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A graphic eye on Ikat

A retail exhibition in Mumbai by designer Chelna Desai brings new spunk to the traditional textile

Chelna Desai at her office. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Chelna Desai at her office. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

How many Telia Rumals can one wear?" asks Chelna Desai, Mumbai-based independent graphic and textile designer and entrepreneur who has been working with Ikat for the last three decades. Moving from a business-to-business sector—in both domestic and export markets—she is now presenting her first retail collection of Ikats for home and apparel at an exhibition titled Ikat Eye in Mumbai.

There is a strong graphic design influence in Desai’s work, who graduated from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, in 1980—bedspread in broad, bold strokes, a table runner that reproduces the pattern of piano keys, wall art that resembles sea waves. Desai brings a fresh perspective to Ikat. She plays with technique and proportion. In some fabrics, the motif has been enlarged to such an extent that there are no repeats. In others, she minimizes the Ikat pattern, so that it looks similar to a digital print. The pastel colour palette of peach, onion pink, powder blue and more, “make it quite apt for sun dresses". Desai’s sensibilities are modern and minimal. “There is little that is tradition-based, most of it swerves towards the contemporary," says Desai.

Desai’s collection has been one year in the making, but her experience in the field spans the last three decades of working with various craft forms of India.

An Ikat textile from her collection.

Her introduction to Ikat, however, happened by accident. “Sometime after graduating from NID in the 1980s, I was going through a book on Kasuri, the Japanese form of Ikat, by the publisher, Graphic-Sha. On a whim, I wrote to them about Indian Ikats, and they telegrammed me and fixed a meeting with their director," she says. A few months later, Desai had signed a book deal with the publisher. For eight months she travelled to the three Ikat regions of India: Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Patan in Gujarat, and put together Ikat Textiles Of India, a book documenting the textile, later re-published by Thames and Hudson and Chronicle Books.

She then branched out to other craft forms. In the late 1980s, she went on to work with Sally Holkar of the Rehwa Society in Maheshwar. “They were replicating tradition. But I was thinking transparency, how to avoid repeats; I approached it like a graphic designer. Since I wasn’t a textile designer, I wasn’t shackled by technical impossibilities. That collection came out to be very different," says Desai. Later in the 1990s, she worked on a project with the late architect Charles Correa while he was designing the Jawahar Kala Kendra museum in Jaipur. “Charles asked me to research Rajasthan art and I ended up working with craftsmen to produce a set of 139 murals for the museum," she says.

Desai is self-admittedly not a purist. But she vows by technique. “I bring my own graphic design sensibilities, a taste for modernism, but one has to learn the technique, so that you can go beyond it," she says. The newness she brings to her Ikats clearly stems from this intent to go beyond. “Ikats have a lovely aesthetic of feathering in the way that they are woven. But it is not always revered. For instance, Ikat in Patan is about precision. I had to devise new ways to enhance the feathering, something that was perceived as negative. I’m not so hung up on traditional values. I think we should speak to our contemporary living," she says.

Ikat Eye is on till 21 January at Coomaraswamy Hall, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. Price, from Rs1,500-20,000.

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