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From Paper Collages to Fabric Assemblages

In 1996 Vaishali was working on collages with thin kite paper. As she found kite paper faded fast and tore over time, she wanted a more durable material available in an array of colours and shades. Stepping into a cloth shop that stocked fabric for sari blouses (where women come with saris to get matching blouse pieces) she found an entire rainbow of colours before her eyes, found a medium she was looking for, and started working on fabric collages.

Driving past a temporary settlement of nomads (which year?), she paused to admire their godhadis or patched quilts, made with sections of old fabric – layered, frayed (from years of use and washing by beating them on rocks by the river), patched with varied colourful bits of cloth, repeatedly stitched and quilted. "They looked alike abstract art to me, hung out casually". Their inherent charm, recycled fabrics, peeling layers, splash of colours, running lines of hand-quilting stitches, disarming unconcern for symmetry or formality, feeling of softness, comfort and natural ageing, and timelessness as they aged, tore, were patched and resurrected caught her eye and had her return with her camera to capture their beauty.

Back home Vaishali thought about those simple, worn-out quilts, and felt they held out immense possibilities of being explored if their essence was brought into contemporary art. She stacked fabric of different colours, quilted them together (using ground coloured thread for each section so the quilting thread merged with the fabric) and then pierced the quilted textile with a scissors to reveal colours and fabric of the inner layers and create a weathered look. "By this process rather than applying colour from the top, colour emerges from within the work". And then to create the texture and effect of an aged quilt, with fraying edges of its many patches, she moved a wire brush across the cuts, in light and strong strokes, to coax a weathered surface speckled with colours of its many layers, and of varying degrees of wearing out.

Many Layered Nuances

In 2002, Vaishali received a two-year scholarship from the Government of India to explore the fabric, visual effects and ethos of godhadis and transpose their essence in a contemporary art form, and the grant encouraged her to create abstract works, drawn from these traditional tribal quilts. "There are no rules to follow, no pressure to create a specific or symmetrical format, surface or details", Vaishali says of the techniques she used to create the works. She generally takes six to seven pieces of cotton fabric of the same size and stacks them together to start work on a quilt. She selects colours and places them in a particular order in the stack thinking of the composition she has in mind and how the colours will be revealed later. Sometimes she selects fabric woven with a different warp and weft to create an interesting effect. Often she takes one focal colour and works the others around it.

In between some layers she may add small pieces of fabric to create thickness there and to later obtain that colour from within the layers on distressing the layers. Or she may place some fragments of cloth, separate and overlapping, on the top most fabric of the stack. In another variation she has placed a loose off-white weave fabric above all the layers and patches, so a riot of colours shows through ivory coloured topmost layer after she has quilted the layers and pierced them. Her earlier works often had a white base fabric, but now she prefers a black base so the colour is always accessible as she feels a touch of black is necessary in a work (please give one line why black should be there in a work).

Singular Expressions

Disturbed by the horrific communal clash in Godhra, in Gujarat, in 2002, that fanned into ghastly riots, Vaishali spontaneously created a hard-hitting work titled Flow of Death that received a National Academy Award (2002): it is a layered quilt with a bright red fabric as the uppermost surface, slight bulge in the heart of the composition like a pregnant belly with a bullet hole in it (that she made by burning the spot with an incense stick), and long streaks of red dripping below this womb, symbolizing the loss of life and the loss of hope.

In another work titled Fabric of Reality, in the same Godhra series, she has embedded a toy pistol within many layers of a quilt with tassels of an orange-red fabric also wrapping themselves over the weapon (these tassels allude to the aerial roots of a banyan tree that go into the ground and support the tree) conveying weapons need to be buried. Within the layers are embedded pieces of green glasses often worn by married women as a symbol of their marital status; when her husband dies, women break their bangles and the broken bangles here signify the widows left behind by the riots.

More recently Vaishali has made two large commissioned works – one 13 ft by 33 ft and the other 13 ft by 22 ft, using leaves to convey sun and wind energy for Suzlon Energy, a company involved with the construction of windmills. One work titled (name?) depicts thousands of leaves of different sizes and shades of autumn hues, cascading down to the earth tossed by the breeze (for wind energy), while the other titled (name?) depicts leaves in colours from green to brown conveying the changes brought about by photosynthesis (for sun energy). With a base of 10 quilted layers, leaves of 7 quilted layers, Vaishali planned the works, and affixed the leaves leaving their edges unglued for a three dimensional effect. The textured/weathered effect for these huge works was created using a Dremel tool with sandpaper, and the leaves were laser cut by a machine.

A third work 20' by 20' titled One Earth, also for Suzlon, is set on a layer 10 quilted fabrics of 5 blacks and 5 blues of varying shades. This base was textured, and then a flowing pattern, composed of animals from the ant to the elephant and even a tree and mythical horse with wings, was completely cut- out through the quilt. Placed on a white background, the cut-outs and the pattern comes alive, appearing like an ethereal cloud in the sky, the floating chain of animals linking all the creations on the Earth.

Her other series of Time and Time Scratches speak of the passage of time, where colours reveal themselves across the textile - some superficial, some deep and some in between. "It is just like life, you live, and slowly so many things you never knew existed are revealed to you". As you instinctively wish to the touch the many layered textile, she says how satisfying it is to see how easily everyone can relate to fabric, and that these works can be touched and enjoyed without any hesitation of spoiling them. And as you run your fingers over the soft, uneven surface, feel the frayed edges, a worn section almost like a net, you feel a strange bond and comfort with its weathered wisdom.

-Brinda Gill.