As part of a series on textile murals, Abir Pothi conducted an email interview with acclaimed artist Shelly Jyoti and gained many insights into the world of textile art as well as her practice. Below are the in-depth answers that we got in response to our questions.
What draws you to textiles in particular?
My exposure to studying fashion and clothing technology at NIFT strengthened my concepts of textiles. I ran my own design label for 10 years marking many seasonal collections for leading retail stores in India incorporating pure gold zardozi embroidery in my classic couture collections. I must qualify that my interest in textiles and fashions stems from a very talented mother. As a child she “dolled” me up in her self-crafted designs and as a teenager I could play around with fabrics creating my own dresses even though I did not have a knowledge of pattern making. I watched my first fashion show at age 9 at a launch of Orkay Mills at Oberoi Hotels in 1966-7. I reminisce about attending some marvellous exhibits of Indian textiles at the inauguration events at Vigyan Bhavan post independence 1965. The understanding of the richness of our traditional textiles was a quintessential part of my upbringing. My formal training as a designer, with literature and fine-art academic background informs my art practice.
Are there any fabrics that are your preferred medium? Why?
I use khadi as a canvas with Ajrakh printing/ and natural dyes both as a symbol of my country and as a material that expresses qualities of self-purification, self-reliance and independence. As an artist my works examines Gandhi’s message to humanity, struggle of India’s independence, engagement with craft communities, exploration with Ajrakh textile tradition, celebrating the subaltern and reasons to empower individuals. For all of the reasons above, my preferred medium is hand-spun and hand-woven fabric khadi, which explores how textiles as material objects, which have a lineage of India’s freedom struggle, can be used to stitch together communities as well as convey and capture a sense of national pride and ethos.
Can you explain to our readers what is a textile mural? I wonder if there are any references from the past to help people understand it better?
A textile mural is a large piece of artwork that is painted, printed, woven or embroidered on textile as a pictorial design. It can be hung against a wall, attached directly to a wall surface or hung from the ceiling. It narrates a story or a message, through historical, social, cultural or political narrative. Historically, cotton was held sacred since the Harappan civilization. Preceding the murals, this was the earliest form of protective covering used as storytelling which is found in Buddhist practice. It also has continuous significance as mandapa or the canopy used in various rites of passage as well as canopies over deities in temples. Canopy is a reference to the ceiling wall murals.
Tell us about some of the textile murals you have made and the concepts behind them?
‘Imagined communities’ comprises 8 large textile panels as murals( 240×72 inches each) narrating the story of ‘collective fish’ as collective consciousness. These works have been subconsciously inspired by Monet’s ‘ water lilies’ murals based on their scale, magnitude , illusion of water and more! These works were created in 2019 when the India international centre in New Delhi invited me to exhibit my work in the ‘Swaraj and Collectiveness’ exhibition. The gallery space has a beautiful oval dome at the ceiling and that huge space inspired me to create large scroll murals that resembled an indigo dyed aquarium with ajrakh fish swimming around 80 feet of printed textiles around the gallery. Arranged vertically and horizontally, they had a three-dimensional sensation. These murals travelled to Mumbai for an exhibit at Jehangir art Gallery. They were well received by visitors and written about positively in newspapers and media. What I am offering in these works is not only Gandhi’s philosophies and the art of Ajrakh but reconceptualising Ajrakh traditions in contemporary art and craft textile art.
What is the role of the craftsmen in this process? How do you collaborate and incorporate the craft of weaving /making textile with your contemporary compilations?
