In a world riven by inequality and discrimination, the human spirit often turns to art and faith for consolation. One of the most exquisite results of this is the Mata-Ni-Pachedi, a textile art form from Gujarat. Its origins can be traced to the discrimination suffered by the underprivileged Vaghari community of artisans and craftsmen. Prevented from entering temples, the community painted images of various forms of the goddess Shakti on large swathes of cloth. These pieces were known as Mata-Ni-Pachedi, literally “behind the goddess”, because they were meant to be used as the backdrop to idol. Besides being votive offerings, they were also used to set up outdoor shrines.
Currently, this 300-year-old tradition only has a few dedicated practitioners remaining.
Over centuries, Mata-Ni-Pachedi became the domain of a few artist families, most of whom are settled in Ahmedabad. One of the most prominent artists is Jagdish Vaghi Chitara, whose works are currently being exhibited at Artisans’ in Mumbai. Executed on large pieces of cloth, the Mata-Ni-Pachedi depicts scenes from the lives of the goddess, along with elaborate renditions of birds, animals, plants and flowers. One panel, for instance, shows Khodiyar Maa, splendidly arrayed in ornaments and carrying jewelled daggers, as she rides on her vahan, a crocodile. Another panel shows the goddess attended to by her worshippers, as she rides a bull in her Shailaputri avatar, while in another work, Meladi Mata rides on her vahan, a goat.
Chitara has been engaged in creating the Mata-Ni-Pachedi for about 40 years. His works have been frequently exhibited, including at the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya in Bhopal. Chitara, who learned the art from his father and grandfather, says, “We have been doing this for about seven to eight generations now. My whole family is involved in making the cloth”. As with many other folk arts, the men do the drawings, while the women fill in the paints.
The Mata-Ni-Pachedi were originally drawn using wooden sticks, in the Gujarati kalamkari tradition. Gradually, clay blocks were used but the disadvantage was that the outlines created were much coarser and the life span of the blocks themselves was rather short. Clay was eventually replaced by wood, which offered scope for sharper, more intricate outlines. Hand-drawing is still used, but being rather labour-intensive, the resulting cloth is also more expensive.
With the social restrictions on their entry into temples being done away with, the Vagharis don’t need their portable, outdoor shrines anymore. Many Mata-Ni-Pachedi are now created purely as works of art and are made to order for customers. They are also used during Navratri, when the nine avatars of Durga are worshipped. Although the colour palette of the Mata-Ni-Pachedi has been modernised with the use of yellow, grey, pink and blue, many of the works still use the two traditional natural dyes — black and red, while portions of the cloths are often left unpainted to give a third shade, white. Each colour has its own significance: black wards off evil, red is associated with the goddess, and is the colour of the earth, and of blood, and white is the colour of purity. While black dye made from iron rust, jaggery and alum is used to draw the outline, red, made from tamarind seeds and alum, is used to fill in the painting.
The opening of the exhibition on Sunday was accompanied by the Mumbai launch of the limited edition book Cloth of the Mother Goddess, published by Tara Books. The images painted in the book are by Chitara, who has also worked with the publishing house on The Great Race and the forthcoming title, Brer Rabbit Retold.
The Cloth of the Mother Goddess was released last year at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as part of its “Fabric of India” exhibition. Arun Wolf, editor at Tara Books, says, “We wanted Cloth of the Mother Goddess to be both a book, as well as work of art. Each one is constructed of fabric panels; the front is an actual replica of a Mata-Ni-Pachedi, while the other side has the story on it. We’ve done only about 500 of them so far, because they are quite experimental, but they’re selling out quite fast”.