|Rhythm # 1|
After school, I had no idea what course I wanted to enroll for. My closest friend was applying to the Polytechnic for a Fashion design course, so I decided to follow her there. With a total lack of understanding I sat for the entrance exam for Textile Design assuming it had the least drawing requirements, but I got in and the rest is history. I loved the course turned out to be a fairly student. I found working with patterns, repeats and creating motifs to be relaxing and meditative and it was these facets that later transformed my practice from mere art making to healing.
After graduating with a Diploma, I was employed by Satya Paul as part of the small team of designers who drew and painted each pattern for their printed sarees. It was quite a laboured task, taking up to a month to finish an intricate ‘pallu’ design. Subsequently, I got married and moved to Bangalore. Here, I did some freelancing work where I found a lot of opportunities for printing and hand painting on running fabric for salwar suits as well as sarees, which allowed me to experimented pattern making and printing.
Another shift occurred when my husband was given a project in Tokyo. I had never been outside of India and the prospect of going to Japan filled me with dread. Even though I accompanied him with trepidation, the minute I stepped into Tokyo’s Narita airport I fell in love with the country and felt welcome. We were supposed to have been there just three months, which was extended to a year and then longer. At this point I decided to find some work. However my Diploma in Textile Design from India and no knowledge of the Japanese language, made it impossible. However I found a textile teacher at a university who spoke a smattering of English and I started learning fabric dyeing and printing with a technique called ‘Tsutsugaki’, using rice paste as a resist-dyeing patterns on fabric. The names of the materials and dyes are lost to me since I only knew the Japanese names. At the same time I also got pregnant and once my son was born, time for any creative work became limited.
About a year into my apprenticeship, my teacher retired and once again I was left with no idea what to do. As luck would have it, a friend introduced me to a fantastic class on ‘Nihonga’ Painting - a traditional form of Japanese painting using ink and gouache on silk boards. These classes were pivotal in the direction my art practice would take. The rules of Nihonga are very strict in respect of colour palettes and subject of the painting etc. To gain knowledge of the technique, the first couple of years were spent creating replicas of work by Grand Master works. Our sensei Suiko Ohta organized several group shows which gave me the confidence to venture into India for my first solo show of these paintings.
In we left Japan in 2003, moving to Singapore. It was here that my art became truly independent of any external influences, creating my own ideas of colour, form and subject. For me the hardest part was to change my mindset from that of a designer to being an artist. A designer works within parameters of printing techniques and is looking for solutions. However, as an artist I needed to allow ideas and visuals to flow freely – away from the security of repeating patterns, borders et al.
|Block-printing and Embroidery on Gauze bandage|
In those days, Singapore had few galleries, where most focused on showing Chinese art, which meant that there weren’t many opportunities to exhibit my work. This made me look towards India to connect with galleries and curators. Aided by Singapore’s geographical proximity to India as also the opening up of the internet and email becoming standard practice.
In 2005 I gave birth to my second child, a daughter. Domestic chores took precedence over art, but I started feeling restless and wasn’t content just being a mother and wife. I created a small makeshift studio in our guest bedroom. For years I struggled to create a dedicated space to work in and only in he last seven years, that I have a studio at home – an actual workspace.
However, as is often with life, it threw me a curveball. In 2010 my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease, completely different from Type 2 diabetes which is more common and arises from high sugar content in the blood. The impact on all our lives was devastating. Adjusting to a new life based on keeping my three year old daughter alive by regulating insulin injections and controlling her food intake, was mentally and physically exhausting. But I never stopped making art. This became an outlet for the angst I felt and, though few and far in between, I continued having exhibitions in India.
Two years later, in 2005, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and given just one week to decide whether to keep my breast or lose it. I kept it. Fearing that I may not have much time left I also went into overdrive and got all the medical check-ups needed for my daughter. It turned out that she had developed two more auto immune conditions-Celiac disease and Hashimoto’s syndrome. At that point I laughed hysterically, and then became hysterical to think that the universe really was testing me in such an unbelievably cruel way. To cut a long and agonizing story short I survived it all and during that bizarre year decided to further my art education.
|Pain, Prayer, Peace...|
I was exposed to art theory and learned how to question and critique my own work. It was ground breaking and the materiality of my work changed completely. I could now view material from the standpoint of their inherent characteristics, textures and visual and tactile language – expanding my visual vocabulary.
Throughout this time, I was in constant touch with my textile print making. I conducted, and continue to do block printing workshops in Singapore, South East Asia and the US . Recently commencing the first workshop at the National Gallery in Singapore. In addition, I have been working with a block carver in India, who belongs to a family of block makers. His grandfather had an atelier during the East India Company over a 100 years ago, and his father is the recipient of four National Awards. In my endeavour to support his craft, I offer these hand carved blocks for sale at each workshop, the proceeds of which go to him and his family. He also carves block that I have designed for use in my own art practice. In total, I have amassed a collection of over two hundred blocks.
In the past couple of years there has been a renewed focus of working with fabric, where I have added usage of medical detritus and embroidery. I was never trained in it but I find the basic stitch very powerful, visually and metaphorically. A lot of stories can be mapped out with the simple stitch.
I am now focusing on the body and exploring traditions in healing, mapping the physical and mental shifts in perception, behavior and reaction to pain and chronic health conditions.
I am a proud survivor of a number of interactions with disease and health conditions and I hope I will be just as positive for the next phases in my life as I grow older. Working with the hand and especially with embroidery is an important part of my practice and I hope to continue evolving as an artist through this medium .
Sunaina Bhalla has an MFA from Lassalle College Singapore. A conceptual artist, art educator, printmaker and a mother, Sunaina is a textile artist who has experimented with various art forms but returns to work with textiles. More of her work can be seen on her website: www.sunainabhalla.com and her instagram handle: bhalla.sunaina