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Geetanjali Krishna: Thinking out of the pattern

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Often, when we talk about folk artists and craftspeople, we say admiringly that they were born with the skill in their fingers, that craft has mysteriously somehow seeped into them through the very air they breathe. Implicit in such ideas is the sense that for the perpetuation of our folk crafts, the children of a weaver or a potter or an ironsmith must practice the family craft. Khatri Hanif Abdul Majid, a practitioner of tie and dye or from Bhuj, opened a whole new line of thinking for me when I saw his work.

Hanif is the first person in his family (agents of Bandhani textiles) to practice the traditional craft of Bandhani. “From the time I was young, I used to be fascinated by Bandhani. In Gujarat, every family traditionally gets cloth tie-and-dyed by local craftsmen. I used to watch them and dream of beautiful patterns that I too would make…” he said. Eventually, he convinced his father to send him to Kalaraksha, the Bhuj-based institution of design for traditional artisans. At (the word means “protection of the arts”) Hanif learnt the art and skill of Bandhani alongside others whose families had long engaged in the craft. But the difference between him and them soon became apparent.

“I’ve never felt bound by traditional motifs and patterns,” he said, “for I haven’t had a family tradition to follow.” Whilst in Kalaraksha, he became fascinated by the Japanese technique of Shibori. “It is similar to tie and dye, but instead of tying threads to create patterns, the Japanese loosely stitch textiles before dyeing them. Thus, Shibori creates ripples of colour that I love,” Hanif began combining techniques like block printing, marble printing and Shibori with Bandhani with fair success. He also experimented with colours, going beyond the handful of shades traditionally used. “I tried using several colours to create a single Bandhani motif, which involves repeatedly dipping the tied fabric into vats of different colours,” he said. Most interestingly, Hanif created motifs never seen before in traditional tie and dye. “In Kalaraksha, we were once asked to make designs that reflected the spirit of festivals. To me, festivals denoted crowds and village fairs. So I used Bandhani to denote people holding balloons in colourful revelry,” he said. Similarly, when he was recently in the capital for an art residency organised by Delhi-based NGO Happy Hands Foundation, he conceived a design inspired by the Garden of Five Senses.

“Hanif is amazingly creative,” said Medhavi Gandhi of Happy Hands, “I never thought I’d see so many utterly original stories told through the age-old craft of Bandhani.” Hanif’s innovativeness didn’t go unnoticed at Kalaraksha either, where he was named the most promising designer of his batch. Today, Hanif spends his days manning the shop he started at 19, executing orders and planning for exhibitions. It’s a lot for one man to do alone, but Hanif is driven by the sheer passion for his craft. “To me, the best moment is when I stretch the fabric so that all the tied motifs unfurl into a sea of beautiful designs and patterns the world’s never seen before,” he said.

Hanif’s story and works made me wonder whether he was able to innovate because he was unencumbered by family tradition. Can the passing down of skills across generations actually hamper creativity and innovation? There are no good answers to these questions, but they’re worth thinking about.

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