Textile artist Shelly Jyoti stitches together contemporary narratives with tales of life under colonial rule.
India’s struggle for freedom inspires Shelly Jyoti with a series echoing the history of rural farmers and Gandhian principles.
Shelly Jyoti uses traditional cloth such as khadi fabric (hand-woven cotton), and Ajrakh printing, dyeing and needlework techniques while referencing historical events to provide authenticity and a “great sense of preservation and documentation” to her installations and series. A visual artist, fashion designer, poet and independent curator, Jyoti seeks to bring attention to those whose sacrifices and resistance shaped the Indian subcontinent, while providing narratives to bridge the gap between today’s “rich and poor, rural and urban”.
Jyoti was born in Rohtak (Haryana) in 1957, ten years after the country won independence from Britain. In 1980, Jyoti earned her MA in English Literature from the Punjab University (Chandigarh, India) and completed a degree in Fashion Design from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (New Delhi, India). Her work is included in select collections worldwide, including TAPI (Textiles and Art of the People of India) in Surat, India and IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts) in New Delhi. Jyoti spends her time between Gurgaon and New Delhi.
Jyoti’s work as an independent curator has brought attention to India’s illustrious textile tradition through “Vastram – the Splendid World of Indian Textiles”, a collection belonging to the Indian Council of Cultural Relations that highlights thirty-seven pieces and one large site-specific installation. To date, the travelling exhibition has touched ground in Cambodia and Oman and in the future will be heading to Ethiopia, Turkey, Fiji and Nepal.
The exhibition provides insight into why Indian textiles and techniques have been prized worldwide for over 5,000 years. As relayed in a 2015 article from the Oman Tribune, writer David Solomon spoke of the role that Jyoti had in bringing together the varied collection of textiles from India and the impact cross-cultural exchanges had upon local materials and traditional techniques:
Picking up threads of history, social customs, ethnography, geography and maritime trade route, she is able to weave a fascinating tapestry of what throws light on the warp and weft of civilisations and cultures; a tapestry that has added its own colours to the diversity and richness of Indian culture, and here in this case, the extraordinary quality of Indian textiles.
Of particular interest to Jyoti and her artwork is India’s occupation and hard-fought independence from the British Empire. The British ruled the Indian subcontinent for over three hundred years, plunging the country and her people into servitude. Two of her series, “Salt: The Great March 2013 – 2015” and “Indigo Narratives 2009 – 2013”, examine the impact that colonialism had on the country and the struggle that took place to win back her freedom.
The earlier of the two series, “Indigo Narratives,” was inspired by a Bengali play called Neel Darpan (A Mirror to Indigo) by Deenbandhu Mitra (1860), in which rural indigo farmers refuse to plant indigo in their fields as a protest against the exploitative practices of the British Raj.
This series of installations and sculptures marked the first time that Jyoti began working with Ajrakh printing, dyeing and needlework. Ajrakh is an ancient technique whose origins can be traced back to the ancient civilisations of the Indus Valley (2500BC to 1500BC). Ajrakh patterns have even been found in pharaoh Tutankhamen’s household. To produce the most authentic textile possible, Jyoti worked with a master craftsman and his sons in Ajrakhpur who have been producing traditional Ajarkh block printing for nine generations. The process is a labour-intensive endeavour, one that requires both patience and expertise, as Jyoti told Art Radar:
The process of creating an Ajrakh is complicated, involving a variety of steps, from pre-soaking the cloth in a mix of camel dung, soda ash and castor oil, to mixing in the dye-resistant pastes made of gum and millet flour, to blending secondary dyes from an array of natural sources such as turmeric for yellow, rhubarb for brown, pomegranate skin for orange, madder root for red and a boiled syrup of scrap iron, chickpea flour and sugar-cane molasses for black. In its pure traditional expression, Ajrakh is rendered with vegetable dyes, following 12 to 16 steps and the process stretches from 20 to 22 days. Ajrakh requires immense skill and patience as by its nature it involves multiple stages of resist printing, printing, dyeing and washing.
Jyoti’s “Salt: The Great March” series followed “Indigo Narratives” and was a nod to Gandhi’s Salt March (1930), in which Gandhi directly challenged government authorities through civil disobedience by walking some 390 kilometres to rebel against the British tax on salt. Like the previous series, the artist used khadi as a “canvas” for her pieces. Khadi is a hand-woven cotton material typically spun at home with a hand-loom. Khadi was one of the cornerstones of Gandhi’s philosophy behind establishing an alternative society, which would lead, as the artist relayed, to the idea of a resolute and unified India:
Khadi is a short form of khaddar, which was historically a thick yarn fabric woven at home on spinning wheels. To fight the British, Gandhiji wished his countrymen to self sustain themselves by boycotting cloth that came from Britain and began in the making of khadi fabric by the action of spinning and weaving. He felt that the idea of spinning, weaving and wearing khadi would bring a sense of belonging and unity to the country that was ruled by the British and in addition, would bring uniformity and economic freedom to the spinners and weavers. He felt that the action of picking, carding, ginning, spinning and weaving would not only empower the poor but they would become soldiers of non-violence along with him to fight against the colonial powers in India.
Threads that tell a story
To add a narrative element to her textiles, Jyoti includes two types of embroidery from eastern India called sujani and nakshi kantha. Nakshi kantha is a tradition from Bengal, where pieces of old saris and cloth are layered together with a “decorative running stitch” to make quilted blankets, throws, bedspreads and a variety of garments. Sujani is from the State of Bihar and often includes intimate, personal stories and social concerns as Jyoti told Art Radar:
Women today stitch their experience, their sorrows and their realities on the sujani, transforming a mundane quilt into a testimony of their lives. Each sujani tells a tale – the trauma of being a woman in a man’s world, domestic violence, female infanticide, effects of alcoholism, gambling and similar issues. Social concerns like the evils of dowries, education of girls, lessons in healthcare and AIDs are also depicted. My idea of incorporating the sujani and nakshi kantha needle craft tradition was to bring a narrative element within my textile works. I was also exploring the idea to enhance the aesthetics of the artwork with stitch and tonal thread embroidery embellishment.
Jyoti deftly brings together aspects of history, literature and design in each piece of her artwork. Some aspects of history may be past, lost in the sands of time. While others, such as Gandhi’s ideas of non-violence, service and cooperation are still relevant. Jyoti says that perhaps these principles could in fact be replicated today to bring about a lasting and meaningful change again to the subcontinent:
It is about my hope for the empowerment of people living in rural India. As every household during pre-independence India was spinning and weaving while envisioning freedom from British rule, I feel that spinning, weaving and wearing khadi in present times has the potential to bring about significant social change. If people living in urban areas started wearing and buying khadi, the demand for khadi would create job opportunities for rural youth and also in turn re-educate and reinforce ideas of peace, nonviolence and nationalistic feelings that have sadly been lost in the 21st century.
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