European market where a palampore tree is placed in the centre, its roots anchored in the mound at the bottom. Here the tree is replaced by a dress, with the logo of the East India Company, stitched where the adulteress in the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel bore an “A”. Choices such as these break the conventions of canonical kalamkari even as she relies on them to enact her thoughts.

Women and Domestic Craft

In this body of work, kalamkari functions in a double-register: as patriarchy and as a space for articulating femininity - to present ideas about womanhood. In art history, kalamkari is represented as men’s art, though we know of many women who practice it along with their fathers and husbands. Practitioners often mystify their knowledge, ensconcing it in well-established familial and caste-networks, protecting information to ensure continuity of livelihood. Today, middle class, urban women learn kalamkari in three contexts: at design schools such as the National Institute for Design, in heritage organizations such as the textile wing of Kalakshetra and in hobby schools and home science programs. The discipline of art history, the division of labour between craft, art andhobby and the structure of the market ensure that women most strongly enter the field of kalamkari as designers and consumers. Lavanya’s work suggests a less linear trajectory - she comes to her love of textile art in part through the hobby tradition of domestic craft-making that developed into a professional engagement through academic pedagogy and which translated into artistic obsession as she brought her knowledge into dialogue and confrontation with her formation as a woman, as an artist and as a student of history.

Kalamkari stands for all the patriarchies she wishes to confront, not necessarily to overthrow, but to instrumentalize for her purposes. Red Labyrinth (Ariadne’s Thread) and Keep within the Compass substantiate this. The first is a large piece in brilliant colours. A thick, red thread engages four sets of women’s hands, rendered as Victorian illustrations. As it winds through their fingers, a kind of labyrinth is formed, occupying, entangling and binding them. In the island-like spaces within float the tools of craft making, an anchor the only reminder of worldly trade. Without over-narrativizing the visual content of the work, it is possible to say that it stands as a container for an ancient mytheme, perhaps a way of thinking about art-making, history and femininity, where domestic handiwork is a source of pain and pleasure, of affiliation and alienation. The second work presents dual images of wealthy Victorian women sewing and reading below a compass which draws the boundaries of gender, within which a spider weaves a web. Sewing and reading were two approved pastimes for upper and middle class women, though the latter was also highly contested. Valued for its potential to strength society’s firmament, many were also afraid reading would lead women to think or seek pleasure too much.

That such images would cast their shadows on a woman artist working in early twenty-first century India suggests that we are not so far apart in time and space. Young women in India live with competing codes of gender. Contradictions abound as they are exhorted to be good daughters and wives, obedient and managerial, as they deal with domestic relations and finance and the moral well being of the family. They must also want fashionable homes and work as ambitious professionals who enrich their family kitty. Lavanya presents this claustrophobic situation, defined by a well-consolidated gender system, without offering resolution or a way out. This is appropriate since women today seek the advantages that education, domesticity and work afford but are also quickly ensnared by them. These works suggest that a middle-class femininity, which politicizes and questions its privileges, has not yet emerged.

Inherited Knowledge

In Praise of Folly also raises questions about the status and use of inherited knowledge by those who hold it as well as those who are fascinated by it.

Kalamkari flourished in temple towns and in Islamic courts and shared much with regional painting traditions. It has always had a unique yet mutable visuality because it was made also for export to other Asian and African markets. Manufacturers were Indian and traders were largely Arabs, who conveyed these textiles to many corners of the globe, where they became prized possessions. Early colonial accounts bemoan Europe’s lack of natural and cultural resources and the dependence of India to satiate the huge demand for these brilliant fabrics. To profit from fashion, Europeans first ousted Arab control, set up large workshops, aided no doubt by native compradors, instituted a new aesthetic and extracted labour with violence. Eventually, the British made the cruellest intervention; they produce machine-made chintzes in England to diminish kalamkari and its makers in India.

During the nationalist movement, Gandhi offered swadeshi as an economic and moral philosophy and people began to politicize their consumerism. The Singer sewing machine was the only foreign technology he accepted because it was so helpful to women, a fact that gains centrality in The Emperor’s New Machine, where Lavanya features a proud, anthropomorphized sewing machine on a vaudeville stage. Gandhi’s followers literally wove their Indianness and saw home-made craft as capable of overthrowing economic and political oppression. After Independence, a whole slew of institution builders began turning swadeshi philosophy into development policy. Kalamkari, like other textile arts, was rescued and made to perform the traditional, it also became a sustainable source of livelihood, marketed in government emporia as attractive products for well-heeled urban women. In one of the many ironies we live with, most such art forms survive today because the Indian woman consumer, like her counterparts earlier in industrializing France, values her identity as a connoisseur of craft. She has engendered a recalibration of how late-industrial, globalized capital reckons with her specific desire for local products.

Lavanya’s art acknowledges and works with this fascination, which she shares with many, and provides us an opportunity to contemplate the past and the present. Her images seem to comment on another age - they appear as a record of “signs taken for wonders”. But on longer perusal, they strike a more ambiguous note. From being an examination of the foreigner who finds the Indian exotic or the native spellbound by the European, the works become a site for reflecting on our contemporary. In a roundabout way, they highlight the current, seemingly insatiable desire for domesticating colonial heritage as well as our collective narcissistic drive to recover and consume native tradition, through autobiography and in the form of craft, even as we rush headlong into a brave, new world.

From the exhibition catalogue published by Gallery Chemould (2009).

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