Searching for a visual language, Neha Puri Dhir experiments with geometry and the abstract

Home » Searching for a visual language, Neha Puri Dhir experiments with geometry and the abstract
Yellow Water

Neha’s first brush with the world of textiles was when she was drawn to her mother’s collection of sarees. In this article, the fifth of a series on textile art, we talk to the prolific artist about her journey so far.

When she joined the National Institute of Design in 2002, during the foundation year, she was given elementary exposure to the main disciplines offered by NID through various workshops. Those were short courses just enough to build students’ sensibilities, but Neha still remembers how she instinctively enjoyed working with the softer materials than working with metal or wood. The turning point materialized with the three-week Environment Perception Course wherein the students were taken to a visit to Paithan, where the famous Maharashtrian Paithani sarees are woven. “I was fascinated upon speaking with the weavers. I really liked looking at not just the product they were making but looking at the history of the craft. Craft is part of their life and life is craft. It was not like a 9 to 5 job. It was fascinating to see how their craft was not a stand-alone activity. Their lives and craft worked parallelly being integral to each other,” Neha recalls. 

Post-dyeing stage

As part of this course, Neha also undertook research in the Jamalpur neighbourhood in Ahmedabad. “The Sardar Patel Bridge connects the old city to NID. Where the bridge ends, there is a flower market and just opposite is a crematorium. I would start my day around 4:30 in the morning because the market starts very early. I also happened to visit the crematorium nearby many times and talked with the undertaker and his daughter Yashomati whose mother was no more and ironically was cremated at that very ground. Yashomati missed her mother and always carried her odhani as her security blanket. I was disturbed to witness this dichotomy of life.  At that time I realized how textile is the first and the last thing that touches the human skin. It is not just what you feel in your hands rather what you feel in your heart. It is an emotion for me,” Neha narrates how she was increasingly enthralled by the world of textiles. Time and again, textiles proved to be the leitmotif that enabled better understanding of history and cultures.

Yellow Water

The turning point in her journey materialized in the second year of NID where she undertook a two-week workshop with Yoshiko Wada and Jack Lenor Larsen. Interestingly, the  entire textile department was participating in it. Neha was trying clamp resist technique when Jack noticed and asked her what got her interested in the process. When she replied that the geometric patterns and the unpredictable results appealed to her, he proposed a challenge and asked her if she was up to replicating the entire process on a much larger scale deriving from Itajime, a Japanese clamp resist dyeing technique. Neha accepted the challenge and as a result, the project magnified, in terms of the size of the fabric, clamps, and effort, but the result was admirable. That experience, and encouragement from Jack, always remained with Neha as an inspiration. 

Aurora 95X122cms

Always the one to experiment and indulge in constant learning, she took on numerous self-initiated assignments. “NID had enough workload but many times I took on self-initiated projects. Once, on a train journey, I saw a beggar wearing a warped shirt with just one set of threads shown in patches. I wanted to replicate that look and managed to get it after much exploration, through a technique called Devore’ wherein you burn out a particular type of natural fibre using a chemical process. By the third year I had done many such projects and my batchmates used to call me Devore’ Queen. In my final year, I participated in the International Shibori Symposium and worked with clamp resist using a triangular wooden clamp on the warp. The effect was like ikat. In ikat warp/weft threads are tied, here I clamp-resisted the warp keeping a perforated foam sheet to provide a base to warp threads,” Neha shares. 

Thoughts

As her course drew to an end, Neha had gained the clarity that geometry was the visual language of her work. For her graduation project, Seen Unseen, she worked with Himatsingka Seide Limited (HSL) in Bangalore in 2016. HSL is a design-led organisation and has been a trendsetter in its field of high-end silk jacquard furnishing fabrics. “I always wished to work with such a company as they gave great weightage to concept, design and did justice to the design process despite being in an industrial set up with unsparing competition around.” 

“On the personal front, it was a tough time as I had lost my mother some months before joining HSL. Amidst the highs and lows at that time, a rare variant of Banyan tree, Krishna Butter Cup, in HSL gardens became my shelter every time I felt depressed and faced a creative block. I still consider this project to be the most challenging one. The themes I worked on i.e. Mirage, Camouflage, Moire Patterns, were more of complex phenomena in themselves and not suggestive of any visual language. I found geometry to be a simple and greatly effective tool to  represent such concepts. The project resulted in thirty-four high-end silk furnishing fabrics. I also developed a new four-weft weaving construction for the client that was very conceptual and offered possibilities of building an entire collection based on it,” she shares. 

