The delicacy of darning lives

“And in your loneliness you’d notice

how really very gently they’d take

the fabric to its last, with what

solicitude gather up worn edges

to be bound, with what severe

but kind detachment wield

their amputating shears:

forgiveness, and repair.”

C.K. Williams, ‘Invisible Mending’

C.K. Williams’ poem, ‘Invisible Mending’ cited at Chemould Prescott Road’s ongoing exhibition relates poignantly to the late Priya Ravish Mehra’s textile-based practice. Born in 1961, the Delhi-based artist passed away last year after battling cancer for over a decade. The show, Woven Memoirs: A New Kind of Nature pays tribute to Mehra, featuring works that span 25 years of her career.

Narrating the impetus behind this exhibition, gallerist Shireen Gandhy recalls, “I met Priya just once at Khoj at the exhibition Evidence Room in 2017. It was when I fell in love with the rafoogari work at their exhibition. That same morning, I had a powerful, yet emotional connect with the artist herself. There was a strange and immediate chord that we struck. Sadly, Priya died a year later so the conversation with her and an exhibition never happened in her lifetime but connecting with the work, yet again at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale this year, I was reminded of our brief meeting and the ‘wish’ that I had to show her.”

Entering the gallery, one is struck by the diversity of Mehra’s practice. The works on display reflect her distinct incorporation of organic materials, her extraordinary skill as a weaver, and her research surrounding rafoogari, a traditional form of darning. A tapestry made using paper pulp is displayed alongside ramie fibre works that integrate twigs in their composition — some are suspended from the ceiling, while smaller, framed-works hang on the walls. In these delicate surfaces, one can trace patterns reminiscent of contour lines. Her woollen tapestries made in the mid-1990s upon her return from studying in England are juxtaposed against recent works on paper-pulp incorporating natural dyes, indigo fabric, Daphne fibre, and found material. The geometric forms on the tapestries contrast with the spontaneous renderings on the paper-based works. Together they conjure a palpable sense of landscape. Gandhy elaborates, “I thought that drawing on these older works would in many ways anchor the later works — which are not actual weaves, yet continue to be woven or embodied within paper, or paper pulp in some way or other.” Mehra’s broad range of works emphasise her long-term preoccupations with the technical and metaphorical potentialities of her medium and process.

Gandhy shares, “When I went over to her home — where Priya in her physical embodiment was absent, she was entirely present through her work.” Perhaps, it is in this spirit that one may also view the ongoing exhibition.

Material integration

Mehra’s integration of found material from nature comes across as an unconventional, yet evocative choice. Her works embody a sense of tactility, suggested by her own engagement with her materials, and the way these materials interact with each other. Gandhy describes, “You can feel the engagement of her fingers, her busy hands constantly plucking at nature, or picking seeds, or dismembering a section of a bark she would have plucked to create fibres — the Daphne fibre which would further stretch to make a new kind of nature.” In a text written over a year ago, featured as a wall-note, Mehra states that in her works, “the natural ‘cloth’ fibres disappear into the paper, the natural ‘paper’ fibres vanish into the cloth: they completely inhabit, host, embed, render, transform, and ultimately subsume each other. Through such fusion, a new organic morphology is distilled; the particular relationships that constitute duality are re-inscribed as unity.” These works suggest the interconnectedness of all beings within the broader scheme of the universe.

Art and craft

Mehra trained as a weaver at Santiniketan, and later studied tapestry at West Dean College, Sussex, and at the Royal College of Arts, London. Her works employ rigorous weaving and darning practices. A number of her works made on pashmina cloths display delicate rafoogari, a practice native to the local rafoogars in Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh, where she was raised. Mehra conducted extensive research and strove to provide visibility and agency to these artisans whose work goes unrecognised. Ravish Mehra, her husband, states in an email interview “Priya never considered ‘Arts’ and ‘Crafts’ as separate entities and felt that fine skills required to create objects were equivalent to any art form.” Evidently for Mehra, intricate ‘craft’ processes also enable a consideration of larger ideas. She has expressed, “As I experience it, any seeming disruption of the rhythm of the personal weave is simply another invaluable, dynamic enunciation of the universal continuum of Rta. We are no more or no less than vital, mutable skeins in the cosmic warp and weft, infinite, immaculate, imperishable.”

Mending as a metaphor

Mehra played a significant role in the preservation of Indian textiles, in her practice as a researcher and textile expert. This literal act of conservation takes on metaphorical meaning in her art practice. She employs rafoogari to “invoke sudden, unexpected, and violent rupture in our daily experience. It is a symbolic affirmation of the place, significance, and act of existential repair.” These gestures of repair also allude to her personal life as she fought to constantly mend and heal her own body, while fighting cancer. In her works on Pashmina cloths, the darned areas which would traditionally camouflage with the fabric, are made perceptible. They sensitively capture the gesture of embracing one’s own imperfections.

Discussing her legacy, Ravish confirms that, “research on the Art of Rafoogari as documented by Priya would be published shortly making the community [of artisans in Najibabad and beyond] and their work visible.” Furthermore, Gandhy states, “To be able to place some of this work in museums or institutions would further enhance her legacy. We hope to play some part in this.”

Woven Memoirs: A New Kind of Nature is ongoing at Chemould Prescott Road, Fort until October 1


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