29 January 2018

Bapu: The Craftsperson’s Vision

On the seventieth anniversary of the tragic death of Mahatma Gandhi, United Nations Academic Impact presents a look at the textile handicrafts of India set forth in the exhibition “Bapu: The Craftsperson’s Vision”, inasmuch as the exhibition helped share the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals. The author, Sunaina Suneja, is a New Delhi designer who focuses on the textile handicrafts of India, in particular the handspun, handwoven fabric Khadi.

30 January 2018 – My extensive work with the textile artisans of India led to the exhibition, launched in 2016, “Bapu: The Craftsperson’s Vision”, which, in turn, proved to be an innovative way to revisit traditional crafts, indeed, towards persuading craftspersons to use their art as a medium to depict Mahatma Gandhi and facets of his life and vision.

I selected different craft forms: embroideries done by women in different parts of India; kantha from Bengal, Phulkari from Punjab, Chikankari from Uttar Pradesh; painting on paper, cloth and leaves, from Orissa, Gujarat, Bengal, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh; and appliqué work, tie and dye, and block printing and indigo dye as well. Wherever possible, khadi—India’s handspun, handwoven fabric, advocated by Mahatma Gandhi—was used as the canvas.

Featured works created by the artisans showed Mahatma Gandhi with the flag of independent India; his iconic symbols: the walking stick, the eye glasses, the charkha (spinning wheel); an ashram; and the indigo revolution. Large format tribal paintings on canvas: warli from Maharashtra—traditionally used for decorating the external walls of mud huts—narrated the different stages of Gandhiji’s political life. Puppeteers performed with their puppets and scroll painters from Bengal unfolded their work recounting the life of Mahatma Gandhi through song. The works were deeply rooted in the rural ethos of the respective craftspersons. A spinning wheel was also on display.

Students of the “Gandhian Club”: Galgotias University, which organized activities centered on Gandhian values on the University campus through the academic year, included a visit to the exhibition as a part of their activities. Together we discussed the significance of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quotation: “Be the change you want to see in the world” and how they could apply it not only to their University studies, but most of all and fittingly in their own lives.

The students were also inspired by the variety of crafts on display and determined to reach out to craftspersons to encourage them to preserve this aspect of India’s heritage. The students recognized the economic opportunities that these crafts provided to those who practiced them, along with the importance of the self-sufficient village that Mahatma Gandhi had envisioned. By trying their hand at the spinning wheel, they became aware of the labour-intensive process of producing handmade yarn, and vowed to wear khadi to mark special occasions, both personal and national.

Younger students, aged 10-12, from Tagore International School, Delhi, having studied the life of Mahatma Gandhi, were familiar with the events depicted in some craftworks. An informal question-and-answer session initiated by their teachers on different manifestations of violence fostered their understanding of the importance of non-violence for achieving peace. A spinning demonstration made many of the youngsters themselves keen to start wearing khadi. The more artistically inclined among them were eager to create their own works of Mahatma Gandhi based on what they had learned at the exhibition.

The exhibition later travelled to the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, as a part of the Festival of India in Australia. Students of the Fashion Design Department were enthralled by the textile crafts on display and fascinated by the different qualities of the eco-friendly khadi fabric. It was their first exposure to such handspun, handwoven fabric and its history. After viewing the exhibition and hearing the message of Mahatma Gandh—as a visionary who, in his time, understood and advocated sustainability—they came to appreciate khadi as the “fabric of peace”. These budding fashion designers were also hopeful of future possibilities to explore the handmade textile crafts of India.