Monday, 28 June 2021

Personal Threads: Stitching Up the Wounds - Guest Post by Sunaina Bhalla

Rhythm # 1

Growing up I was told I would never be an artist because my drawing was deemed terrible! Both my sisters were creative and I would get yelled at by my chemistry teacher for being unable to draw even a beaker. Who knew then, that I would end up being an artist, and that too working with textiles.

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...

Something was missing in my art practice but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I took several online courses on art history, and an online course with Gopika Nath, an established textile artist in India. She helped me break through some of the rigid mindsets and ideas I was working with,  but I needed more. I enrolled into the MFA programme at Lasalle College in Singapore; graduating with a dual degree from Lasalle and its affiliate - Goldsmiths College in U.K.

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: and her instagram handle: bhalla.sunaina


Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Kya Soch Rahe Ho........(What are you Thinking)


Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m thinking. Especially when engaged in doing household chores, cooking and such stuff that I try and get over with as fast as I can, I’m rarely focused on what’s going on the mind screen. Thoughts come and go but I am too busy with the job in hand that I can rarely recollect what they were.

Often, when I’m knitting and crocheting my ‘thought-nets’, I’m also not really focusing on thoughts either. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s not always easy to understand one’s own disposition. And the essence of issues that plague the mind - the deeper and untiring dialogue with self, is usually buried under the busyness of the day. If I want to look at myself think I do, but otherwise I watch something on nextflix, listen to a talk on YouTube or a book on Audible, to switch off from the superficial chatter of the daily rubble.

Sometimes, when the rant spills over, I can’t watch or listen to anything. My head is just screaming to be heard. If I can, I write in my journal or if it’s too chaotic to form sentences and if there too much emotion, I may speak to a friend. If I don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone, I babble into my phone and record the tirade. When I hear it back - the emotion, irritation and anxiety of what’s been said -that is if I can bear to go over the whole thing again, I do get a clearer picture of the problem at hand. Of why I’m feeling stressed. If I can’t hear that stuff again, I’m relieved that my mind is lighter for off-loading it. Usually it’s stuff that’s deemed unnecessary, pertaining to a whole host of mundane things that are detracting from the essence of what some part of me wants to think about, but the mind is exhausted with itself and cannot muster the discipline to do so. Sometimes feelings overwhelm and they cannot easily be put into thoughts and words – at best disjointed ones.

I’m a reflective sort of person, so I usually begin my day, writing in my journal. I start with reading the previous entry to get a sense of where I left off, because unresolved things have a habit of playing like elevator music, that’s heard but not really listened to - not enough to recognise the melody, not unless it’s a familiar tune, when we do sing along effortlessly – if we like the tune. In trying to get through the processes of living, which requires focus on the mundane, on driving, cooking, folding clothes and other tasks - the screaming is actually this underlying background dialogue that’s unfinished and unresolved, which is demanding it’s time and share of attention.

When I start this morning dialogue with myself, if I’m in a self-reflective mood, I can write for hours. If not, I leave off where I cannot go farther with the thought. Either I’ve said enough or I just can’t quite get to any point of understanding. Often I have to leave things for the thoughts to emerge. Where a movie, a talk or something else - even the rhythm of knitting sheds light.

And, more often than not, it is conversations or interactions with someone else that really helps shed light on what’s going on in one’s own mind - a reflective surface kind of mirroring dialogue. If it doesn’t automatically occur to me, I put my attention on what about the conversation struck me, moved me, or the advice I may have given . And it’s almost always what I need to think about for myself, albeit in a varying degree or context. This then requires deeper reflection which takes me into those areas that eons of exploration leave me tired and unfulfilled, but ideas that I need to resolve to whatever extent possible, because unless I do so I’ll never be free of the distressing inner rant.


A net by its very nature is something to catch things. Fishermen use it to catch fish, which is food for the human body. In Goa, many outdoor restaurants and cafes suspend nets under over-arching trees to catch the falling leaves so that the foliage debris doesn’t hamper happily chomping guests.

So what does a ‘thought-net’ do? What does it catch, or prevent from imposing or entering a protected space or field of vision?


If I put the larger and more cumbersome nets that I’ve created over my head, as an extension of my mind - an evocation of what’s going on inside my head, then it’s a kind of trap. A net that binds me within its threads. And not unlike repeating thoughts which bind us to people, situations and circumstance. But, the irony is that ranting and venting - going over the same ideas - creating this ‘thought-net’, is also a way out of this bind.

When we vent or rant - go on and on about a situation, most of us want sympathy because we see ourselves as victims of an unfair circumstance or relationship. Or we don’t have the courage to do or say what we really feel. Or perhaps we don’t have clarity and have conflicting feelings that need detailed analysis. In some sense, the situation challenges us.

