Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Opinion > Creating a new conversation from a frayed past

Creating a new conversation from a frayed past

We jealously guard pieces from the past, calling them heirlooms. But an artist can embrace disintegration—like a frayed sari—and make it a part of their canvas

Benigna Chilla and her work ‘Birds And Flowers For Reba’,at Nature Morte,Delhi in 2023.
Benigna Chilla and her work ‘Birds And Flowers For Reba’,at Nature Morte,Delhi in 2023. (Sandip Roy)

Some people count sheep when they cannot sleep at night. My mother, Reba, counts saris.

She rarely wears them anymore. Like many elderly Indian women she has adopted the unofficial Indian national costume—the nightie. But she cannot bear to part with those saris. Sometimes at night she loses sleep wondering where one went. “Then I get up. Until and unless I find it, I can’t go to sleep again,” she admits. “I can’t lose any of my saris. Saris are my first love.”

Also Read: The celebrity circus over the Maldives fracas

A couple of years ago, my sister and I persuaded my mother to donate one of her old saris to an artist friend. Those days Benigna Chilla split her time between her studio in upstate New York and Kolkata. My mother and she had never met. But my mother chose to give her a yellow silk sari with little red and green birds woven on to it. It was coming apart, but my mother had held on to it for years. Like each of her saris, it had its own story. My grandmother had presented it to her when she was pregnant with my sister. My mother had worn it. In time so had my sister. Perhaps even my niece. But its heirloom days were drawing to a close.

The sari, frail and frayed, could not be trusted to the postal service. It was tenderly hand-carried from Kolkata to New Delhi to Doha to Berlin to New York before it finally got to Chilla. She remembers unwrapping it in her studio.

“It was so deteriorated, I wondered how I was going to use it,” she said. Last month, I finally got to see what she had done at her solo show Absolutist Approaches at Nature Morte gallery in Delhi. The piece, about 36x56 inches, is called Birds And Flowers For Reba.

The sari had fallen apart. “But I tried to save the birds,” said Chilla. She painstakingly extracted the little birds once woven into the fabric and reused them in the piece on canvas. She dyed the canvas yellow with turmeric and saffron to match the original sari. “Then I felt like I should integrate my mother into the piece,” said Chilla.

She found lace curtains that had belonged to her mother back in Germany. Chilla had no idea why she had saved them and carried them all the way to the US from Europe. Chilla, who is in her 80s, has lived through World War II. For her generation and my mother’s, which had been through war, famine and deprivation, saving, hoarding and reusing came naturally. They just didn’t call it upcycling.

“You don’t know why you are saving things,” she said bemusedly. “I had absolutely no use for them.” The flowery designs of the crocheted curtains became a sort of stencil through which she printed right on to the canvas, creating an artistic conversation between two women who had never met, one in India and one in Germany.

That conversation, to my surprise, was not pickled in nostalgia. The nostalgia, if any, was all mine. A museum might have tried to preserve what was left of the sari and those curtains. Chilla, as an artist, embraced their disintegration.

“I liked that it was falling apart,” she told me. “It was taking on a different life.” I always thought the only way we could cling to beauty was to somehow stave off decay. We do not fear death (which is inevitable) as much as we fear decay. But Chilla could see the beauty in the decay.

“I used to photograph things like a dead bird, or things lying on the beach, the cactus flattened by the car,” she reminisced. “I love to look at flowers that are on their way out because there is a different kind of beauty to them. It’s the way they become more organic.”

In a way, in her piece, Chilla had taken the fragile little birds trapped in the weave and very gently set them free.

As I marvelled at the brightness of the yellow of the canvas, she said she had no idea what the colour would look like in 10 years or a hundred. “That turmeric colour is a bit of a fugitive. It can disappear over time,” she said. “In 100 years it could be gone. But that is alright, that’s fine too.”

In a world where it seems we are obsessed with preserving every moment of our existence on social media, where our Google storage has to be upgraded to terabytes to store our photographs for posterity, such equanimity feels startling. We want to hold on to our past because we feel without it we will become unmoored. We want to hold on to our past because we want to remember that once we were glorious. And we want to hold on to the past because we fear our own erasure. So we jealously guard pieces from the past, calling them heirlooms, establishing our copyright over them. Of course sometimes we also want to erase the past because we want to rewrite history and we build new monuments, new temples, erect new statues we hope will leave future generations awestruck with amnesia. In that case, we are creating a new past. Either way, the past is a territory we all want to conquer, so that we can have it at our disposal.

But what Chilla had done was something different. She was resurrecting the sari by allowing it to disintegrate. Most importantly, she was being utterly unsentimental about it. For example, she used the border of the sari in her piece. But she chose the reverse side. “I turned it over and found such beauty in it. All those threads and the beautiful weaving but on the side you were not supposed to see. I could never paint something like that,” she said. Those borders ended up “wrong” way around in the final piece.

She admitted however to being unsure about how my mother would regard it all. I was not sure either.

As a boy I had been packed off to painting class in Kolkata. There we had to slavishly copy what was placed before us—a vase with gladioli, apples and oranges. The more exact the replica, the more the points we got in class. The highest praise, whether for a scenery or a portrait or a still life, was always, “It looks almost real.”

Birds And Flowers For Reba looked nothing like the real sari my mother had known and loved. My mother could not travel to Delhi to see the exhibition. So Chilla came to meet her in Kolkata before the show. She gave her a small piece of artwork of her own—using some of the birds from the sari and part of her mother’s lace handkerchief, a snippet of the larger conversation as it were. It was the first time the two women had met. Both put on their hearing aids for the occasion. My mother wore a sari and sprayed herself with the “special occasion” Chanel No.5.

As they drank tea, Chilla confessed she had been a little nervous. “I really wasn’t sure,” she said. “I didn’t really know you.” My mother beamed and replied, “I was honoured. Nobody honoured my sari like that before.”

She looked at my sister and me and shook her head and said, “They don’t care about my saris. But you really admired them. Thank you.”

Whenever my mother travelled, she would find a sari shop. Even when she went to Paris long before I was born, she bought a French chiffon. She was not that excited about going to viewpoints to see mountain sunrises or walking around art galleries and museums for hours. But she always had the energy for retail therapy. And if it involved saris, all the better.

We would roll our eyes at my mother’s zeal for sari-shopping while we snobbishly wanted to go get some culture in a gallery. Now she was having the last laugh. Her sari had become part of a work of art.

Benigna Chilla’s work will be exhibited by Nature Morte at the India Art Fair 2024 in Delhi.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against.

Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr

Also Read: Tales of monkey god, distilled like ‘ghee’

Next Story