I have been working in the studio of craftsman Juned Mohmad Khatri, son of Master Craftsman Ismail Mohmad khatri in Bhuj Gujarat for more than a decade. The technique of stamping of blocks and washing and drying is the direct contribution of my artisans. Before I leave for Bhuj I envision the concept, and create the initial images on paper in a pictorial format (on imperial sized sheets of paper) which includes details of pattern blocks, colour combinations, and iconography. On arriving in Bhuj, I am assigned two artisans by Juned Mohmad Khatri. I speak to them about my concept and gradually I take the work forward for stamping based on my pictorial design pattern. The process evolves as the stamping process goes on. There is a palpable sense of exploration, experimentation and joyfulness among all of us through the entire process. During my exhibitions, I invite craftsmen to view the works in the gallery space. Juned has been invited to hold workshops and lectures for whoever is interested in learning about the craft and art. This has always been part of outreach programs during my exhibitions. Overall, it has been a very interesting collaboration and sharing of knowledge and skills. Juned’s consistent input is important for me. I narrate my concept to the artisans and allow them to bring their own invention and creativity to my project. This type of art creation with textiles has never been done by these artisans and they are quite interested to learn from my concepts as I learn from their expertise. My designs are entirely contemporary interpretations of the politics of indigo, salt, khadi movements of Gandhi, the meaning of swaraj of India’s freedom struggle in relevance to 21st century.
Textile murals are fairly new in India. How is the response you are getting from the audience?
I am gratified that I have received very positive and enthusiastic responses to my works. Large industrial houses, corporations, museums and art lovers alike seem to value my understanding and interpretation of Gandhian philosophy translated through textiles in the Ajrakh technique. (Which is known historically for the use of natural dyes and I think is safe to say is among the finest examples of reverse block printing in the world) Textile murals are not new, it is an age old tradition in India. Historically murals date from around Indus valley civilization. In contemporary times, a few textile artists and designers are creating textile murals commercially as well.
What is the market that buys this art? How are the market conditions? What is the market share of textile art in the visual arts space? Are buyers in India positive about textile art installations?
These are unprecedented times due to Covid, the market conditions are bad not only for the economy at large, but also for soft creative industries like arts, crafts and design. During the pandemic many people have faced challenges with their finances and therefore investment in art necessarily takes a back seat. Physical viewing, the “touch and feel” of an artwork and direct interaction with the artist has been severely affected during the pandemic and is important for any serious transaction. I’m confident that the art market will bounce back again in the near term. The textile art market has always been a small segment of the overall art market. Regarding my own works, in the words of Ismail Mohamad Khatri ‘ Shelly’s art speaks”. The craftsmen also are keen to know what my next projects are. I love to share my thoughts on Gandhi with them and they enjoy to listening to my ideas. It’s a unique amalgamation of art and craft. Many people are not able to comprehend the thought process between creative and functional textiles such as a unique piece of art on khadi utilizing old textile techniques of reverse block printing with natural dyes. I introduced these works more than a decade ago and I feel that my work is steadily gaining greater recognition and appreciation.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of textile as a medium of expression in art?
The creative process is quite personal and based on each artist’s motivations, skills and resources. I feel it would be unfair to categorize any expression of art as having an advantage or disadvantage.
What are the most exciting projects you have done so far? Why are these special to you?
The content of my work is building moral and peaceful societies through the idea of self-realization. The hypothesis is based on Gandhi’s ideas of Svadharma, Sarvodaya, Svadeshi, Svaraj on exhibitions titled ‘Indigo Narratives (2009); Salt: The Great March (2013) The Khadi March: Just Five Meters (2016); Bound by Duty: An Idea of Swaraj and Collectiveness (2018)
These exhibitions feature art scrolls, site specific installations, poetries, narrating Gandhi’s experiments that he succeeded in with reference to his first champaran movement 1917-18, Salt March movement 1934 , his idea of khadi and swaraj as community/nation building connecting past with the present. These works created in last decade were exhibited as Retro/introspective works on title ‘Revisiting Gandhi: The Art of Shelly Jyoti 2009-18 by Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, New Delhi in October 2018
These exhibitions have been special to me because I revere the philosophy and work done by Gandhi, the father of our nation. I also appreciate the way Gandhi has brought great segments of the population with him on concepts that I have been inspired the most i.e. svadharma, sarvodaya, swadeshi and swaraj. For me these are great memories to cherish. The underlying ideas of Gandhi remain similar, but the iconography changes according to each of my exhibitions.
It’s been a fascinating journey!