Rich display of 4000-year-old art form leaves Chennai spellbound

Art, tradition, community and environmental responsibility -- this heady mix came alive in Chennai recently, when the first ever India Quilt Festival showcased the practice of quilting and its many forms. Citizen Matters in conversation with one of the organizers of the festival.

Over the Republic Day weekend, around 5000 Chennaiites flocked to an exhibition that showcased an art form that dates back to the days of the Indus Valley civilisation and is perhaps one of the oldest upcycling methods that has been traditionally and indigenously practised: Quilting.

The first edition of the India Quilt Festival took place from 25- 27 January, 2019. The event, a pioneer in the space, featured competitions, stalls, workshops and lectures on quilting. Citizen Matters spoke to Varsha Sundararajan, one of the organisers of the fest.

Does India have a special connection with quilting?

India has a 4000-year-old quilting history. If you see statues from Mohenjo Daro you’ll find that the depictions wear something similar to a quilted jacket. It means that the practice is that old. Subsequently when warriors went to war they wore metallic armours that would hurt their body. So they had to wear something that is soft inside it, so they wore vests that were quilted.

The word quilting means three layers attached together. Any three layers attached together is a quilt, which is why you have quilted art forms, bedsheets, bedcovers, comforters, handbags. The quilting tradition is not new to India. Quilting was used to even stitch rags together. So, it is one of the oldest forms of recycling and upcycling. Even now in parts of northern India vendors will walk the roads asking people if they would like quilts made from old materials in their homes.

In Southern India, Kaudi style of quilting is very famous in Karnataka. The reason the form is not very popular in Tamil Nadu is because of the temperatures. However, due to the advent of air conditioners now people do use quilts here as well.

How did the India Quilt Festival come about?

Three of us friends, Tina Katwal, Deepa Vasudevan and I formed Quilt India Foundation and we wanted to revive Indian quilting and bring it to the world stage. I lived in Australia and I have seen quilt shows. The three of us have seen these shows in other countries. Tina runs a quilting studio and we decided to commemorate the studio’s five- year anniversary with a quilt show.

In all countries of the world the quilt show has a competition element, we decided to have one as well. Tina has nurtured a community of quilters in a Facebook forum called Desi Quilters. We decided to open the competition up to the world. We were amazed at the response. We received 290 entries for the competition from 167 individuals from 11 countries. We had international judges, who followed a strict criteria to judge the competition.The judges took a whole day to decide on the 24 awards under the various categories.

We thought we should also have another elements such as an artisan showcase. So we showcased Kaudi quilting, Toda embroidery, Tent making, lace-making of Narsapur and also the works of the ‘needle man’ Arun Bajaj who does portraits with needle and thread on a sewing machine. We also had a travelling exhibit in quilts across time and nations, to showcase the change in trends.

How do you see the impact of the fest?

People now notice that quilting is a work of art. No one will look at a quilt the same way again if they have visited the fest. We have had a 9 year old make a quilt, a 11 year old make a quilt and a group of school girls from Naatarasan Kottai , a village in Sivagangai, also send in  an entry for the competition.

As we started looking at the fest from an inclusive point of view we got inquiries from all over the world. We got quilts from Guatemala for the competition as well as the exhibition.

The quilt made by students from Naatarasan Kottai. Pic: Aruna Natarajan

Initially, we thought we might get 50 – 100 entries but we got 290 entries. We made the decision to display all the quilts as this was the first show of its kind in India. We also had nine workshops spread over two days and two lectures. Thus we covered education, competition, the artisan showcase and even had a general marketplace where quilt-makers sold their creations.

The other thing we did was bring out a festival catalog. Since this is a historic event, we thought that every quilt that was made for the competition should find space and mention in the catalog. The catalog is 70 pages and 30 of these provide details and photos of the quilts in the competition. This year’s theme was ‘Dance of the Peacock’ — to commemorate the national bird.

What can you tell us about the quilting community?

People are now looking at fabric with a different eye. We find that many doctors enjoy quilting. It is a way to unwind. The quilting community is close-knit and very nurturing. Within the quilting group, we are weaving threads of life together and that is how this fest came about.

How long did it take to put together the festival?

It took a year of planning to execute; so the next edition will come up in two years’ time. Since this is something very new we had a hard time finding sponsors. Now that people have seen what this is, the next edition will be much bigger.

How much time does it take on an average to make a quilt?

It depends on the material, style and the technique used. A tiny quilt can be finished in a day, while there are some quilts here that have taken five years to make. People choose to do it entirely by hand as well. People make memory quilts. There was a quilt here called “Ties that Bind”– made entirely from ties. Even those exploring the theme have interpreted the dance of the peacock in very different ways.

What has been the greatest surprise element for you as you organised the festival?

People are loving the exhibits and many are coming by more than twice! It is wonderful that they are looking at quilts in a different light. Hopefully, they will now start accepting textile art as mainstream and quilting will be more than just a niche community pursuit.

What do you think the festival has done to the quilting scene here and what plans are in the works?

Indian quilters already compete in other festivals and now there is a home base for it. We have a plan to take the prize winning quilts as touring exhibits to different parts of the country, and perhaps even abroad, to showcase these works. Art should be accessible to all, and so we decided to not charge an entry fee. We want people to understand there exists something like this. 

How do you see the future of quilting?

The fact that a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old competed shows that if children are exposed to things other than a phone or electronic media they will take to it. Otherwise we will have a generation of zombies. Quilting also develops a sense of community and camaraderie. We are really looking forward to that. We want the younger generation to get interested. We also do not want it to be restricted to girls. Some of the most famous American quilters such as Ricky Tims and Danny Amazonas are men.

Quilting also is a great way to up-cycle and that’s how Indian quilting started. It is a way of going back to our roots. We were not a discarding society. A quilter will never throw away a piece of cloth. It is not just about beauty and art, it is about social interaction, saving resources and not polluting our planet. You can quilt with a needle and thread and discarded cloth or on a machine that costs Rs 6 lakh. Thanks to the presence of the Internet, you can learn the form through various means. The kind of satisfaction you get when you finish a quilt is fantastic and we want more people to take to it.

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