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Best identified by its quintessential large floral motifs in bright hues printed on a light coloured background, the 18th century textile tradition of Chintz did not survive the test of time. To rediscover the art form that inspired small block- printed Calico patterns in the United Kingdom and 'batik tulis' in Indonesia, textile revivalist Renuka Reddy has been stalking buffaloes and sheep herds for the last six years. For Reddy, it was the joy of rediscovering the "mysterious art" that led her to experimenting endlessly with different dyes and wax samples to restore the art form's originality of technique and design. Her extensive research has manifested into an exhibition underway at Gallery Art Motif here which seeks to unlock the secrets of the art form. "Inspired by the beauty and workmanship of the historic chintz and compelled by the unknown, I ask 'is it possible to produce the 18th century quality chintz today?' "As I rub the buffalo milk and myrobalan (a natural dye) into the cloth, as I gently coax the colour out of madder (a red dye obtained from a Eurasian plant), as I paint a wax line willing it to be finer, even as I become a familiar sight to a certain herd of sheep. I am seeking to unlock the secrets of this mysterious art," Reddy said. Originating in India as a hand-painted, mordant and resist-dyed cotton cloth, Chintz remained one of the most traded items for centuries. While the designs were believed to be mostly European, the patterns were said to be derived from styles of Indian origin and often reflected elements of Mughal and other Islamic art, including arabesque forms as well as the Safavid art of Persia. At one point of time, it became so popular that Western countries banned its import from India, lest it affect local textile businesses. "The potential of Chintz was not fully realised in the European market until the mid-17th century, before which it was used only for barter. "In 1662, original designs were sent to India from England to make Chintz. This trend became so popular that it alarmed local manufacturers, and in 1686, France was the first country to ban its import. Later England followed suit in 1700 and in year 1720 they also banned wearing Chintz," Reddy said. Through her adventures with the hand-painted textile, she has found that buffalo milk, among other technique improvisations, is better for the process than that of the proverbial Mother cow. One of the first steps in the long and arduous process of making Chintz on a hand-woven cotton cloth involves treating the fabric with buffalo milk and myrobalan. After several experiments with different milk samples, Reddy found that higher fat content was ideal for the Chintz process. "The buffalo milk has high fat content so when it is applied to the cloth, it makes it possible to paint mordant and dyes without spreading. I have tried cow's milk, but it did not work for me. "I live in Bangalore, there are many cows around but very few buffaloes. I have become a buffalo stalker and I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to see a buffalo around my house. Without buffalo milk I can't start work," Reddy, whose work has found a permanent place at Fries Museum in Netherlands, said. Bleaching the cloth with sheep dung is another curious step in the process, which is also used by Kalamkari craftsmen, to remove the dye in the background caused by the myrobalan treatment. "Using dung to bleach is an age-old practice not just in India, but around the world.
I have to tell you that apart from the buffalo milk I am also obsessed with dung. "At first it was a bit difficult for me to work with dung. I tried cow, goat and sheep dung. Cow dung was a bit too messy for me and goat dung was just too hard. So sheep dung worked for me as it is not too soft or hard. And once soaked, it is easier to turn into a paste," Reddy said. However, one crucial step that continues to elude Reddy is the resist application using wax. "Very quintessential to the historic Chintz pieces are the very fine white lines of resist. And without these white lines the design would look very different. Resist applied on the cloth acts as a barrier so that the dye doesn't penetrate into the covered areas, leaving white lines," she said. Having travelled to Java to study 'batik tulis', where the wax resist work continues to be practiced even today, Reddy discovered the technique has undergone a transformation and contemporary work has "thicker lines". "I have experimented with several wax samples and wax applicators but I have found that wax solidifies too quickly. I am still trying to figure out a way so the wax is molten enough to penetrate the cloth without solidifying too fast," Reddy said. The exhibition is set to continue till May 6.
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