Rahul Chaudhary grew up admiring his grandmother knit. During winter vacations, he would watch with concentration as one needle overlapped the other. When he first held yarn in his hands, his fingers automatically seemed to imitate the needles.
In November, the subconscious lessons came in handy. Chaudhary, 37, a self-taught artist whose repertoire includes figurative paintings that reflect distorted versions of reality, and fellow artist Pankaj Saroj, also 37, parked themselves between two rickshaws in Kolkata. And with the help of the rickshaw pullers, the two started covering the carts with colourful yarn.
The artists hope that the spectacle of yarn-bombing will make people stop in their tracks, in this age where electricity-powered looms are phasing out traditional weavers, and the resultant attention will bring attention to the historical and social significance of weavers. It is a stretch, they concede, but it is worth the effort – the Indian textile industry employs more than 45 million workers directly and another 60 million indirectly, making it the second largest employer industry after agriculture.
With yarn prices going up, the market has been more inclined towards speed and quantity, choosing machines over traditional weavers. The plight of hand-spun and handwoven textiles sectors has received more attention since Smriti Irani took over as minister of textiles, following a cabinet reshuffle in July.
Saroj and Chaudhary have spent the past four months journeying through the eastern and western coasts of India, trying to raise awareness about traditional weaving. Travelling by trains, buses and sometimes on foot, the two reach each spot with the same objective: to find everyday objects and quietly wrap them in yarn. Focusing on the intricacy of warp and weft, Saroj winds the threads, while Chaudhary, the more tech-savvy of the two, records their encounters on camera.
The project has been developed under the patronage of the Raj Art Initiative, a cultural initiative by Raj Group, a textile company based in Panipat, the City of Weavers. Their journey, which focuses on the routes through which many of the company’s weavers migrate to Panipat, weds weavers’ processes of wrapping and macramé with contemporary art to celebrate weaving traditions in India.
During the first part of the project, in September, the duo travelled through Western India, and yarn-bombed Jabalpur, Bhopal, Ujjain, Baroda, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. They visited landmark institutions like the Bharat Bhavan and Tribal Art Museum in Bhopal.
In the second phase, which began in early November, journeying along the East Coast of India, the artists made their way to Lucknow, Bhadohi, Varanasi, Kolkata, Bolpur, Guwahati and Majuli, the last river island of Asia and hub of Assamese weaving.
Both artists agree that spaces and objects that exist outdoors, owned by no one in particular, make the best canvases. Chaudhary and Saroj have yarn-bombed trees, sidewalks, fruits, stones, and window grills.
When they visited Shantiniketan, the small town in West Bengal established by Devendranath Tagore, they covered the fruits of the bael trees in yarn. In a matter of minutes, they were surrounded by children, who started jumping up and down, trying to pluck the colourful fruit.
“They were so fascinated, they went into their homes, brought out drums and started playing on them,” said Chaudhary. “That spontaneous reaction from the children was probably one of the best experiences we had.”
Once, the artists came across a defunct water tap in a village and yarn-bombed it, hoping it would draw the attention of the authorities, and get fixed.
Even though the team almost always yarn-bombs public spaces, they have never run into trouble with local authorities. “During the process of weaving in such places even the slightest apprehension has been converted into appreciation,” said Chaudhary.
The pair said they love being on the streets, in search of new places to showcase their art. “To be slowly welcomed into different spaces is truly a memorable process,” Chaudhary said. “It takes great courage to get comfortable in a space and it is a new experience every single time.”