At the India Art Fair, 2023, you can see an exquisite textile installation, shimmering in white and gold. At first, you are drawn in by the beauty of the threads. And then, the words ‘some/body’, ‘every/body’, ‘any/body’ and ‘no/body’ become apparent in this series of textile panels, which is being presented by the Devi Art Foundation. Conceptual artist Lakshmi Madhavan has used the dying textile tradition of kasavu from the village of Balaramapuram in Kerala as a medium to explore connections between the body of the weaver, body of the loom and the body of the wearer. “When I arrived at kasavu as the choice of material to work with, I realised that the textile itself came from a space of exclusion and non-inclusivity,” says Lakshmi, who is the artist-in-residence at the ongoing edition of the India Art Fair.
In the course of her research, she found that even today a lot of castes and communities are not allowed to wear the kasavu. “Or the way they wear it, tells a lot about which community they belong to. So, in a way the body that touches the cloth and interacts with the loom can never wear it. A weaver told me that they have never been able to afford a kasavu,” elaborates Lakshmi, who is based in Mumbai but travels to Balaramapuram regularly. She extends this inquiry further in another work at the fair—a video projection, which is a first for her.
The artist’s interest in this textile tradition goes back to her childhood, when she would see her ammamma, or grandmother, don a kasavu mundu veshti every single day of her life. “My strongest memories are of ammamma, a feisty lady, far ahead of her time, who accepted me for who I was. I spent a lot of time at our ancestral home in Kerala with her. Even now, when I close my eyes, she is there as a vision in white and gold. And I clearly remember the way her veshti smelt of rice water starch mingled with her sweat,” she reminisces.
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Lakshmi is not a formally trained artist. She sort of meandered her way to art. It’s not that she had no interest in this space—as a child, she could always be seen with a doodle pad, expressing herself more through visuals than words. However, hailing from a traditional family that was academically inclined, Lakshmi had to opt for a career that seemed to be more suited to convention. Over time, she built a robust professional profile, but things changed while she was based out of Copenhagen in 2015. She turned to art to express this sense of unbelonging—of being a brown body in a Utopian white setup. Those experiments organically grew into a consistent practice, spanning photography, works on paper and found objects. However, she realised that textile was more suited to this inquiry around the body, and its relationship with gender and sociopolitics.
A significant personal moment added to this shift as well. “For Lakshmi, becoming a mother in 2018 was one of the most transformative experiences in not just her personal life, but also in her career as an artist, giving her “a new way of looking at the world and a new interest in questioning everything.” The roles of ‘mother’ and ‘artist’ are not separate to her but blend into one another as a creative, vulnerable and tender process,” mentions a note by the India Art Fair. The kasavu became like an umbilical cord for the artist that helped her travel back home to her roots and act as a metaphor for the memory and passing-on of her lineage.
Lakshmi has now been working with the textile for four years, and yet it seems to the artist that she has barely cracked the surface. Can kasavu break out of hierarchies of politics, economics and caste? It’s a question she explores endlessly through her practice. “Can I craft a cloth of universality?” she asks.
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Lakshmi’s research has only deepened her investigation. She found out that the history of this textile tradition in Balaramapuram goes back to 200 years when King Balarama Varma, ruler of the erstwhile Travancore invited seven weavers from the Shaliar community from Valliyoor in Trivandrum to create fabrics for the royal family. They were settled on a strip of land, which is now called Shaliar Street in Balaramapuram. On one side of the street are the houses of the weavers and on the other side shops. “Even the weavers have this interesting history of belonging and unbelonging. If you talk to the last-mile weaver, they speak a different style of Malayalam. In fact, there are a lot of cultural influences from their place of origin,” explains Lakshmi. This begs the question: whose craft is it? Which land can stake ownership to it? “These are complex questions, which I hope to get answers to through my work,” she adds.