I’ve often noticed this about myself that, if I’m on top of things, or matters are going well, there is no need for a dialogue. It’s only when I’m not able to get a grip on what’s going on that, the why’s and why-not’s circle around endlessly. And depending upon the intensity of the situation and emotion it evokes, I may lie awake at night, wondering why I can’t sleep despite vigorous exercise and feeling pretty darn sleepy too.


I was speaking quite recently to a friend, about the paradoxical beauty of our thoughts. This had occurred to me when I was looking at an embroidery pattern I had created within a series of ‘thought-nets’. The resultant ‘thought-net’ was visually attractive and led me rethink the very idea of ‘thoughts’ as being a burden. Of our ‘thought-patterns’ being something destructive. Such that new age philosophy underlines, telling us to get let go the past, to change our thoughts etc. Enticing us with absolutely miraculously solutions that almost never work quite as effectively and definitely not in the long term. Not unless we are on the brink of taking that leap by having done plenty of the work already.


Our thinking patterns, the template of our moral, ideas and ideals arise from societal norms, familial dictates, cultural morals and more that have evolved through individual, social, cultural, national and world events. All of which have collectively framed the psyche of our elders and educators, their ancestors and theirs: going as far back as time itself. Therefore, inherited ‘patterns’ are really not something we can get past easily enough. And, they are the real reason that the thread of ‘thought-nets’ catch us, binding the imaginative mind, curtailing the freedom of our spirits - keeping us from transforming our human destinies and exploring the potential of our human selves, even going beyond this.

My friend’s response was that negative thinking cannot be seen as beautiful, despite what the ‘thought-net’ I was showing her was proof of. She appreciated the artwork, but couldn’t correlate it with what she herself experienced when her mind is gripped with dismaying thoughts - negative thoughts in common parlance.

At one level, I agree with her. When you’re going on and on in a non-empowering way it’s enervating - for both you and the person listening to you. Fact is that negative gives power, when it’s changed through its charge into positive, and the two together is what generates energy. Negative thinking disembowels, but it is also creating an unacknowledged impetus within us, to rise above. If we were happy in that state, there really wouldn’t be any need to rant, complain or drag us and everyone around us, down the dingy steps of despair. We do that because we want a way out, but can’t see it. But lightening the load, getting consolation from friends, seeing that we are not alone in these things, lends confidence to delve within. That’s what we really want. Not necessarily advice, but solace. Not solutions that someone else gives but a means to reduce the thought load and find a way to the subtler voice of our own wise being. At times advice is sought, solution providers can be useful too but essentially the two charges of negative leading to positive - self-affirmation and feeling good, is what brings forth the energy. And in an instant the binds of the ‘thought-net’ are torn asunder. And we taste that enviable taste of freedom. Of being unstoppable.

I think that makes the process quite beautiful, don’t you?

Monday, 15 March 2021

Personal Threads: I have Sewn all My Life.... - Guest Post by Heidi McEvoy Swift


I have sewn all my life. I made dolls clothes when I was five, was given a children’s sewing machine at six, and was using my Mum’s proper machine at seven.  I love making clothes.  From dolls clothes I moved on to making my own clothes, and adapting and altering bought items to make my own creations. Through my college years it was mainly ballgowns that I made, spending far too much money on gorgeous fabrics and spending hours adding beadwork and embroidery.

I began working part time in theatre ten years ago.  Initially working as a wardrobe supervisor I gradually built up my role so that I now design and make costume for all the in-house shows at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.

During the lockdown months this year I began a couple of new sewing projects.  Initially I was working on a project I set myself - to work with some half started embroidered tablecloths and tray-cloths I was given by a friend. These cloths were all printed with ready to go embroidery designs, and had mostly been begun, but were not finished. ‘Finishing the unfinished’ involved me re-working these tray and tablecloths from her my friends’ mother-in- law’s ‘legacy’.

Instagram became my saving grace during this lockdown.  It’s a platform that I have no love of, and had rarely dipped into its possibilities, despite having set up an account about 5 years ago.  Working in total isolation is so very hard. Some kind of audience is necessary, so I started to post images of work I was making on Instagram.  At this point, I was embroidering images to do with lockdown on cloth, to be a kind of diary, but frankly I was struggling, it seemed too banal, and possibly too kneejerk.

Groundwork Gallery's #doorstepenvironment challenge appeared on my Instagram feed at the very end of April, and initially appealed as a displacement activity for that first day! The work the gallery specialises in is environmental, so somewhat removed from my textiles work, however the themes interested me and I decided to engage with the challenge anyway, but adding in my own proviso that I had to include stitch.   This led me to start of a whole new project looking at things on my own doorstep and garden, in a new light.  

