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.