Camouflage

She also studied in Italy and London for her post-graduations. This was actually the time when she was truly exposed to textile art in Europe and the UK. “I would not want to call my work textile murals because it is something done directly on the wall. My works are more like paintings that are framed and hung on the wall,” she shares. 

After a few job stints and serving as guest faculty for numerous colleges, Neha’s career took a turn after she got married and joined her husband, an Air Force Pilot, in Baroda in 2012. She continued teaching in and around the city but the immense exposure and stimulation gained from being in an art hub fuelled her long standing desire to start creating something with fabrics. “I tried working with the fabrics I had collected over a period but they were not exciting for me to create something with. I then remembered that I had done a project with the Jharkhand Government at a village called Bhagaiya, where silk textiles were woven. It was a project given to NID Outreach Cell to make the weavers self-sustainable, especially after the split of Bihar and Jharkhand. The project involved work on a feasibility study, on the idea of establishing an institute and I was serving as a consultant for NID. I still had those contacts and approached a few weavers from Bhagaiya for fabrics. And that is how it all started!” Neha shares. She does not work with power loom woven fabrics because she wants to be connected with weavers. Her fabrics are specifically woven by the finest Indian weavers across various craft clusters in the country and acts as the canvas for the artist’s explorations. 

Shunya at Tucker Robbins NYC

For many years, she has been exploring various techniques of resist dyeing. She is deeply intrigued by the abstract nature of these processes and primarily focuses on stitch-resist within the wide spectrum of resist dyeing.

The process involves intricate stitching, multiple levels of dyeing and discharging and finally unstitching. Once the arduous process is complete, the nuances of stitch resist are seen as subtle perforations and form an integral part of the artwork. For example, the first colour has to be taken out chemically and then the second colour goes on it to get a particular colour and sometimes tackling this process single handedly can become cumbersome. So, at times she takes the help of someone who will help her with stitching.

After around two years of explorations, Neha had enough material ready with her to put together her first show. “I did not know what my work would be called: Art, product, or a garment that can be worn. None of the works could be reproduced exactly. In fact, each step adds complexity making the end result often unpredictable. Nothing is monotonous. In my personal life, even with food, I cannot have the same breakfast every day then how can I make the same product every day”. 

Organically it happened that I stayed in an art hub like Baroda and I went to my in-laws home in Delhi where I used to be very active about catching up on theatre and art. India International Centre and India Habitat Centre were not new places for me but now I started looking at them as possible venues to exhibit my works,” Neha recalls. Mr Rajeev Sethi opened her first show, Amoolya, where she displayed forty-nine works, in August 2014. Very few artworks were squarish rectangles but most were in the dimension of a stole. She purposefully put them on a flat display board with a white background because she wanted to leave it to the viewer on how they wished to visualise the works; be it draped on the body, on the wall, or hanging freely in a space. Many who acquired her works got them framed, some sandwiched them between glasses for a table, and some actually wore them. “My expectations with regards to sales were so low, I had no clue, and I was ready for anything. I remember during the show opening, while Mrs Jaya Jaitley was there, she asked my husband why the media was not there. ‘This show proves to be a trailblazer in the field of Textile Art in our country,’ she said and called up a PR person. The next day onwards I started getting media calls. I sold more than 50% of the works,” Neha shares. 

77circles 140X88cms

In October 2015, Neha had her second solo show, Shūnya at Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre (IHC) and displayed forty-three artworks. In my debut show Amoolya, I primarily focused on the technique of resist dyeing. It was a collection with vibrant colours using the technique. My series of works Shūnya‘, grew further into this technique with a theme of exploration of the void. Almost all the artworks are in monochrome, as the basic colours of black and white (beige in this case that is the natural colour of silk) depict nothingness beautifully. One of my triptychs on display titled ‘Order in Chaos’ portrays the order, which is always present in the chaos of life but is often not perceived. A particular work, Month, depicted twenty-eight stages of the moon in a lunar cycle on a 4ft X 10ft piece. Another one, Zazen, depicts the concept of zen gardens. “While working on this series, I was very peaceful with myself and my surroundings and nothing disturbed me as such. These are artworks that came from internal peace and it shows in the works. The theme of this exhibition has been to explore the uncharted territories of emptiness and depict them using the basic geometric form of circle. 

Zazen 106x110cms

I believe the circle has so many possibilities, it is limitless, and does not hurt the eye. It is so smooth and malleable, submissive, and makes one comfortable. Hence, I gave myself the constraint of using only circles. Legendary artist, Late S H Raza visited the show. That was the most memorable experience for me,” Neha shares. 