I embroidered images, borders, words and phrases relating to the daily prompts and photographed them. Sometimes I made textile frames for landscapes, embroidered words onto my own clothing, or worked directly onto plants.

 The ‘stony path’ prompt, alluded to in the last post above, was a reference to Herman de Vries. And his exhibition in 2017, which was named after Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in the Scottish borders.

I love wordplay, and often incorporate words in my work, and this became another of the connecting factors between the pieces I made.  The beauty of Instagram, and indeed photography, is that the photograph is the final image, which is something I had never quite appreciated before and this became hugely liberating!  The pieces I was making in stitch no longer had to be ‘finished’, the image presented is enough.  I ended up working right through the 30 day challenge list of words and phrases, each a prompt that inspired a whole range of thoughts and inspiration, some more than others.  This in turn has led to some very productive lines of exploration, which I am still processing and making work from.  I have thoughts of where I can go from here, and maybe I will, or maybe it will all turn into something very different. Isn’t that just how it goes?

I am sharing some of my favourite pieces here, some from the challenge, and some made since and more recently.

The challenge gave purpose to some work I was already trying to formulate, and cemented some thoughts about presentation and accessibility. I had been trying to work exclusively with stitch and textiles, so decided to include that in each post as my personal challenge.  I did not intend to do all 30 days, but gradually realised that it was a good way to keep focused on work at a time when everything was very difficult in so many ways.’


This was the first time I sewed directly onto the plant.  The theme was ‘Wild food’ and apart from dandelions and nettles there was nothing remotely edible in my garden.  I knew I was going to use the word ‘eat’ and the strawberry plant was the most obvious choice. It also reminded me of William Morris. 

The theme was ‘Today’s revelation’ which proved challenging to me. How do we receive a revelation?  I used the words ‘look’ and ‘listen’ as instructions.  I captioned the piece ‘Take a little time, you have plenty’.

 Looking skywards is such an uplifting thing to do when the sky is so very blue and cloudless.  The Cordyline is so sharp and pointy it really leads your eye up.  Mind you, if you looked down on it  would poke your eye out! The golden yellow thread both alluded to the sun and complemented the variations in the leaves.

I have always loved the phrase ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’.  The phrase today was ‘Spillage’  and putting ‘don’t cry’ on the cloth to clean up the milk seemed a perfect message as we were stuck in this lockdown situation, with people complaining about how the situation was being handled.  It was very satisfying sewing onto the dish cloth, and it still sits on my sink, reminding me.  Later that day I spilt wine and couldn’t resist making the companion piece! (go and find it!)

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”

('The Cloths of Heaven' by W.B Yeats) 

The theme was ‘Hard surface’ which the slate certainly provides.  The harshness of the sun emphasises that,  and the softness of the rose petals presented such a perfect contrast.  The petals were much more delicate to stitch on to and tore so easily I had to sew very carefully.    The phrase ‘tread softly’ comes from the Yeats poem and is often on my mind.  The petals were strewn like dreams at my feet.

This is the last image in a series of three photographs which show the deterioration of the rose.  I sewed the word ‘alone’ on the fresh leaf in response to the theme word ‘isolation’, but did not use it.  I often feel bad about cutting flowers, artificially shortening their life.  This was a beautiful rose, then it is sad to see its decay.  By the time we get to this, the last image, the word ‘alone’ implies that loneliness causes decline.  Perhaps it does....

This image was made as lockdown was relaxed and I went for a walk in the abbey gardens.  It was so good seeing a different environment, but also felt a little scary as there is no knowing now how the world will change.  I left the leaves in the pond for others to come across.

Following on from the doorstep environment challenge I have found myself working more onto plants both in my garden, and out and about.  Often it is the damage on leaves or plants caused by insects and birds that calls me to make an intervention, other times words, or fragments of song or speech lead me to a make a piece.

I have called the collection ‘Passing thoughts’ as that is what they are.  If I were to attempt to define what each image is trying to capture that would be it.  Passing thoughts.  A lifetime of listening, and reading, of words in your ear, your head, in your life, on the radio, in song, in passing.  The words that accompany you, stick with you, earworm you. These are the things that come out of the blue to make an image.

The piece ‘Not moth’ looks at the holes in the Bergenia.  Something is eating it up.  Working with clothes as I do it is not unusual to be upset by holes appearing in woollen or silk garments, but I know exactly what makes those.  I thought of darning the Bergenia leaves, but instead, outlined the holes in blanket stitch, drawing attention to them while I considered the damage.  I next patched some holes, with offcuts of other leaves, using panto-like stitching as a nod to what I might normally be making if at work.   

Once you start looking at damage on plants it is everywhere.  Some of it actually very beautiful, bringing new colours and texture to the leaves, sometimes the culprits are right there, aphids, caterpillars, wasps laying eggs, taunting.  Or rather, just getting on with their lives really!  

