Lavanya Mani is a Baroda based artist who harnesses traditional domestic craft techniques to explore the histories of power dynamics and trade that affect current social dynamics in India. While studying painting at the M.S.U. Baroda, Mani began researching craft and textile techniques from around the country, and specifically became fascinated with the kalamkari technique. This historically important fabric is painstaking to make and takes seven steps – from treating and fattening cotton with natural buffalo milk to dying it with natural herbs and minerals to weaving it into fabric, to finally drawing on the fabric by hand or by block printing. Mani did not come from a family of weavers, so obtaining access to the craft technique took commitment and dedication which she has applied to her own contemporary renditions of kalamkari in her artwork.
Cloth played an important role in India’s independence, and while most foreign technology was banned during Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement, the sewing machine was not, and the demand for handicrafts, helped by government marketing initiatives, helped fuel the dream for an India independent of colonial exploitation. Mani peeks into the past with her collaged works, and reminds viewers of the hidden stories behind the cloth they wear and the power dynamics that cloth carries in its threads. Historically, Kalamkari was traditionally a male art form, as was its trade with the West, however Mani has used the medium to explore the experience of womanhood. A powerful painting from 2009, ‘The Emporer’s New Machine,’ places the sewing machine at the center of Vaudeville inspired stage, shedding light on the masked factors behind the machine’s importance on the global political stage.
At her first solo exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road in 2009, works such as ‘Where the Wind Blows’, and ‘First Love’ beautifully uses origami techniques to transform karamkari inspired saree tops into vehicles for dreaming, such as a plane and a heart, that are collaged on top of naturally died cotton with Victorian era inspired motifs such as moons and cupids. She collected these motiefs from illustrations found in history books and moral stories. Mani recognizes cloth’s ability to transform, hide, and also reveal; cloth is a natural storyteller, and the artist layers cloth and paint in her works to draw out new narratives that are inspired both by Indian colonial history and Victorian Literature, such as in ‘Scarlett Letter’ from 2009 which replaces the infamous ‘A’ from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel with the logo of the East India Company on a kalamkari rendition of a western style dress. In a stunning work called ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’ from 2009, Mani melds East and West and past and present with her references which include Vasco da Gama, Batik, natural dies, and traditional batik techniques, but creates a sense of tension by implementing machine embroidery to seal in the bright fabric’s colonial past.
© Chemould Prescott Road