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Wearing your culture on your sleeve

Wearing your culture on your sleeve
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Clothing is the primary expression of our identity and a lot of our cultural background comes out based on the type of clothes we wear. Every item of...

Clothing is the primary expression of our identity and a lot of our cultural background comes out based on the type of clothes we wear. Every item of clothing, especially when painstakingly designed has its own story in terms of influences, the colour, style, cut. There is no better way to explain the story behind a single item of clothing than Meryl Streep’s iconic dialogue from ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ where, talking about cerulean blue she says, “You think this has nothing to do with you.

You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean.

And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers.

And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

This explains what one item of clothing could represent and the cultural codes that may be associated with it. From time to time, we shall bring to you such stories and more…

Mahua Sarkar Sen, entrepreneur, curator of Handlooms and Handicrafts got her Batik artist to work on a handwoven Tusser and incorporated many cultural codes from West Bengal into it. The prominent among them is the Batik-inspired from the paintings of legendary artist Jamini Roy, Alpona panels and ‘Chaalchitra’.

Each of these art forms brings a special layer of semiotic value in terms of culture into the clothing and together they sing all that is quintessential Bengali art. “Artists, at most times find creative inspiration from the works of other artists. Our Batik artist was inspired by this particular artwork of Jamini Roy and used her imagination partly, to come up with this design. She has also used Alpona designs, in ‘Chaalchitra’ style, in alternate panels,” Mohua shares.

Jamini Roy was an honouree of the Padma Bhushan award in 1954 and drew inspiration for his art from his own culture rather than going for Western influences. His art is inspired by tribal and folk art. His most prominent influence is the Kalighat style of painting characterised by bold brush strokes.

Batik, for the uninitiated, is an artform picked up by Rabindranath Tagore and made popular through Shantiniketan, and actually means 'wax writing'. It is a way of decorating cloth by covering a part of it with a coat of wax and then dyeing the cloth. The waxed area keeps its original colour and when the wax is removed the contrast between the dyed and undyed areas makes the pattern. The creation of Batik saris is a three-stage process of waxing, dyeing and de-waxing (removing the wax).

Batik is characterised by attractive splinters that you can see through the design, which make the design more appealing. Batik is done by hand and if the design on one side seems more faded, it is most probably a duplicate. Also, batik is mostly done on natural fabrics and originals will have some flaws rather than a clean finish from a print.

Another style of art that the artist takes inspiration from is Alpona. Alpona is a traditional Bengali folk art done mainly on flat surfaces and floors. It forms an integral part of religious rites of Bengal. It is a natural representation of the artistic sensibility of the women of the household.

The design also features ‘Chaalchitra’, which refers to the Debi Chaal or Durga chaala, the background of the Durga Pratima or idol. Traditionally, it refers to a roof for the Durga idol killing the demon, Mahisasura, and surrounded by all her children. The same form has been adapted into the sari.

A common feature of all these art forms is that these are mostly done by women as part of tradition or to show their artistic abilities, and by putting them in a sari, which is an item of clothing for women, Mahua celebrates womanhood as well as the art forms themselves. It is a salute to the rich culture of Bengal as well as an attempt to keep these art forms alive.

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