Having acquired a set of old handkerchiefs I had in mind all the words we use associated with handing a handkerchief to someone, phrases of consolation, and compassion, and the uses for a handkerchief.  ‘It’s going to be alright’ is central to the handkerchief featuring the most damaged leaves.  While sewing the words ‘plagued’, ‘diseased’, ‘wounded’, ‘maimed’ and ‘blighted’ to label the leaves, I was thinking about the whole situation with Covid19.  

I left the handkerchief under a shrub in the soil.  For five weeks it stayed there weathering whatever came at it there on the soil.  At the end of its lockdown, there was very little of the leaves left, some were completely gone, some staining and dirt marking the cotton.  Having now laundered the handkerchief, it bears the stitches, the words, and the marks permanently.  I think the world will bear the marks of this pandemic too, no matter how hard we try to make it better.

Some of the other work I have been making is leading me back to my love of costume and clothing and maybe as the autumn creeps upon us this will be the most natural direction to pursue.  First steps are the embellishments I applied to the white linen jacket I made in May for another project.  While the leaves in the images relate to what was happening in July, I have further plans for this garment.  I hope I get around to sewing them


Heidi McEvoy Swift, graduated in Textiles, from Central St. Martins in 1985. She has since, worked as a motif and garment graphics designer, been a lecturer in textiles in FE, run workshops in various arts and crafts as well as taught sewing. On hindsight, Heidi says “ during my textile design course I made up handprinted or knitted fabrics into garments and should probably have actually studied fashion.” Originally from Liverpool, Heidi, her husband and two sons, now  live in Suffolk, UK. Despite residing there for more than half her life, she confesses to not being “in love with the flat dry prairie like landscapes. Even though the “lack of rain is a distinct advantage to someone who would most happily be in sunshine all year round.”  


Instagram handle: @mcmcswift (aka Heidi McEvoy Swift)

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Personal Threads: A Dentist Becomes a Crochet Artist, Guest Post by Monica Dalvi

 My love and passion for all things handcrafted goes way back to when I was a little girl. I remember melting my leftover  wax crayon stubs and turning them into  pretty candles. I also have wonderful  memories of hand sewing little dresses for my dolls when I was twelve years old and vacationing with my aunt, my mother’s sister, in  Pune. It was the summer vacation and I wanted to spend a few days with her and my cousins. My cousin taught me and  my niece to sew the clothes for our dolls with little leftover scraps of fabric. I remember always being on the lookout for someone to teach me some form of needle-work. I learned Kutchhi embroidery from a neighbour. She had  learnt it from a friend and was happy when I asked her if she would teach me how to do it as well.

In a few  years we moved to live in another town. A neighbour there used to  crochet. She had an amazing trousseau made for her daughter with wonderful  bedspreads  that were so beautifully made. It was she who taught me  how to crochet ,something that I will always  be grateful for, as now  I’m having the most wonderful time making crochet jewellery. In almost every home that we used to visit, I noticed some crochet item  that was displayed. Usually  made with white thread, this beautiful lace always fascinated me.Whether it was a table runner or a table cover, I longed to learn how to make them myself. And although I loved it all, I was interested later in life to give it a more non-traditional spin. And that’s how I thought of making crochet jewellery. I  thought it was something unique yet at the same time using the traditional art.

When I was eighteen years old, there was a group  of Rajasthani labourers  assigned to do some pipework near our house. One of their wives would sit by  our house embroidering the most beautiful ghagra. It was something she was making for herself. When asked whether she would teach me how to do it too and she was more than willing. She was happy that her work was appreciated. I learned to do mirror work embroidery from her. She was a good teacher and it only took me a couple of days to learn all the beautiful stitches. And soon I  went on to embroider a ghagra for my sister who was then 24 years old then and one of her friends was to be married in Delhi. Her friend had gifted her an embroidered blouse and we decided to pair it off with a black ghagra embroidered with different colours. It took me about 2 months to finish it and my sister absolutely loved it.

However, despite my early learning, fascination and exposure to various forms of thread art, I had always dreamed of being a dentist. In this pursuit, I was inspired by the lady dentist who  treated me when I was young. I was 15 and used to have several issues with my teeth and therefore a frequent visitor to the dentist.  I  loved how patient soft spoken she was, always putting me at ease, she had a gentle hand when working on my teeth. But, despite this vocational choice, all through my college years, I always had some art project going on too. Looking back I realise that craft and art was what helped me de-stress. It was a busy time with projects to submit in college  and patients to see. Exams used to stress me out too. Working on an art project helped transport me into a different world. My fondest project was a kantha work saree project that took three years to complete. I would work on it when I would get time from my college work. I could usually work on it about 3 hours a day but when I had exams or other college projects the saree had to sadly  be ignored. I first saw a kantha saree at a party we went to, where a friend’s mother was wearing one. I was fascinated by it  and wanted to make one too. So we asked her if we could borrow it to look at it and see how the work was done. She was kind enough to do that.

