Priya’s mixed media evolves from a response to the fiber of life, which emerges from nature, from the stem of a plant, from the bark of the tree, from the nest of the birds, from the cocoon, which gives birth to the moth. From a carefree life when she created woven fabrics in the tapestry technique, she moved on to study the art of the Rafoogars of Najibabad, who through their mastery of the woven pieces reconstructed with invisible stitches the original form which gave it a new life. The sudden encroachment upon her life, from within, by the uncontrolled growth of the cells was a shock. But she fought it relentlessly and in the process tried to understand the phenomenon.
Priya looked at nature in its multiple forms and found so many expressions emerging from many volatile forms. As Priya says “the mixed media works arise from a thorough symbiosis – they completely inhabit the paper and vanish into the cloth. Through such fusion a new organic morphology is distilled. As I experience it any seeming description of the rhythm of the personal weave i s simply another invaluable dynamic enunciation.
We are no more, no less than the mutable skeins in the cosmic warp and weft, infinite, immaculate and imperishable.
Jasleen Dhamija (2017)
I have no doubts about the extraordinary creative power Priya possesses. Generally speaking, the term “creation” is used when one gives a birth to something new and unique out of fresh materials. The question is how Priya integrates “mending” (“making something broken, worn, torn, or otherwise damaged, whole again”) into her artistic oeuvre. I me t P r i y a i n 2 0 0 3 a t “ S U T R A : T h r e a d , T i e s a n d Transformations,” the textile conference in Kolkata. While on a train trip to Santiniketan, I talked about “Ragged Beauty,” an exhibition I had curated at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco that focused on boro, the Japanese term for worn and tattered garments and household items that common folks lived with by frequently darning or patching, often over several generations. Priya listened with growing interest and proceeded to describe a similar practice—a craft tradition in her ancestral hometown of Najibabad in north India, which was the hub of trade in treasured Kashmiri, pashmina shawls. She spoke of the amazing skill of the families of rafoogars (darners) who travel to homes where they perform repairs and offer for sale items they had remade from rejects. They have passed down their techniques from one generation to the next for the past several hundred years and apply their skills to the restoration of ordinary garments and household cloths as well as to expensive shawls, tapestries, and carpets.
I was delighted to learn about this north Indian tradition that was similar to boro. I encouraged Priya to study and document the fascinating and little-known history and craft tradition of rafoogari and promised to include her research in a book I was working on about boro. The next year she presented a paper at the Textile Society of America symposium in Oakland, California, on “The Rafoogars of Najibabad,” which has since expanded into a to-be-published book. Her work shines a light on a community of artisans not previously known to the outside world and represents an important break with the perception of mending and darning as limited, non-creative activities.
It has become apparent to me that traditional practices of darning, mending, and repair extend all over the world, for example, rafoogari in Kashmir, Nepal, and north India; boro in Japan; Gee’s Bend quilting in Alabama; and similar traditions in Africa, Sweden and Denmark. Each region has its own culture and its unique scenario.
My dialogue with Priya on the aesthetics of traditional and modern-day practices of mending and repair deepened and expanded in the succeeding years. Her ongoing research on the rafoogari community, social structures, and traditional craft practices expanded beyond Najibabad, evolving and enmeshing with her art practice and manifesting as community projects in India and beyond. She has given international exposure to the rafoogars by bringing two of them for residencies in Australia and in Scotland, inviting local residents to bring an item to be mended and tell its history before entrusting it to the rafoogars. The story telling was often an emotional process, similar to what I have observed in viewers’ responses to exhibitions of boro.
Responses to expositions of mending reflect not only nostalgia but also empathy for the vulnerable, marginalized artisans whose survival is under threat in this era of relentless mechanization, as is the case with traditional arts/crafts all over India and elsewhere in the world. Priya’s ongoing research project, Making the “Invisible” Visible, is a form of homage to the unseen and largely unacknowledged virtuoso artisans whose contributions had gone unrecorded. She points out the irony in the rafoogari logic of concealment, whose goal of rendering “invisible” the damage on cloth also renders both the artist-rafoogar and the art of rafoogari more or less “invisible” as socio-cultural phenomena.
Rafoogari has been a cathartic and therapeutic process for Priya for over a decade. She has responded to diagnoses of advanced cancer by engaging in a combination of personal healing and artistic creative work. “The figure of the rafoogar committed to preserving the unique life of a fragile, damaged kani shawl has great metaphorical resonance for me,” she confides, “as does the very action of rafoo, with the darner continuously aligning the edges of gashes and holes in the vulnerable weave, all margins firmly yet delicately gripped, and sealed stitch by careful stitch to prevent further ripping and other damage, and to render the cloth intact and whole.”
I am inspired by the art in this exhibition, much of which is informed by thoughts and observations Priya and I share on what makes darned and repaired textile beautiful or visually moving within the 21st century context. This exhibition includes many of her innovative mixed-media works, combining wood, fiber, paper, cloth, and their substrates or components. Inspired by principles of rafoo, she uses the metaphor of both visible and invisible darning in abstract formats to suggest sudden, unforeseen, and violent rupture in the once-reliable order of things. She invokes “repair” as a crucial instrument of awareness, and symbolically affirms the place, significance, and act of such “darning” in the fabric of any life, as well as in the life of any fabric.
Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada
Berkeley, California, March 2017