Prabhakar Barwe. Untitled. Watercolour on paper. 21” x 18”. 1976. Private collection.
Image courtesy Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, Mumbai. Barwe’s stint at the WSC left a deep mark on his spare and austere imagery.
Subramanyan was also conscious that millions of people depended on handicrafts for their survival and that modern and mechanized systems of production – necessary for spurring a newly independent nation’s economy – posed a threat to their existence. This could push vibrant craft forms that had been flourishing for centuries to the brink of extinction. Urgent support systems were required and the Weavers’ Service Centre (WSC) set up in 1956 was one such initiative that filled that gap.
The design centres had a pan-Indian presence and were located in four zones: North, South, East and West. While some of them were in the metros, others were close to traditional weaving centres such as Varanasi, Kanchipuram, Bhagalpur and Indore. Many had both weaving and printing facilities, where master weavers adroitly translated designs into fabric.
The aim of the WSC was to promote a collaboration between traditional weavers and academically trained artists. In a catalogue brought out on the occasion of a painting exhibition by artists who had been associated with the WSC, Jayakar wrote, “The nature of the challenge demanded a catalyst that would transform traditional skills of the weavers and their design vocabulary into a new contemporary framework.”2 But it was not a one-way street – the artists too profited from exposure to the country’s living traditions and the employment provided them with a much needed source of income. Subramanyan mentioned that his stint at the WSC “turned out to be an education for me. It certainly introduced me to various areas of expertise I had so far been vaguely aware of. But most importantly, it brought me face to face with the problem of the survival of manual crafts in a modernizing world.”
Jayakar set about recruiting some of the brightest painters and sculptors in the country. They were put through an interview process and their portfolios of paintings were scrutinized before selection. Jeram Patel, Ambadas, Harkishen Lal, P. Mansaram, Prabhakar Barwe, Jogen Chowdhury, Manu Parekh, Haku Shah, Arpita Singh, Praful Dave, Himmat Shah, Amrut Patel and Reddeppa Naidu were a few of the many artists who were associated with the WSC at some point in their careers.
Manu Parekh, who along with Prabhakar Barwe, was one of the longest serving employees of the WSC opined, “The visionary aspect of Pupul Jayakar was that she didn’t invite textile artists but visual artists. They didn’t have anything to do with textiles. They were good artists. Thanks to this an extraordinary freshness was brought in.” It is an opinion that art historian Jyotindra Jain shares. “This process of interactive work also opened up windows for the artisans who after such collaborative encounters often built new aesthetic trajectories, re-inventing the tradition ‘with respect to its relationship to extra-cultural reality’, to borrow Boris Groys’ phrase.”
Parekh was introduced to the WSC by his friend Gautam Vaghela. By the time he joined the centre in Bombay, Subramanyan, who had been the Deputy Director of Design, had already left but continued to visit for short-term projects. Initially, Parekh had planned on working for a couple of years before devoting himself to art full-time but fate decreed otherwise and he spent over two decades with the institution.
Cover of the catalogue of a show at the Weavers’ Service Centres. 1985.
The job with the WSC also afforded Parekh the opportunity to travel to other centres and interact with local craftspersons. He was acutely aware that the master weavers were highly skilled at their craft and was therefore mindful of local traditions. “I did not reasonably use any of my own forms. If any tradition was in danger of being forgotten, I tried to reinvent it.” Travelling to Bagru in Rajasthan he would often visit village homes. During one such visit he noticed a jute bag lying in a corner and asked what it contained. On being told it had nothing but broken printing blocks, he promptly insisted on it being opened. To his astonishment and sheer joy, he discovered two unique blocks, which he remade into new ones. Another instance where Parekh reintroduced an older design into a more contemporary weaving vocabulary was on a 15-day project in Orissa. However, the master weaver, Madhav Meher, soon realized there was no loom for him to work on and requested Parekh for permission to visit his relatives instead. Parekh agreed on the condition that Meher would report back every couple of days with any old, tattered sarees he came across. Among the pieces the weaver brought back was an Adivasi nagabandhipallu, which Parekh incorporated in a silk saree that delighted Jayakar.
After Bombay, Parekh was posted at the centre in Calcutta and though the WSC was not so active there, Parekh found other avenues to stoke his creative fires. He joined the Society for Contemporary Artists, frequenting ‘Sutripti’, the adda of the Bengali intelligentsia every Sunday morning. The decade that Parekh spent in Calcutta from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s was full of artistic ferment and enquiry and went a long way in shaping him as an artist, influencing him both in terms of content and spirit. It was here that his works acquired an organic quality and were injected with a sense of vigour, sensuality and exuberance.
Parekh was also joined in Calcutta by fellow artists Jeram Patel, Himmat Shah and Arpita Singh, none of whom stayed very long in the city. Both Singh and Shah had joined the WSC in Delhi at the same time. It was Jeram Patel who was instrumental in getting Arpita Singh inducted into the Centre, even to the extent of sending the application forms to her home to be filled out! Singh recalled that while they were expected to visit the Delhi centre daily, they were given complete freedom on what to draw. If the master weavers liked something she had created, they would pick it up and transfer it; if not, they would tell her what they needed. Recalling her interaction with the weavers, Singh felt that though the weavers were experts in repeating old designs, it was challenging for them to come up with brand new designs of their own.
One might ask that while the artists introduced many new designs to the artisans, did the engagement with the decorative arts and the rigours of pattern-making restrict or hamper their creativity? Not necessarily. Singh recalled that design had been one of her subjects at art school. It was from Jaya Appasamy that she had learnt the art of converting a natural flower into a formal flower. Design therefore came naturally to her, though initially the repetition of motifs did pose a problem. As art critic Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni wrote, “On the face of it one would suppose that the creative aspect of the artists’ art would be emasculated by the demanding discipline of the Centre. That has however been far from the case. The impressive list of artists who have passed through the door of the Weavers’ Service Centres goes to show that many eminent artists have flourished during their contact with the Centres. It is admirable of these artists that they have kept their identity alive in the art world outside.”
Haku Shah. (Left) Saree. Cotton. Haku Shah for WSC. 1959-60. (Right) Gossip. Oil on canvas. 1985.
Part of the show Impact: Design Thinking and the Visual Arts in Young India at Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai. Image courtesy Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai.
This was certainly true of a long serving employee of the WSC, Prabhakar Barwe, who joined the Weavers’ Service Centre (WSC) in 1961 shortly after graduating from the Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay. Barwe was posted to Varanasi, known for its rich weaving traditions and it was here that he encountered Tantra and engaged with its philosophy and principles. The mystical diagrams and visualization attracted the young artist, who explored the possibility of translating them into designs, which could be woven on the loom. In a recent Barwe retrospective titled Inside the Empty Box at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai, curator Jesal Thacker offered crucial insights into this early tantric phase of the artist by exhibiting both the Tantra-inspired wooden printing blocks that Barwe had created during his sojourn at the WSC as well as a saree designed by him bearing geometrical motifs.