Month with S H Raza

 

Shūnya is a large body of work. The works were showcased at Tucker Robbins, New York; World of Threads Festival, Canada; Gallery Art Motif, New Delhi; Browngrotta Arts, Connecticut in later years.

Black Hole at Tucker Robbins NYC
Unseen at Browngrotta Arts

Neha participated in a group show on art garments, Nayaab, hosted by Apparao Galleries in Delhi, 2015. “It was a unique idea that led to a beautiful journey of exploring ancient Japanese textile traditions such as Boro that I embarked upon”.

Melange Wrap

The Boro textiles give a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of the times gone by. In feudal times, poor Japanese households could not afford cotton, how a family would undertake delicate patch repair on the only beautiful garment they possessed is deeply intriguing. Made up of scraps of old clothes over generations, one can trace the timeline of the family along its seams. The concept of sustainability is celebrated in its purest form as nothing is wasted here. It is similar to the way kantha started when old sarees were stitched together to make a soft quilt for the newborn; an aesthetic that emerges out of its need of being totally functional and sustainable. 

Foliage Kimono

Neha, a patron of sustainability, has always believed in reuse at all stages of her art practice. These one-of-a-kind works are inspired by Boro in its fundamental form. “Most of the fabric used here is a composition, consisting of extensions of my Shibori based explorations collected over a period of three years. For the entire series, which comprises 16 garments, I did not buy a single fabric, and even re-used the waste threads. Few works from this collection were exhibited in Canada and Mexico”, she shares.

 

Glide Jacket

Shibori, which has been the underlying principle of textile explorations for the artist till now, has been taken to the next tier by amalgamating it with other traditional forms. Process of fabric construction involved very patient and meticulous planning, conforming to these traditional design philosophies. The interweaving of patchwork fabric mirrors the laborious Sashiko, a Japanese hand stitching technique which infuses this wearable art with benign affability. For the artist, this creative process has imprinted memories of her tryst with textile art, on the surface of the fabrics.

Things started changing for Neha from 2016. There was a huge forest fire in Uttarakhand, and having spent 20 years in Haridwar, her hometown, the impact of damage done to nature started bothering Neha. The memories of her late mother also started manifesting themselves suddenly. “Home is actually mother, I think. And when I lost my mother 15 years back, my association with the idea of home, hometown and childhood absolutely shattered. These range of works now moved away from geometric patterns and towards something more abstract,” Neha shares. Some of the works were titled Forest Fire, Besmirch, Conflict, Inheritance, Dolphin of the Ganges. “I have been honest with my work – when I was peaceful, my work showed it and when I wasn’t, it showed that too.” 

Besmirch
Conflict

 

Another significant exposure was attending an art residency at Mark Rothko Art Center, Daugavpils, Latvia where she worked during the Fall season. “When I reached there, it felt very different from the other European countries I had visited in the past. The soviet influence on the architecture could not be overlooked. Many times, walking through the streets of Daugavpils Fortress, looking at abandoned buildings, hearing local stories, I could not help but think of concentration camps, Jewish ghettos and death camps for soldiers centered around the fortress. I started feeling low, surrounded by the stories of  dark history, pondering what horrors these same walls might once have witnessed. Amidst these feelings, walking on the beds of fallen maple leaves and visiting the Art Center to go through Mark Rothko’s paintings in detail, was like a respite. I would go outside in the cold, click some pictures, and that’s how I started working on the new direction derived from Autumn. I could not find some chemicals for dyeing that I was used to working with in India, hence it required me to think differently with whatever materials were possible. Although, initially it felt like a compromise on my technique a bit, yet for my arts practice it was a great leap and a blessing in disguise.” This stint completely changed the direction of her work. Three of the works produced during the residency are part of the permanent collections at the Mark Rothko Art Center.

During the Latvia residency

Further to this, she has exhibited her work in various solo and group exhibitions in India and around the world such as the USA, Latvia, Canada, Mexico and Australia. Her work forms a part of many celebrated art collections such as Bass collection, USA; MR Architecture+Decor, USA; The TAPI Collection, India and Mark Rothko Art Center, Latvia. Along with extensive work in industry, craft sector and her art practice, design education has always been very close to her heart. She has been associated with various institutions such as NID Ahmedabad, NIFT Gandhinagar, IICD Jaipur, MSU Baroda, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya etc. She has also been the only Indian tutor at Fibre Arts Australia.