Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Textiles: Nishath Ahmed ~ Threads of urban identity

Nishath Ahmed in May 2012

 (This piece was written in 2003)

CAN AN urban environment be threaded through fabric experiments? Can flowing textures and tantalizing resist dyeing explorations be interpreted as city mappings? Can the eye and the hand coordinate to evoke beauty through the Japanese technique of Shibori, made tantalizingly pertinent to Bangalore's metaphors?

Positive answers to each question surface at textile designer Nishath Ahmed's first exhibition under the newly-launched Nish label, on view at Cinnamon on Walton Road from January 17 to February 2. The display, which includes saris, scarves, stoles, running lengths, cushions, and home accents in silks from Karnataka, flowing abuthai fabric from China, staple tussar and viscose, are exquisite in terms of colour variations, tonal impressions, and Shibori finesse.

Priced between Rs. 900 and 6000, these one-of-a-kind creations result from folding fabric in layers, stitched to seemingly random patterns, then dyeing the yardage in rich hues that shade and emerge in mysterious patterns. Much like the trails created by the unpredictable way in which a city pulses, breathes and redefines itself constantly?

These luminous textiles, many of which sold out even before the show formally opened, were nascent in Nishath's diploma project, when she graduated from the local Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in 2001. Titled "Urban Threads," Nishath set out to look at embroidery within the environment she was most familiar with and sensitive to, the city. Viewing the urban collage, she discerned within it movement, transition, structure, commotion, confusion, energy and chaos, complexity and uncertainty. Nishath opted to entwine these experiences into her embroidery through explorations of technique, not as mere embellishment.

The result is breathtaking. Emerald green and muted white play at hide and seek in patterns that wave and weave through the length of a viscose scarf. Ripples of orange surge and spread, then ebb tide-like, on the pallav and border of an areca-red silk sari. Panels of golden yellow and green, trellised with exquisite Shibori, bring alive the surface of a rich brown cushion cover. Delicate pink bylanes and pathways of white make inroads into a flowing length in magenta, while pathways of post-stitch perforations add an unusual dimension. Deep accents in turquoise and cerulean playfully crisscross a spread of silken fabric, ideal for a divan cover or a wall hanging.

"I wanted to create embroidery that is rooted in the urban context, very different from the traditional, rural context it has always been seen in," explains Nishath. "Or possibly to draw connections between the process and methods of the act of stitching, with the process of urban living."

In what way? "In a city, you can't see things in isolation; everything is interwoven," she says, conveying an inborn reticence over her achievements, and joy at the opportunity to share her textiles with appreciative people. "I did not want to look at embroidery that is independent of other textile techniques like batik, dyeing, printing... " Linking her experiments with Shibori, Nishath explains: "Shibori is a Japanese word for a variety of ways of embellishing textiles by shaping cloth and securing it before dyeing by folding, crumpling, stitching, pleating, plucking, and twisting. I found similarities in our resist-dyeing methods, which differ from Gujarati bandhej or Madurai chungadi."

 While the future beckons with infinite possibilities through Shibori and technical improvisations, Nishath's glance back is clear-eyed, "With the help of straight and curved lines, circles and landmarks, people give directions, without knowing that they are actually creating patterns. Perhaps, I tried to explore different effects that echo such a pattern by varying the thicknesses of yarn, with the help of my tailor Babu and Vijaya, who did handwork."

What innovations did Nishath try? Using bleach on the surface of stitches. Combining embroidery with batik. Layering pre-dye fabric with nuts and washers. Her excitement comes through as she shares the process, "There was a sense of excitement in this technique because the end wasn't known until the entire process was completed. When the fabric was folded, it formed layers and what you finally saw was one unit, under which these many layers were present, besides creating impressions of the stitches."

A surprise element was latent, as Nishath found, "Due to the thickness of the fabric, the dye penetration happened unevenly. The bottom and the top layers took in most dye, while the other layers got progressively fainter."

Inspired by Yoshiko Wada's two books on Shibori, Nishath plunged headlong and heart-deep into her experiments with stitches and dye-vats in 2001.

Unsure at first, tentative at each step, reeling from questions within, she was encouraged and steadied by her guide, National Institute of Design-trained textile designer Jayshree Poddar, who gave her both "confidence and the freedom to work on the open-ended project." Each time a bundle of stitched cloth was dyed at the Poddar's state-of-the-art Himatsingka Seide Mill, Nishath held her breath, wondering about the outcome. Would the unfolding textile match her visual dreams? To the eyes of urban buyers at Cinnamon, they proved more than a mirage.

But then, questioning as a way of life comes naturally to this 24-year-old, whose theme "African Tribes" won the third place at the NIFT Surface Design Competition in 2000. Did she spend her prize money on pizza or a new wardrobe? Unusually, she chose to use it to attend the Asia-Pacific seminar on embroidery at Hyderabad in January 2001, interfacing with a challenging crafts world.

The world could prove to be Nishath's dye vat in years to come.

The evidence? When she sent her original diploma project to Wada in California, her idol was impressed enough to consider including these tender experiments in her latest publication, Shibori Now, which unfortunately had just gone to press.

Between the stitches, couched by an open imagination, lie future aspects that Nishath could unravel. Will she?

(The Hindu Metroplus, 2003)

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