Apr - May, 2017
Renuka first came to visit me at the V&A in 2012. She had written to say she was exploring traditional chintz techniques and asked if she could show me some of her work, which she had based partly on the illustrations in my book 'Chintz: Indian textiles for the West.' I was of course intrigued (and delighted that my book was proving useful) and agreed to meet her. Renuka appeared in my office bearing a portfolio and a large roll of fabrics which she proceeded to unfurl on a table. I was amazed at what she showed me.
Over the years, I had seen plenty of so-called 'tree of life' patterns based on 18th-century Indian export chintzes. Many had been expertly drawn, but all were less expertly dyed. What set Renuka's pieces apart was not only her fine drawing and her brilliant use of traditional mordants and dyes but, even more significantly, her revival of the technique of fine white resist. This may seem like a minor technical detail, but these sinuous, hand-drawn lines of wax-resist had enabled the early chintz-makers to produce the spiralling and scrolling patterns in white against a coloured ground that made their chintzes so unique. No other contemporary kalamkari artist has mastered this art, and most have not even attempted it, preferring to imitate these beautiful designs by simply drawing them directly onto the cloth, usually in black. Renuka's were the first attempts I had seen to revive this painstaking and laborious resist technique.
Renuka kept in touch, and in 2016 she very kindly allowed me to bring a group of American textile enthusiasts to visit her studio on the outskirts of Bangalore. As this visit was the sole reason we had included Bangalore on our itinerary, I was anxious that it should be worth the trip. I need not have worried. Renuka had laid out all the mordants, dyes and resists she was experimenting with (while not giving away all her secrets) as well as fabrics in different stages of the chintz process. She talked through the many processes involved to our enthralled group and even resist-dyed a test piece while we there, making us feel a privileged part of the exciting process of experimentation and discovery that Renuka is making every day. As it turned out, that particular resist was not quite strong enough to fend off the indigo dye, which seeped through it, so the experiments continued...
The pieces Renuka is making today are stunning in their workmanship and beauty. I am delighted to have been a witness to her progress and to have seen at first hand the incredible dedication with which she researches and experiments, continually searching for the perfect combination of cloth, milk, mordants, dyes and resists that will equal those of her historic predecessors in this mysterious art.
- Rosemary Crill
[Former Senior Curator – South & South East Asian textiles and dress, Middle Eastern carpets, textiles and dress, South Asian Painting, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK]
I paint with a kalam, in stillness, yet creating motion, a dance of the undulating trees with a thousand little details. Forever in the present, yet I travel in time, paying tribute to the many unknown artisans, their heritage resonating within me.
Chintz originated as a hand painted, mordant and resist-dyed patterned cotton cloth from India. A prized trade cloth for centuries, it had a profound impact on many textile practices around the world, from calico printing in the West to Javanese Batiks in the East in the 17th and 18th centuries.
It was so popular at one time that Western countries banned its import in fear of economic instability in their local textile trades. Besides causing a revolutionary change in taste and fashion, it is the epitome of artistic and design exchange across cultures and continents. That from an era of such basic existence came a sophistication and technical excellence unmatched to date is astonishing.
Magnificent, these textiles are, and perhaps, even more captivating are the techniques and processes used to make these textiles. Techniques that evolved for thousands of years produced the most brilliant, fast and myriad of colors using natural dyes and materials. It's magical. It's chemistry but magical and mysterious nevertheless.
That someone figured out dung and sunlight can bleach the cloth pristine white yet leave all the dyed areas untouched and bright. That someone figured out how to draw wax lines finer than can be drawn with a pen. It's genius. It was empirical knowledge, not theoretical, but genius nevertheless.
This complex craft has morphed into a simplified version today, synthetic dyes replaced natural dyes and the fine wax resist technique lost and forgotten.
Inspired by the beauty and workmanship of historic chintzes and compelled by the unknown, I ask "is it possible to produce 18th century quality chintz today?" As I rub the buffalo milk and myrobalan into the cloth, as I gently coax the color out of madder, as I paint a wax line willing it to be finer and finer, even as I become a familiar sight to a certain flock of sheep greeting me every evening with their baaa, I am seeking. I am seeking to unlock the secrets of this mysterious art.
- Renuka Reddy