How Sanskrit ‘chitra’ became ‘chhint’ in Hindi — a cotton spotted or printed fabric — over the years, and how it became the prized ‘chintz’ for Europeans in the 17th century is a story that formed the bedrock of the fabled textile trade of India.
The rise of Chintz or Kalamkari — the hand painted cotton fabric — as the trendy material favored by the fashionable European society was the result of excellent weaving and block printing skills of Indian craftsmen, whereas the fall in its trade was the result of protectionism employed by European powers to protect their own fledgling industry from the immense popularity of imported chintz from India.
Indians, at least, continue to wear modern-day versions of Chintz without many of them even realizing the legacy that the fabric carries. Otherwise, it’s only a beautiful chapter in textile history.
Renuka Reddy, who worked in the automotive sector in the US, chanced upon a book on Kalamkari or Chintz at the V&A, London, six years back and was totally mesmerized by the color plates described in it. She was anyway contemplating relocating to India at that time and seemed to have found her purpose.
“The first thing I did upon relocating to India was to go in the search of craftsmen in Srikalahasti (in Andhra Pradesh) who knew the techniques that were practised in the 17th century. Unfortunately, all those techniques are now totally lost. No crafts person knows the original techniques with which the painted fabric was created,” says Reddy, while speaking to Blouin Artinfo on the occasion of her ongoing exhibition in Delhi, “The Art of Hand Painted Chintz,” at Gallery Art Motif. “Most of the stuff being produced today does not use vegetable dyes and certainly not any of the techniques employed long ago,” she adds.
Reddy was not to be thrown off the trail of original Kalamkari or Chintz. The dead end only strengthened her resolve to dig deeper. She felt that the potential for rediscovery existed and she wanted to chase it.
“There are some historical accounts by Europeans. However, those are not an insider’s view but an observer’s view. Therefore, they give only a sketchy description of the processes,” shares Bangalore-based Reddy. However, following all these resources, and experimenting with the knowledge that she has gathered, Reddy has managed to recreate a few of the processes that make all the difference between an original Kalamkari/ Chintz piece and the one produced almost in a factory-like manner today.
“There are challenges such as the raw material having undergone a change. The material called chay (root of a herb) that yielded the red dye is no longer cultivated. Madder is used instead,” she shares. The bigger problem is that even when natural dyes such as madder and indigo are available, many craftsmen are using synthetic, pigment dyes.
Even bigger challenge is the treatment of cloth that itself has undergone unrecorded changes. An example is the creation of fine, white lines on the fabric, the technique for which is not employed by most artisans today.
“The treatment of cloth before it can be painted upon is a very important part of the creation of a distinct Kalamkari/ Chintz fabric. However, those processes too are lost largely. After a lot of research into the subject, I’m paying attention to this aspect and it, indeed, is a tedious job. It involves treating the fabric with buffalo milk, sheep dung and other interesting products,” she shares.
The exhibition also displays detailed images of the processes that Reddy follows in preparing a near-authentic Chintz piece of fabric.
The back-breaking work that Reddy is undertaking is a lonely journey, with more dead ends than roads ahead. Museums, books, living artisans — all add to her knowledge yet there is so much more that she thinks lies hidden from modern day awareness. “My work is self-funded. When I started this journey, it was for pure joy of discovery. I didn’t have any agenda in mind. That’s why I have even refrained from joining any group of people who may be on the same quest. If there is a group, there is an agenda, and there is pressure. I want to stay away from all of that,” says Reddy.
The pieces on display at Gallery Art Motif are a testament to Reddy’s handwork and a single-minded pursuit to bring back to life the details of a rich, economically powerful part of luxurious Indian textiles.
— The exhibition is on view at Gallery Art Motif, A1-178, Safdarjung Enclave, Fourth Floor, New Delhi - 110029, through May 6. For details, visit www.galleryartmotif.com
Click on the slideshow for a peek at the making of a chintz piece of fabric, at various stages of preparation.