When I got married, everyone was so sure I would have a huge trousseau made. But I had made nothing .Traditional embroidery  on  bed-sheets and pillows just didn’t seem to hold any appeal to me. After I was married, we moved to  the US. Unfortunately, Indian dental degrees are not recognised there and I was unable to work. The only option I had   was to study  again for another three years. Something I  wasn’t willing to do, as we meant to move back to India as soon as we possibly could. I was a full time homemaker and enjoying  every moment of it. Even  though I wasn’t  a big foodie myself,  I loved cooking new recipes. At that point,   pretty much everything was new, as the kitchen was a domain that I hadn’t regularly  visited before. But cooking used up only a little bit of time in the day. I learnt to drive and discovered the wonderful library in our city. I absolutely love to read and the well-stocked library was a dream come true. By accident, I also discovered a little club that  the library hosted called  the embroiderers club where women  got together to share their love for sewing and needlework, and would  sit and chat and work on their individual art /craft  projects. They would get together twice a week and I looked forward to meeting them and get started on my own project. I had learned to cross stitch  when I was in school and decided to start on a cross stitch project .The women from the group  helped  me improve my work by showing me how to be neater with my stitches. I was the youngest in the group and they were all so loving, kind and helpful. I was 23 years old  at that time and the women were mostly in  the age group of 55-75. I was pregnant with my first baby  and made several little things in cross stitch  for my baby’s room. I found really cute designs, on the internet, of baby animals which I made and framed to put up on the wall. I also cross-stitch baby book of animals, for my baby to learn from when he was older. It was hard for me to continue going to the club but I am left with really warm, lovely memories of my time there.

My baby boy was born in Sept 2002  and we named him Ved. It opened up a whole different world for me. New things to learn as a new mother and everything just kept me so busy. But I always found time to sew or embroider. I had my mom to help me  through the first 5 months of motherhood. Luckily I was also blessed with a baby who was non-fussy and slept  through the night. It was therefore quite easy to fall into a good routine and I would find time to do some sewing while the baby napped during the day. Growing up, I always saw my  mother and my grandmother sewing different things. My mother would sew all our clothes for us. Wonderful creative dresses that she would see in magazines or in a  movie and then recreate them for my sister and I. My  grandmother would make us quilts. Traditional quilts made out of old  well-worn cotton sarees called “gozdis or godhadis”.They would  be layered and then hand sewn together. Soft and warm -a blanket of love. In Goa, the ladies from the Hindu community would wear the soft cotton nine yard saree. After a few years of use they would be converted  into the quilt. Usually hand stitched, these quilts were made by layering the sarees together and had a hand stitched design in  the body of the quilt to prevent  the layers from separating out. My mother would tell me stories of how her grandfather, an artist, would draw the design on  the centre of the quilt so his wife could then sew on. Typically, the design used to be in parallel lines or concentric circles or X’s all over the body. Unfortunately, this is now a dying art as younger women no longer wear the nine yard saree. So the tradition of making the gozdis has petered out with few people still making them, if that. Growing up, all my friends and youngsters of  my generation had one made by their grandmother and these were what were used by everyone. Now with the availability of  ready blankets and quilts, the gozdis are also not preferred. I must admit I haven't made one myself but it’s definitely on  my to-do list.

Watching my  mother and my  grandmother  always involved in sewing something or other nurtured that same passion in me. My mother was always so quick in her sewing work. She would make dresses for us within a couple of hours. Watching her use the machine I  too learned how to use it and would help her at times. I wanted to sew things for  my children too  and carry on  that  legacy,  so while in the US,  I bought a sewing machine and started work. My baby was a year old and a lot of my friends now had babies too. I made quilts as gifts for my friends when they had babies. These were my very amateur attempts at quilting. I made one in the design that I had seen my grandmother make with triangular patches of fabric joined together. I made Halloween  outfits for my kids. When  my second baby Isha was born, two years after Ved, life got even busier. But sewing when I could, was something I looked forward to. I would find time when the kids were asleep or were busy playing. My kids loved Halloween and I loved making their costumes. A scarecrow costume for my son one year, a cat in the  hat another year. A mermaid dress and an Egyptian mummy costume for my daughter.

