Alka is India’s first trained art curator, and is a unique combination of a writer, curator and painter, with proven excellence in all three. Recipient of the prestigious Chameli Devi Award for Journalism, she has been honoured by the Charles Wallace Trust Award – the first person to have got it in India.
A student of both classical Indian dance and music, she believes that all art forms are interdependent and have shared sensibilities. Her deep-rooted interest in Indian textiles shows in the selection of colours in her paintings. The lyricism of music, the fluidity of her paintings, the whiff of theatre sets and props are reflected in the design of her curatorial work. She has been a very successful journalist and columnist and has held senior editorial positions in BBC, Indian Express, Times of India, Pioneer and was arts editor of Swagat. Her curated shows and her own paintings both have been part of the international art scene in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, Berlin, Italy and the United States. She has launched two art portals – Pioneerarts.com and Enkitaarts.com.
What you see now is the recreated me which has traversed a long and arduous journey to get to this point. I use the word ‘recreated’ with deep understanding and humility. I feel that to remain relevant, you need to recreate yourself every half a decade. That recreation can be in the form of upgrading a skill, acquiring new knowledge, the intrinsic description about you must change and expand.
Journalism was something I had prepared myself for and I felt that I was on firmer grounds, writing on the arts as my own training in the arts – Kathak and Hindustani vocal would be a huge support. I dramatically walked into Arun Shourie’s office in the Indian Express and got a job way back in 1982 – despite the fact I was quaking inside! Worked there for seven years, challenged the male bastion of becoming a chief sub-editor, virtually pushed the editors to devote a weekly page on the arts. Joined the Times of India, where again pushed and got a weekly arts page instituted. The arts is one arena that is a storehouse of so much news and most of it never gets out and I felt it needed to be told.
Cultural watermarks are the real thing I still feel. So many dances, music, theatre and visual art forms, so many crafts, so many handloom styles and so many of them dying unsung as there were increasingly fewer takers everyday. The painful struggle to remain an artist or a performer when poverty knocks, to sustain one’s space in the spotlight after having made it, are all such an intrinsic part of the arts. I started with curating Shatadru a show of 55 women artists from across the country – this included craftswomen, folk painters, and traditional artisans. Contemporary women painters like Kanchan Chandar, Arpana Caur and Madhavi Parekh come together with them to work on the same canvas and it became a landmark show for its sheer outreach and because it triggered off new phases in the lives of their art.
I joined the National Literacy Mission (NLM) as a media consultant, wrote, edited and produced material for policy makers of literacy. I curated art shows with literacy and education of women and their empowerment as core themes. I worked with folk and traditional performing artists to create sahitya for their performances so as to incorporate literacy and messages of social concern into their narratives.
Returned to India after the Charles Wallace to study at Goldsmith’s College and curated many art shows with an emphasis on incorporating indigenous design as an important part of the presentation. Part of these design initiatives has been my experience as a crafts crusader of sorts. It is rather unfortunate that we have allowed a schism between the high art and the art of the craftsman. We in India have the distinction of being the only country where the largest number of people are involved in the crafts sector, second only to agriculture.
Of the many design initiatives I have done on textiles, the Ehsaas project remains the closest to my heart. In this, I juxtaposed paintings of contemporary artists like Niren Sengupta, Shridhar Iyer, Manisha Gawade and my own work to create wearable art, again a pioneering effort. I created sarees, unisex stoles, ties, leather bags and miniature paintings as jewelry for it. It remains the largest moving installation as 32 performing artists joined together to walk the ramp as part of this project. It was an enviable line up of a veritable who’s who of the art world – Birju Maharaj, Sonal Mansingh, Shovana Narayan, Sharon Lowen, Sudhir Tailang, Madhvi Mudgal, Bhajan Sopori, Madhup Mudgal, Wasiffudin Dagar, Yamini Krishnamurti, to name just a few.
While Ehsaas was being created – for it took one year to put together, my impatience for something more immediate triggered off another foray into the design that continues to this day – my discovery of the wooden block as a vehicle of my creative expression. I created a small batch of 25 sarees from the blocks on heavy Tussar that turned out to be a such a huge success that in that season itself I ended up creating another batch and then it has become a regular feature. I work with weavers of a particular region depending on the season to weave sarees as per my design and colour combinations using their techniques. After they are done, I use wooden blocks with pigment paints on them so it is two craftspersons being brought together by the designer to create sarees that breathe with a single breath. So far I have worked with weavers from Chanderi, Maheshwar, Madhubani, Bhagalpur, Kanchipuram and parts of Assam.
Since I am an artist, my need is to create one of a kind saree. I prefer to keep the scale small and design only five to six sarees at one go to create truly one of a kind saree – no saree that I create is same. The basic colour, the juxtapositioning of the blocks, the colours used will always be different. Very occasionally on a very specific request, I might do one or two designs again. But that is rare. Of course, I have a specific style like an artist that makes my sarees recognizable and stand apart – something that artists are always striving to do.
The reasons my sarees are different is because my paramount concern is the comfort of the wearer so I work only on breathable natural fabrics, the other reason is that I believe in a reduced carbon imprint. My respect and love for handcrafted work is immense and so I use only handwoven textiles. And being a saree wearer, I understand the concerns of drape and weight of the fabric, design issues of where the motifs need to come to make the saree flatter the feminine silhouette far better than designers who don’t wear the saree.
Written by Alka Raghuvanshi, exclusively for Parisera.