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Artist Paula Sengupta reclaims chintz from its colonial history

For the past three years, the Kolkata-based artist has been making her own chintz, drawing on forms visible in her own garden and those witnessed during extensive travels

Detail from ‘Death on the Sea of Acorns’. Photo: courtesy Paula Sengupta/ Gallery Espace
Detail from ‘Death on the Sea of Acorns’. Photo: courtesy Paula Sengupta/ Gallery Espace

Recently, Gallery Espace, New Delhi, showcased a compact body of works by artist Paula Sengupta, created over the past one year. Titled ‘The Porcelain Rose’, it brought together her long standing preoccupations—reclaiming of the historical chintz textile and her fascination with flora and fauna. “At a time the world is plunged into despair, these artworks are poignant with wonder at the bounty and order of Nature, the harmony and consonance of animals in the wild, and sadness at the contrariness and folly of humankind,” stated the curatorial note.

Sengupta, an artist, academic, art writer and curator based in Kolkata, has always been fascinated with chintz, not just as a textile but with its history as well. “I spent time in Hyderabad looking into the origins of kalamkari, calico, colonial chintz, and so on. That made me realise just how layered the history of this textile was, and the politics associated with it,” she says. “It was an extremely coveted textile. Chintz also resulted in the first instance of industrial espionage in this part of the world.” The more she researched, the more intrigued she became with its contentious history.

Sengupta found that the word “chintz” was derived from the Hindi word “chheet” — a common printed cotton textile popularly used across the Indian subcontinent. Chintz was originally a woodblock printed, painted or stained calico produced in India from 1600 to 1800. She mentions in her research that by 1680, more than a million pieces of chintz were being imported into England per year, and a similar quantity was going to France and the Dutch Republic. These early imports were mostly used as upholstery fabric, later gaining popularity as fabric for garments.

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“With imported chintz becoming so popular with Europeans during the late 17th century, French and English mills grew concerned, as they could not make chintz. In 1686, the French declared a ban on all chintz imports. In 1720, England’s Parliament enacted a law that forbade “the Use and Wearings in Apparel of imported chintz, and also its Use or Wear in or about any Bed, Chair, Cushion or other Household furniture.”,” Sengupta mentions in her artist note.

‘The Garden of Thorns’. Photo: courtesy Paula Sengupta/ Gallery Espace
‘The Garden of Thorns’. Photo: courtesy Paula Sengupta/ Gallery Espace

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She further adds that even though chintz was outlawed, there were loopholes in the legislation. The Court of Versailles was outside the law and fashionable young courtiers continued wearing chintz. In 1734, French naval officer, M. de Beaulieu, who was stationed at Pondicherry, sent home letters along with actual samples of chintz fabric during each stage of the process to a chemist friend detailing the dyeing process of cotton chintz.

Her project in the past three years has been to reclaim chintz from this contentious history. “The more you look at chintz, the more it reveals to you. When I looked at colonial chintz, it revealed the wild imagination of the colonial artists—there was this entire notion of what constituted the ‘exotic east’ in the mind of the Europeans,” she says. The motifs in colonial chintz were somewhere between flora and fauna. There was such a strong element of camouflage in them, be it forms from the insect, animal or floral world. This hybridity and idea of camouflage really fascinated her.

Sengupta has started making her own chintz. Some years back, she made a set of wood blocks, and had them cut by a block maker. These are amongst her most precious possessions. She used them in an installation at a heritage property in Kolkata, which dated back to the 1930s. She printed on mulmul with the blocks, and the fabric was so translucent that one could view the installation through the chintz. “From making botanical drawings inspired by nature to the process of transformation until it becomes a textile—I have been doing so for the past three years. It was a textile hijacked from us, taking away livelihoods from our craftspersons. I wanted to change that by making chintz right here in my backyard,” she says.

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In the process, Sengupta was also fascinated by the nomenclature of the plants. On the one hand they had Indian, or colloquial names, but they also had scientific names and those given by Europeans in India. “These were very reflective of the white man’s imagination. Ferns have all kinds of names such as sword fern. Banana, for instance, belongs to the berry family. And I was surprised to discover that a certain species of banana is called the berry of paradise. You tend to find all these hidden layers within the nomenclature,” she says. In her current body of work, shown as part of ‘The Porcelain Rose’, she has focused more on the characteristics of chintz—its hybridity, camouflage—than the textile as a design object. “There has been a shift to chintz as a metaphor,” she says.

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