The children kept me busy. And their illnesses kept me stressed. My son was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome when he was two years old and two years later my daughter, aged two,  developed asthma.  This meant  several years of sleepless nights, doctor visits, endless medications and frantic runs to the emergency room. Living in a  foreign country  with no family for support, dealing with a culture different  to the one you were brought up in, with laws that you are not familiar with, all told, was a lot for me to contend with and it took its toll. My craft-work, my sewing projects were my happy place, my meditation. Making things for my children and my friends kept me sane. Cross-stitch was something I very much enjoyed doing. I made a   beautiful design with  the zodiac signs of the four of us in the family. We had it framed and it hung on the bedroom wall of the room that  my husband and I shared. I loved this work as I felt it encapsulated  the four of  us, together as a family.

We decided to move back to India  in 2009, almost 10  years after we had first set foot in the USA.  Our children were seven and five years old . They still got sick a lot but, I guess I learned to deal with it all better than when they were younger. The silver lining was that  finally, I was going back home! My joy knew no bounds as  I moved with the children back to our village Nerul in  Goa, while my husband stayed on in the USA for a few more months to wind up  all our affairs. I was thrilled to be back in Goa and decided to go  back  to my profession and begin my dental practice, which  I had missed tremendously. In a few months though, once my husband moved  back and started his job in Mumbai, we moved there. The kids started on a new routine, a new school and a whole new life. Unfortunately, what also followed was a new series  of illnesses. The pollution in Mumbai  was too  much for their little bodies to handle. My son kept relapsing with his kidney disorder and developed asthma due to the pollution. My daughter too  got sick with asthma. Too many missed school days and doctor visits kept me too occupied to be anything other than a full time mother. There was no way I would leave  the kids to someone else’s care while I worked. My children needed me much more than I needed a career. I kept busy  with several creative ideas - painted the children's room. I painted a garden on the wall for my daughter’s bedroom  and a beach-side for my son’s.

But, I missed my sewing . The machine I had in the US was an electric one and I wasn't sure how well it would work in India, so I had sold it before we moved back. I bought a new sewing machine and life was all right again. However, while shopping for some fabric and threads one day, I came across some crochet threads. I used to love to crochet when I was in school and it had been such a long time since I had done it last. I thought I must get my hands on some crochet needles and threads and  make something unique - something other than traditional crochet items. Serendipitously, I came across pictures of crochet jewellery on  the internet and fell in love with the concept and thus began my crochet journey. It’s been eight years since then. We moved back to our hometown of Goa six years ago. Our children, bigger now, are  healthier. The unpolluted, wonderful sea air of Goa helped them heal. My son went  into remission and no longer has kidney issues. Mercifully, there are  no trips to the emergency rooms, no medications to  keep track of, no specialists to visit, no middle of the night wheezing episodes. I sleep deeply and peacefully through the  night. Not like earlier when I would wait with  bated breath fearing a phone call from school to pick up my sick child. My mind is finally calm and I decided I now needed to do something more meaningful with  my time, with my life. Something for me.

I considered going back to being a dentist. But, you know how you  had that one very  best friend in school  when you were ten years old but had lost all contact because  you changed schools or she moved to a different city. Then, thanks to social media you  find her again after thirty years, and can’t wait to meet her. Yet when you actually do ,that initial euphoria just fades off after a few minutes of catching up and you realise that bond is just not there anymore and rue that loss?  Well, that is exactly how I felt. It had been fifteen  years since  I had last  been a dentist . I missed it, but with so many  years gone by without practicing my trade, I didn’t know how to be a dentist anymore. I  tried to get back in touch but nothing was the same .The joy I once felt just wasn’t there.  Art was now where my heart lay. I was the happiest with a needle and yarn in my hands. Dentistry is an art too, a skill which needs practice and I was out of practice. With my needles and yarn, it was stress free. I had had enough stress in my life. I decided it was time to pursue something that gave me peace of mind.


I started on my crochet jewellery  journey making earrings. With all the appreciation I received, my work evolved to include pendants and necklaces. I also made coasters. While I enjoyed my crochet, I also missed sewing. So I tried to think of what I could make with fabric that was innovative and new. I started to make fabric toys. People loved these and so my range of toys increased. Over the years I always tried to include something new in my crafts. I then started to make cross stitch jewellery. With it came more appreciation and I couldn't have been happier. With the kids now almost independent, I have so much time for my creative pursuits. My son will  be eighteen this year and my daughter 16. They are still dependent on me for a few things but compared to when they were little and we were in  the US, I have so  much more time now. They also help me with  my crafts. My daughter has an artistic bent and helps me with the designing. They both give me an honest critique of my craft. That involvement makes me enjoy my work even more. My mother is also my sounding board and helps me with my work .We spend many hours together working on projects. The joys of being home!

When I started my craft journey in 2014 there was not much that I knew about the crafters groups  in Goa. At an exhibition, I met Aira, who introduced me to a lot of artists and groups and has played a pivotal role in my growth as an artist .Together we connected to a lot of fellow hand-crafters and for the last three years conduct craft fairs that showcase work of craftspeople who specialise in handcrafted items. 


