The creation of Atara: a design journey
To give a clear idea of my working methodology and the process that brought shape to Atara, I am including my journal at this point.
There have been three presentations this month, to plan and concretize our concepts. I have been given a write up with what I need to look at when I plan my concept, but I am still not sure about what I want to do. Presentation #1 has me explaining two different concepts that are not very practical, and I am asked to work on them a little more. Presentation #2 with Ms. Sumithra, my project guide, and Ms. Anuradha, my external mentor, sees me with two more options, but these, thankfully, a little more workable. The product I have decided upon is yardage and I want to use as my inspiration bridges, or the desert. I am asked to go back, explore and plan on what techniques I can use to express my ideas best. After two weeks of experimentation, I come back for presentation #3. Final option: bridges. However, ‘bridges’ are too vast an inspiration. I need to narrow it down. I look at just Chennai and decide I want a bridge that can be used as a symbol of my city. There can be no second choice; it has to be the Iron Bridge. My product needs to be eco-friendly because that is very important to me. I decide to look at natural dyes and see how it can be worked out. Concept decided, inspiration decided.
I pay a visit to what has now become ‘my’ bridge. Dawn at the Napier’s bridge, with the first rays of the sun glimmering on the sea and a pleasantly cool breeze is magnificent, even with a sleepy and irritated brother in tow. I start taking photographs. Black and white, sepia, colour, close-ups, angles, shadows… I take pictures on my borrowed camera till my brother threatens to throw me into the river if I don’t stop. Back home, I put all the pictures onto my desktop and get to work. I draw the bridge till I am familiar with its shape from most angles. Now the drawings automatically become simpler and can easily be reduced into workable designs. I doodle bridges in my free time, during lectures, in the margins of my book, on odd scraps of paper, and slowly, designs emerge. I refine these on the computer, and discover that interesting effects can be achieved while doodling on Illustrator. I work till I have a body of designs.
I visit Godown Street and buy grey cotton (gada) cloth. The fabric on Cotton Street has more weave variations and cost a good deal more. I go to Nalli in T Nagar, Kumaran Silks and Rasi Silks in Mylapore, and T Mangharams in Parrys for my silks. I buy samples and compare prices till I have an idea of where I can buy my fabrics the cheapest without compromising on quality.
I visit Ms. Lavanya of Kalpana Creations, who conducts workshops on natural dyeing and speak to her regarding natural dyes, colours and methods of implementation. I decide that unless I try out the same, I cannot get a proper understanding of the process. I buy the material and get to work grinding, boiling, straining, dyeing, soaping, rinsing, drying and going thru the same process again till I am tired. My hands are a yellowish tint; all my food has the bitter tang of kadukai, and the grinder is broken. The colours are mostly green and brown, with none of the red and yellow I am supposed to get. I later discover my proportions are wrong, and I have let the fabric soak for too long. At least I can now recognize the basic dyes and what colours they can be expected to produce. More importantly, I have learnt what not to do.
A visit to the Weavers’ Service Centre is called for, to get further information on printing using natural dyes. On meeting Mr. Mahalingam, their expert on dyeing, he tells me where exactly I have gone wrong in my natural dyeing experimentation: I have used 40g of alum where I should have used just 10g. Weavers’ Service Centre cannot execute block printing with natural dyes in large quantities, as it doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure. He suggests I ask at Kalakshetra, where there is a Kalamkari and natural block-printing unit. He gives me the number of Mr. Ramachandran, Manager, Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC), Kalakshetra Foundation. When I have explained at Kalakshetra what I need, they agree to allow me to execute my project in their unit. However, they have certain limitations: they are best at printing only the colours red, black and chocolate brown, the yellows, blues and greens being more extensively used by the Kalamkari section. My colour experimentation is a little restricted, but working with just three colours (and the base colour) is a challenge and I want to see just how much I can do with it. The printing charges at Kalakshetra are much lower than I expect, at Rs.30 per metre for single coloured blocks. Meanwhile, during the project reviews that have been going on simultaneously, I show my block designs. The ten best designs are selected from among the lot, and I am asked to refine the repeats and give them for carving. I send the designs to Mr. Gangadhar from Pedana, Andhra Pradesh, who is a National Award winning craftsman for woodblock carving, with the promise that I will get my blocks within two weeks.
I go to Kalakshetra to do my colour sampling. However, since I only give small swatches of fabric, they will print it in the middle of their own work, and so do not allow me to view the process involved. This is very disappointing, and I try my best to convince the supervisor, Ms. Banumathi, that I need to be there while the printing is done, but to no avail. I finally give up, and since I plan on giving further samples of different varieties of silk, I decide to try and get permission at least then. The samples are ready in a week, and I discover, much to my delight, that although only three colours have been used, the dye works differently on different fabrics, giving me a variety of tints and shades. The cotton shows the up best; the designs are clear and the colours, bright. On the silks, the colours are a lot more subdued, and the textured silks do not facilitate clear printing. However, the silks have a beauty and lustre of their own that is, in my opinion, unmatched by cotton, however better the design is shown on the latter. I continue working on my mood board, but do not put in the colour swatches yet, as I am not sure of how many colour variations I might get. I go back to Kalakshetra with more fabric: tussah, tussah cotton, linen, and crepe silk from Nalli, and a thinner cotton fabric from Pantheon Road. This time, I manage to get permission to stay and see the process. Since my fabric is of very small quantity, altogether coming up to merely two and a half metres, it is not worked by itself, but with the other fabric that the unit is printing.
