Catalog Essay – Indigo Narratives

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About the production of gendered and politicized authorship in the history of resistance and survival.

‘(Nevertheless) there are ways in which the sexuality and corporeality of the subject leave their traces or marks on the texts produced, just as we in turn must recognize that the processes of textual production also leave their trace or residue on the body of the writer (and readers)’- Elizabeth Grosz.

When Baroda, Gujarat, India based Shelly Jyoti and Devon Avenue, Chicago based Laura Kina take on ‘indigo’ as a topic in the production of a visual aesthetic discourse, their subjectivities as ‘women’ become imperative in the process. As Elizabeth Grosz puts it, there would be a mutual inscription of sexual identities on to the subjects and their ‘objects’ of production. This process of gendering vis-à-vis production of an object/commodity, in turn results into the simultaneous politicization of the subject and the product, irrespective of their declared positioning within the realm of common social exchanges.

Seen within the context of an exhibition project, the works of both Jyoti and Kina come before the viewers/readers through a conscious agency, which encapsulates the authors’ gendered subjectivity and the inscription of the same on their works of art. Though these two artists do not overtly position themselves as political subjects, the methods of production and the history of it draw attention to a crucial political debate that involves the issues like the global commodification of labor, women as the subjects and objects of consumption and the modes of resistance and survival undertaken by women all over the world, who are caught within the mechanisms and history of profit driven production-dissemination-consumption chain.

Hence, both Jyoti and Kina’s references to the Champaran Movement (1917-18) led by Mahatma Gandhi and the movement’s focus to the production of the famous blue dye called ‘indigo’, gain the status of a political metaphor, which is aesthetically detached from the current methods of commodity production while showing the capabilities of containing a critique on/of the same.

Champaran Movement was Mahatma Gandhi’s pioneering efforts to test the efficacy of his non-violent Satyagraha philosophy. After the Kheda Satyagraha in Kheda district of South Gujarat, where he organized the Patidars against the land revenue laws of the British, Gandhiji turned his attention to Champaran in North-West Bihar, where the landless tenants were forced to do the unprofitable indigo plantations. (In fact, Champaran and Kheda movements happened almost simultaneously and history says that Sardar Vallabhai Patel played the leading role in Kheda movement and Gandhiji played the role of a spiritual leader. And this was one of the great learning lessons for Mahatma Gandhi). The indigo planters who mostly toiled in the plantations in horrendous working and living conditions were not allowed to cultivate the lands with food or other cash crops. Even the British officials of the time believed that the indigo dye made out of these plants and exported to textile conglomerates all over the world was stained by the blood of the hapless farmers in Bihar and Bengal.

Today, indigo is no longer an oppressive thing as the dye could be manufactured using chemicals. But the history of indigo cannot be forgotten as several uncelebrated lives were sacrificed within the plantations during the times since the 17th century. For Shelly and Laura, this history of these unsung people involves the history of women and their crafts too. Therefore, the selection of ‘Champaran and Indigo’ as a point of departure is a conscious political agency for these artists and by using the indigo metaphor as a bridge between the historical and contemporary role of women in the production (of both commodities and aestheticized commodities), they re-evoke a discourse that would analyze the role of women in the contemporary world of production and consumption.

Shelly Jyoti calls her current suite of works generally as ‘Indigo Narratives’. A textile designer by profession and a visual artist by choice, Shelly has been working with textile workers and traditional crafts women for a long time. Her research interest in the history of craftswomen has led her to the history of Indigo. She makes a two way connection with the Azrak craftspeople who came to India from Balluchistan in early 17th century and settled in north Gujarat and with a contemporary artist, Laura Kina. Shelly uses this linkage to develop a narrative by relying heavily on the narratives around the indigo movement and the legacy of indigo and craftwork handed over from generations to generations of traditional craftswomen.

Shelly Jyoti’s narratives come in two different forms; one, as sculptural installations and two, as painted and embroidered two dimensional works on canvas. The sculptural installations, which are curiously kinetic, show diminutive human figures dangling from metal ropes. These figures are the emblematic human beings who were once oppressed by the draconian land laws of the colonizing government. Interestingly, these dangling figures suddenly draw parallel with the farmers of our times who are forced to commit suicide thanks to the imperial introduction of genetically modified seeds. The indigo victims are still around, in a new form under new forms of imperial governments, Jyoti seems to say.

Indigo Narratives become quite a poignant affair in the works like ‘Homage/Ballad of Woeful Tales’ and ‘Blued/Indigo Coolie’. In these sculptural works, the woman-man relationship within an oppressive system of production is emphasized through sensitively handcrafted buttons and through the iconization of a coolie/menial worker’s uniform, which too is dyed with indigo. Shelly’s paintings in this series are in a way collaborative works with the Arzak craftspeople who carry on with a long tradition of indigo resist block printing technique and embroidery. Jyoti selects images from the lives of these women as well as the images related to the Champaran Movement and Gandhiji’s life. Each image has its own vital linkages with the present and the past, positing the works as a field of inscription of the gendered subjectivities of the author/s.

Creation of collaborative narratives is what inspires Laura Kina to her works. Kina does not directly refer to Champaran Movement. Instead, she reaches out to this particular referential point through the usage of the color indigo as the predominant background in her ‘handcrafted’ paintings, which are abundant with the imageries from her local settings at Devon Avenue. Some of the images directly make linkages with the life of Gandhiji and what attracts the viewers’ eyes is Kina’s insistence on the local histories of a place, which is American and multicultural at the same time.

Devon Avenue in Chicago, which is a corridor of the South Asian and Jewish communities amply populated with the characteristics of migrant communities, has two roads named after Mahatma Gandhi and Golda Meir Boulevard, Indian and Israeli social reformers and political leaders respectively. The signages in and around Devon Avenue not only accentuate the history of the people who migrated to the place but also underlines their cultural and political leanings and their insistence on ‘difference’. Through the emphasis on difference, Kina creates a narrative, which with its intrinsic relationship with the craftswomen in India and the khadi clothe, places before us a discourse on ‘women and their productive labor’ in the larger context of contemporary times.

Women from the ‘Market Place’, a Mumbai based craftswomen’s collective work with Kina to create the ensemble of her works. In this way, these signage paintings using embroidery as a medium become an internal narrative of the women involved and also this narrative contains the gender and political inscriptions of the author/s. Kina deliberately calls her works as ‘sampler’. Sampling a way to collaborate and appropriate, which could be double-edged seen from two different cultural perspectives. Collaboration and appropriation is a political act for creating a subaltern but unified narrative of expression but at the same time, it could be a critique on the ways in which the global corporations appropriate crafts and the craftswomen’s lives into their profit driven enterprises.
Laura Kina very consciously inscribes her socio-cultural positioning as a gendered and political subject in the selection of images. Without taking an overt stance of an Indophile, Kina makes an aesthetic linkage with the chosen thematic of indigo. Shelly Jyoti and Laura Kina together create a body of works that not only speaks of the de-politicized existence of craft in an exhibition space but also makes a statement on the politicized selves that become an agency in the production of a discourse on gender and gendered production of aesthetics and commodity.
The present project by these two artists becomes all the more important especially when we come to know that there are no existing visual documentations on Gandhiji’s involvement in Champaran. For the first time in history, Champaran movement and its peculiar connection with indigo is given a visual representation and representation by two contemporary artists. And this goes beyond illustration and sympathetic affiliation as both Jyoti and Kina bring in their respective subjectivities to position their works within the textual discourse of the concerned history.

JohnyML is a Delhi based curator, critic and writer.
New Delhi
October 2009