Monica Dalvi, a former dentist by profession, is presently an artist by passion and a full-time mother. Residing in Goa, India - the world's best place to call home. I love all forms of needlework; embroidery, crochet, cross-stitch. And look forward to learning many more forms of needle art.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Personal Threads : Blessings From a Grandmother, Guest Post by Ina Puri

My dearest Samaira,
Long before you read about the fabled Pokkhiraaj - the winged horse that is believed to have magical powers to fight evil, you will own an exquisitely embroidered kantha that will narrate many a story. Tales of valour, romance and enchantment. When your great-grandmother, your father’s Nani Konchi, started stitching the kantha, it was for her grandson Arjun, your father. We were in Baharampur, Murshidabad, where my grandparents lived in a rambling house filled with books and memories.
Ina with her son Arjun

It is hardly mentioned now, but the British East India Company started its journey from Murshidabad which was the capital of pre-British Bengal, and Bankim Chandra  Chatterjee who composed the famed ‘Vande Mataram’, wrote his epic ‘Anandamath’ sitting on the banks of the Bhagirathi that flows through our very own Baharampur. In fact, Kashida, the exquisite silk embroidery on cotton was at one time exported exclusively from Bengal, its main centres around Dhaka and Murshidabad.
A Balaposh
Those days, I was looking for a Balaposh – a yearning for that subtly fragrant, soft and comforting quilt. Although it is a quilt, the only quilting stitches are on the edges. It was a speciality of the artisans of Murshidabad, made by craftspeople known to our family. The Balaposh is traditionally layered, with ‘attar scented’ cotton, infolded between two fabrics of silk cloth, and sewn at the edges. It was first made in the Mughal era on request by Nawab Shujauddin Muhammad Khan who commissioned a quilt  “soft like wool, warm like a lap, and gentle like a flower.” 
Flowering Bakul Tree (Indian Medlar)
On days that I stepped out, in search of a one, my mother (your great-grandmother) would sit in the garden, under the fragrant flowering Bakul tree (Indian Medlar or Bulletwood tree), stitching away. The evenings stretched long and as we, on my mother's side of the  family shared stories and anecdotes amongst ourselves, to while away the hours, Ma would spread out the silk cloth -a  smallish, baby-sized quilt length, and fill in the imaginary squares which she had, probably, already marked out in her mind. The box with different coloured silk threads and needles by her side, she would carry on stitching even when the lanterns and candles were brought out, during the daily power cuts.

Konchi's Kantha, Hand sewn for her grandson Arjun

It was a time I recollect with fondness, when our family, spanning generations - my maternal grandparents, mashis (aunts) and cousins, all gathered at our ancestral  home in  Murshidabad,  just to be together. It had been an uncharacteristically cold February that particular year, some thirty years ago, but the room was warm and alive with conversations and laughter. We begged Boro Mashi (Mahasweta Devi) to tell us one of her famous ghost stories and huddled close, as she obliged. Outside, the night was full of mysterious shadows, lit occasionally, by the dancing fireflies.
Ina with her cousin, mother and aunt Mahashweta Devi,
who is doing the alpana
Do you know, as long as I can remember, kanthas have always been a part of our household. A light blanket which was ideal for summer or monsoon nights, was usually made by the women who specialized in the art and turned discarded and worn-out sarees into a beautifully embroidered quilt. It was worked with the myriad stitches of kantha needlework. The main distinguishing feature of a kantha was the pattern created by the concurrent lines of running stitch, sewn in white thread securing together the layers of cloth, which gave the surface a textured, rippled feel. If the designate purpose was to use the cloth as a regular covering, this puckering quilted surface was left unadorned but, if it was designed as a wall hanging or stole, then the kantha-maker would embroider it with motifs that were artistic and imaginative.

