Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Painting With Fire

Earlier when I worked with stains, I was observing stains made by tea leaf residue in my cup. I took lots of photos and then got some digitally printed onto fabric. I would then trace these marks with a kantha or running stitch and sometimes finish the edges with a border, using cross stitch. There was something very peaceful about looking at stains this way. I had not created them. They did not speak of the stains in my own mind but, were leading me to look at those marks through which I judged myself, the way many of us do. This process allowed me to examine the marks in an objective way, lending confidence to look at the real stuff that filled my mind.  
The advertisement for a popular detergent which says “daag acche hai” [i] caught my attention with the idea that in doing something good for others, if the garb gets soiled, the stains could not seen merely as dirt to be washed off. We do unwittingly bring home dirt in an attempt at playing the Good Samaritan, but if we stand back we can see  the ‘good’ in the experience. For me this objectivity is gained by going over and over the same thoughts and sometimes, I need to express fully what I feel, before I can stand back and see things without the rancour of an emotional state.
Going over the photographed marks again and again, finding the courage to look into the dark lanes, I moved away from the printed images to create my own stains, which I have been working on for a few months now. It’s not a comforting process. Sometimes I think, or rather I hope that I have reached a point where I can just sit and amble along the marks with the running stitch I so love, but then I look at the piece and it does not have that raw emotion I want to present.

When something gnaws at you, it has the power to consume you and that was what I wanted to speak of. So I brought ‘burning’ back into the process and started painting with fire.
I used the fabrics that I had stained with tea and other stuff in the kitchen. I created a collage of sorts, using some shibori that I had done too, along with some white net. This looked really fabulous and gave a kind of ethereal effect. I like to think of it as grace that descends when the fire of any emotion, not just anger but even love - when the passion has burnt itself out.

For a while I was quite happy with the burning process. I loved watching the embers dance along the edge of the fabric and then die out as the fabric shrivelled into a grey ash. But it was also quite a draining process. My eyes would smart and I would feel really tired in a very short while and could not quite understand why. Saba Hasan, a painter, who also has played with fire, says she thinks it is the process, but I think it has a lot to do with the toxic fumes that I breathed in which the lungs do not appreciate. At least not after I have spent the morning doing pranayama!


I burned what I wanted to and then took the fabric back to the stitching course. But, then again after a few days of forming those concentric circles with kantha, where I pucker the fabric and create a raised effect- something I usually delight in doing, I found there was no charm in doing this kantha work anymore. It was stifling the piece, so one Sunday I just took the fabrics I had painstakingly stitched together and embellished with kantha and cut it in up in places, ripped it apart in others, tearing at the threads with pointed instruments I keep just for this purpose, and then proceeded to torch it with the naked flame of a candle till it burnt though the multiple and complex layers.

It was an aggressive process and quite cathartic too. But it didn’t end there. I did feel able to return to sewing for a while and had a couple of days that were quite ethereal and graceful with the needle slipping in and out of the layers of stains, now charred in places and ripped in others; taking her thread, sewing, repairing and decorating with textures and colour- adding life to the fragile fragments. And then again discontent was stirred: I felt that none of this was really evocative enough. I thought I would bring some cross stitch into the piece. Something just seemed to be missing. I wanted to do something different,  but was not certain what this could or should be.

I cut up some matte to place behind the piece with its gaping burnt holes and was thinking how I would approach the uniform cross-stitch with this ungainly, raw, burnt texture and form, when I decided that I did not feel patient enough to do all that needle work. I just wanted some colour in there so what was wrong with some red fabric? I wanted a flamboyant red, to complement the burned, brown edges, which now seemed so forlorn and uninteresting, with its bloody hue.

 I only had some organza in my cupboard and that did not look quite right, so the next day I went to the local market and got some poplin and voile that had been commercially dyed. Now, about a week or so of having stitched the fabric and burned the edges of the red fabrics and put it all together, I have to admit that I want to go back a few stages and leave the fabric without this backing and let the gaping holes speak for themselves. This means that I have to undo all that stitching I have done. Do I need the bloody-red or is it overbearing?   I rather think it is, but these days the muse is fickle.....


[i] Stains are good
[ii] Tie-dye


  1. Hi Gopika, with the release of my second book, Laughing Stock Productions, I have been busy the whole month. I saw your post but could not put my mind to it. Just now, I have read it and liked these lines much: "When something gnaws at you, it has the power to consume you and that was what I wanted to speak of. So I brought ‘burning’ back into the process and started painting with fire.". Indeed, anguish is like a fire burning inside. I hope you found your coolant too. Much love, good photography here!

    1. Dear Julia,
      Your comment made me smile and I keep smiling whenever I think of your question: Have I found my coolant?

      An incident occurred recently while I was on the road and my car over-heated. Its coolant pipe had developed a leak and so my dear car had to lifted by crane all the way from Delhi to Gurgaon and she is not quite healed from this deficient coolant effect. So, when I think of the antidote of anger as being a 'coolant', I have to smile. I picture myself as the car with her front wheels lifted up as she is towed away.:-)

      This analogy with the car incident kinda says that these things take time to repair.:-)

      Congratulations on the publication of your new book. Wish you all the best with this.
      Thank you for taking time out to read the blog and also comment, much appreciated.