Ina Puri: Anais Nin writes –  ‘Our life is composed of dreams, from the unconscious, and they must be brought into connection with action. They must be woven together.’ Your project with Chintz resonates with these lines for me. Would you agree?


Bappaditya Biswas: Yes, I do agree. Subconscious visions become the path, my art comes from my childhood memories and imaginations.


IP: The delicacy of the plumed birds and floral motifs are true to the medieval European sensibilities while the gloriously bedecked and costumed images representing Dasavatars are quintessentially Indian and belong to a schematic and theatrical style that is reminiscent of the Raja Ravi Varma paintings. There is an elaborate masquerade at play. You have composed both with equal ease and placed them alongside, comment.


BB: Again, things that I have seen and grown up with. The calendar prints of the gods and the goddesses were in every home, and our fairy tale books illustrations were all medieval European sensibilities with vines and plumed birds, all my childhood fantasies and imagery were shaped by these.


IP: Tell us a bit about the process and what it involves.


BB: The process is a very traditional mordant-resist process of natural dyeing. All our traditional kalamkari or ajrakh block printing are based on these same principles of mordant-resist technique. Here, we do not directly paint with colour but with transparent organic salt solution thickened with natural gum called the mordant and then dyed with various dye yielding plants. Areas where the mordant is painted take the colour. So for every colour the mordant has to be painted separately and dyed in consecutive sequence to get the desired result.


IP: Your background is NID and both you and Rumi have made your brand of clothing, Bailou/Byloom, a household name across the country. You are already so busy with production and design of the brand — yet in the midst of it all, you threw yourself into the experimentation with chintz, hitherto a completely unexplored technique. Did you face any doubts? I remember the initial days and your determination despite the occasional failures to carry on.


BB: I am from NIFT Kolkata. The pandemic gave me the opportunity and the time to indulge in this. Initially, there were a lot of problems fixing the dye but self-teaching is fun. I never took it too seriously, I was just painting for my sake, no pressure at all, so it took me almost two years to get my hands on it.


IP: Tell us of the flower petals and your creation of colours.


BB: Here we use a few basic dyes. Indigo for blue, madder root for reds, fermented iron water for black and greys, marigolds for yellows and hibiscus for beige. The fabric we use is all hand woven and handspun so that the absorption of colours is the best. Also, there are no chemical finishes that are applied in the process which makes it perfect for the natural dye application.

IP: Would you say the idea was to revive chintz or try and create something inspired by chintz?


BB: Yes, the idea was to revive the painting technique. What we get in the market in the name of chintz are bad digital replicas and we have almost forgotten that it can still be painted. I wanted to find out if that could still be done.


IP: You have been showing your textiles (like Indigo) in important museum shows abroad to much critical appreciation. Do you feel it is time a museum of textiles like the Calico Museum is set up in Kolkata?


BB: I truly feel yes. We have so much in Kolkata. Sometimes I go to people’s houses here and they have textile treasures, out of public view, so many stories and memories and utilities, there is such a wide diversity in these private collections.


IP: Bappa, this show is a first even though you have been exhibiting regularly with the Byloom sarees. You will be meeting the art fraternity and textile historians, how do you feel?


BB: I am nervous but at the same time excited to see the response and get the feedback. But again this has been such a personal journey and the whole evolution has been very self-satisfying.


IP: Please share your dreams about starting an Indigo trail in Bengal.


BB: I have always been attracted to the history and connection that Bengal has with Indigo and how it is almost a non-conversational topic. We never talk about the pain, the suffering, nor the importance of Bengal in terms of the trade, the exploitation, the extinction. The silence is very disturbing for me. This had led me to plant Indigo again after 165 years of its banishment from Bengal soil, and so I thought it is time to claim back our Indigo.


Curatorial Note

Interestingly, the history of chintz can actually be traced back to the early years of the East India Company where they not only flourished but also found their way to distant countries such as Japan. Textile historians have it on record that Madame de Pompadour in France and Prince Eugene of Savoy were amongst the other distinguished aesthetes who used chintz for their wardrobe or even furnishing. Experts believe that because of their relatively high status Indian chintzes tended to be preserved and are considered till date the most prominent surviving representatives of the textile trade.


Centuries later, we encounter a young textile designer who decides somewhat fortuitously to revisit the chintz when the world is under lockdown due to the raging pandemic. In Kolkata, the lanes lined with flowering trees draw his attention and he wonders if he could perhaps use the flowers to create the particular shades he requires for his chintz tapestries? When I step into his home/studio, it is to find little pots with petals already bubbling away with petals of rose and marigold and upon enquiry, am told of the experiments with chintz. I am astonished to see the rough drawings on the cloths that are dyed and being treated before the patterns can be actually visible. It is work in progress. But, in that moment they were more dreams of what he saw he could achieve. I was immediately convinced that this new project had the potential for an exhibition and offered to collaborate with Bappaditya Biswas on ‘The Chintz Story’.


Bappaditya’s mornings began at his studio reading up about the technique and thinking about the compositions he would have to create to make it unique. He went back to his notes of Michael Garcia and other experts as he grappled with the process day after day. He studied tannins and mordants in an effort to figure out how different tannins produced different shades. Simultaneously, he reached out for guidance to Charlotte Kwon of Maiwa on matters relating to natural dyes and the reaction of dyes on different fibres. It was after long months that he finally mastered the technique and began composing his own patterns on the material. 


The skill and expertise of the designer is evident in each tapestry, be it the ones with delicate medieval floral motifs or those that depict the Dasa-Avatars inspired by Hindu mythology. The palette of deep red, dark blue, green and mustard is balanced with the use of softer hues like pink, beige or dove grey and the effect as you can see, is dazzling. 


‘The Chintz Story’ is finally ready and we are grateful to Tunty Chauhan and Gallery Threshold for inviting us to show Bappaditya Biswas’s remarkable body of work in Delhi. Alongside the artist, his entire team worked on this wonderful project with him and he owes a special debt of gratitude to each one but most of all to his beautiful partner, Rumi, for her constant support.


Threshold Art Gallery

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