I learn that the process has seven stages: scouring and bleaching, soaking in a myrobalan (kadukai/harda) bath, printing, washing, boiling, soap wash and ironing. In between these processes, the fabric has to be dried from between a day to two days. The process is long and laborious, and very time consuming, taking at least a week to finish a single piece of cloth. There are four people in the printing section and three women do the scouring, bleaching, washing, boiling and dyeing. The only place I am allowed to do more than observe is during the washing and boiling stage, where I get into the shallow cement tank that compensates for the lack of a running water source. I hold the fabric under the water and try very hard to follow the instructions given to me. By the time I wash my five small sample pieces, I am dripping, and look like a wet crow after a thunderstorm. After the fabric has dried out, I have the doubtful honour of adding them to a vessel of boiling dye. This involves working the fabric in the dye bath, not only with the pole provided, but also my hands. I gingerly lift out the fabric and drop it right back in with a big splash; it is way too hot. I am advised to hold it with the tips of my fingers, and use the pole for help. I am slowly getting the hang of this. By the fifth fabric, I confidently dip the fabric and work it, and turn to smile triumphantly at the watching women, when I dip my finger along with the fabric into the bath. That is the end of dyeing for me. I am also allowed to soap and beat the fabric on the washing stone. I valiantly get to work whacking and scattering soap in all directions, largely on myself. Extra benefits of my personal involvement: free washing and soaping of self. I leave Kalakshetra with my samples, feeling very clean.
With sampling dealt with, I make a list of fabrics I need to buy. The gada is bought from Godown Street, the silks and linen from Nalli, and only the pure silk from Kumaran Silks. I buy twenty-five metres of cotton and five metres each of raw silk, linen, tussah, pure silk and tussah cotton. On later measurement, I discover that the cotton is only ninety-five centimetres where there should be a metre. I find out that this is how gada is sold in Godown Street; and the wholesalers who buy from there are aware of this fact. I have to go back and buy more fabric. When I go to Kalakshetra to start work, I face a huge problem. I had failed to mention in my initial letter that I would need fifty metres of fabric printed, instead only stating that I will need to get my final execution done. I am told that I cannot print so much fabric, but I can print up to five metres of samples. I am totally heartbroken and terribly worried. On talking to Ms. Sumithra, she tells me not to worry, and if nothing else works, I can still get my blocks printed with synthetic pigments. My very USP is the fact that I am using natural dyes. How impressive will my project be if I revert to synthetic pigments? I am inconsolable. The next day, I go back and try explaining how badly I need to complete my project at Kalakshetra. This time, the Chairperson, CERC, gives me permission. I am so relieved, I could weep for joy. Final execution starts! I do the printing in two batches, first the silks and linen, then the cotton. The blocks are unusual, and Prema, my printer, finds it a little difficult to print. She is not used to blocks with so many pins, and is finding it difficult to check the alignment so that the pin marks are not seen. The raw silk and linen do not allow for clear printing, and I go behind Prema as she prints, and fill in the areas where the dye has not touched. The pure silk throws out the design very well, and so does the tussah. I follow Prema around the printing table like an anxious hen. Luckily, she does not protest. The cottons are next, and I tell her to print alternate rows in another colour. This takes a longer time because she needs to change the tray after every row. For a delicate design, she spreads a thin cloth on the dye in the tray so that less dye is taken onto the block and the printing is clearer. The bolder blocks, I discover, smudge at the edges and the outlines are soft and blurry. Next follows a period of worry for me, as a cyclone near Lakshadweep brings about some unexpected rain in Chennai. The silks, luckily, have all dried, but my cotton needs at least two days in the sun before washing. Rains followed by bouts of sunshine keep me swinging between anxiety and relief. I sit in the sandy courtyard next to my fabric, watching the approaching clouds. Just before the rain starts, I grab them and run indoors. After many rounds of this routine, the rains stop, and I am able to continue with the work. The silks go for washing and boiling first, while the cotton dries out in the sun. The first batch comes out fine, but the chocolate is more like dark chocolate this time, as opposed to the milk chocolaty colour in my samples. After the washing and boiling of the cotton, I find that the pin marks and smudges, which were somehow lost on the silks, are very prominent here. One of the bolder designs has smudged rather badly, and one design, printed in black has somehow turned gray after the washing. Apparently, the colours depend on the fabric as well, and even the same cotton, if from a different bale, takes on different colours while dyeing. After soap washing, the fabric is ironed. The last day has me taking photographs of all the women, with a lot of delighted posing. I pay for my printing, the rates having been increased to Rs.45 for cotton and Rs.50 for silk, and dyeing is now charged at Rs.70 per metre. I guess it was too good to last! Still, the amount of work that goes into printing one single fabric is worth much more than the money I pay. I collect my finished work on 29th March 2008. I make up a few pieces to give an idea of how my fabric could look when it is stitched. I also use the fabrics in which smudging has happened or the colour has bled when boiling. A lot of it is covered up during the stitching. I also print two saris in pure silk and tussah cotton, to show that my designs are adaptable and can be used in different layouts.
Atara has been to me much more than a project; it has been a journey. It has pushed me and tested my limits, it has shown me that the world is not a kind and sympathetic place, and yet again has shown me at unexpected times that there are people who go out of their way to help, encourage and support. Atara has created for me memories and experiences I will carry with me the rest of my life. It has been to me a personal crossover, a vision fulfilled, a tribute to the things I love. Atara has become an extension of myself.