Detail of Konchi's Kantha

My grandmother (your great-great-grandmother) told us that the earliest reference to kantha in Bengali literature date back to the verses in Charyapadas (8th to the 11th centuries CE) They are a collection of mystical poems, in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, derived from the tantric tradition during the Pala Empire in Ancient Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Orissa. It was written in an ‘Abahatta’ (evolving language) that was the ancestor of Bengali and other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, and is said to be the oldest collection of verses written in those languages.
The family celebrating Bhai PhoNta
or Bhai Dooj
A fleeting hush would descend when Didima spoke about the history of Bengal, its textiles or customs. The younger people in the room would find it  especially fascinating to know that Baharampur had such a rich heritage. We had all visited the historic ‘Hazarduari’ or a ‘palace with a thousand doors’ with our grandparents, built on the lands of the demolished fort Kila Nizamat which stood on  the banks of  the  Bhagirathi River, in Murshidabad.  And, with the pride of true Bengali’s  our hearts had thrilled to hear about the bravery and courage of Siraj ud-Daullah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, who, deceived by his own men, faced the British cavalry fiercely, armed with a mere sword, in the decisive ‘Battle of Plassey’. The end of his reign marked the start of British East India Company rule over Bengal and subsequently the Indian Subcontinent.
Fort Bahrampur, on the banks of the River Bhagirathi
While the conversations flowed through the evening, Ma worked on her kantha completely lost to the world. Who can tell, what was going on in her mind.  I would ask myself, if she was imagining a conversation with her yet to be born grandson. In front of her, the Kantha she was embroidering was getting more and more elaborate every day, a magical fairyland inhabited with serpents, dancing peacocks, flowers and fruits, alphabets, nursery rhymes and board games with knots and crosses. In one corner, there were even the fabled birds familiar to us from our favourite bedtime storybook ‘ ‘Thakurmar Jhuli’, the Byangoma and Byangomi.
Another detail from Konchi's Kantha
 Samaira, wait till you are a little older, we will read these stories together and look at the pictures of all these enchanted creatures.
Baby Arjun
When I look at this kantha today, those soft folds that once swathed my infant son, following the layout with more focussed attention, I realize that what makes it so original is that Ma followed her own instincts when it came to the design. Creating a composition that was intimate yet visually appealing. We were aware that most conventional kanthas have a basic pattern that is common to them - a lotus at the centre embellished by vines of plants and motifs taken from old and worn sari borders. The four corners usually have the tree of life patterns that lead to the centre, with the ornamentations drawn from nature or mythologies. Images of goddesses are popular and Lakshmi is the one deity who remains a perennial favourite - her footprints  symbolically  represented through patterns of alpana. Newly married wives were known to show off their embroidery skills by making elaborate kanthas for their husbands, interspersed with lines of romantic poetry. In contrast, Ma’s creativity was uniquely her own personal language.
Manish Ghatak with his wife Dharitri Devi,
Ina's maternal grandparents
You would have enjoyed her company, Samaira. Ma was born to an illustrious family; her mother was Dharitri Devi and her father, the distinguished litterateur Manish Ghatak. He was a poet and novelist of the Kallol era (one of the most influential literary movements in Bengali literature), who used to write under the pen name ‘Jubanashwa’. Her eldest sister was the brilliant writer and activist Mahasweta Devi who studied in Shantiniketan. But, she was a strict disciplinarian when she came home for the holidays, keeping the large brood of younger siblings under a stringent regime. While the rest behaved, Ma was hauled up constantly. She was said to be extremely mischievous and was always getting into trouble. In her youth, she was a striking beauty with a fiercely independent mind, who stood up for what she believed was just and right. While her siblings went about their lives establishing themselves in diverse ways, Ma concentrated on her music.  And as she grew older, she developed  her other skills, like stitching, cooking and making alpana. She had just about started enjoying her life away from Baharampur, at her maternal uncle, the renowned sculptor, Sankho Chowdhury’s home in Baroda, where she was learning music, when her parents decided to marry her off to an eminent suitor, they considered suitable for her.

Ina's mother Konchi

No matter how tough life turned out to be, in later years, she never submitted to defeat and remained her indomitable self, full of spunk and laughter. Had she continued her studies in music, who knows, she might even have been a musician of distinction today. Yet, destiny had other plans for her, a life she lived with her entire being. Remaining till the end, unvanquished.
Another detail of Konchi's Kantha
Samaira, this embroidered cloth is a repository of song and words of poetry that came alive as she embroidered the squares, almost a delicate memoir of her recollections and desires. While she continued to stitch even after making this one for Arjun, she never made another quite so intricate or exquisite. Someday, when you are older, read this story  when you look at the kantha. Imagine the life that was, imagine the hands that held the fabric and fingers that lovingly sewed, carrying forth a tradition of our native Bengal
Ina with her mother
 If Ma were around, I know she would want to add just another frame, of a little girl with shiny eyes and curly hair, laughing hard. Of you.
With all my love,
Your fond Dadi, Ina

Ina Puri is a writer, biographer, art curator and collector. She is the author of several books, including In Black & White (a biography of Manjit Bawa), Faces of Indian Art (iconic artists seen through the lens of Nemai Ghosh) and Journey with a Hundred Strings (on the music and life of Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma). She produced Meeting Manjit, a film on Bawa, her friend and collaborator, which won the National Award. She currently occupies the position of Editor at Art Varta and has recently published a pictorial memoir on Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma entitled, The Man and His Music.  Ina’s three-decade-long engagement with the arts embraces everything from tribal art and folk theatre to contemporary performing arts, visual arts and literature. She lives in Gurgaon with her husband, Ravi, and canine soulmate, Leyla.