Priya’s passion for the discipline became apparent when she studied at Santiniketan in the 1980s, but was hugely afifrmed by the possibiilties of artistic expression in contemporary tapestry work that she was exposed to outside of India. She indulged in pursuing tapestry, freely and directly modulating patterns, symmetries and hues in their making. Her study in UK at the Royal College of Art in London and at West Dean College in Sussex in the early 1990s furthered her involvement in the discipline.
The substance of life is as fragile and vulnerable as fabric that needs mending and healing from wear and tear to prolong its being. Priya Ravish Mehra’s fascination with textiles began in her formative years but her own textile art practice, while perpetuating skill to perfect her process, was shaped to go beyond the bounds of crafting an aesthetic object.
Her life and art embraced each other through a single realisation- the impermanence of matter. This was to happen – she was diagnosed with advanced cancer and her practice was to nd a calling in retrieving the invisible life and art of the rafoogaris, a traditional craft of darning that she was exposed to in her ancestral hometown of Najibabad in north India. ‘Rafoogari’ refers to a specialized technique of invisible darning, where the dexterity of hiding a tear, a rupture is measured by the invisibility of the stitches that mend and camouage the mark within the whole fabric, holding the promise of preventing further ripping and damage. Her empathy for the vulnerable, marginalized artisans whose survival has been under continuous threat amidst relentless mechanization, inspired her to bring their extraordinary skill to bear on artistic expression.
Her early woven tapestries with nature’s rhythms and inherent patterns allude to a cosmic order, but with time she left behind its visible seductions and got closer to the incomprehensible truths and mysteries in nature as well as to the hope tied to its regenerative potential. The ‘act of darning’ grew into a compelling metaphor for Priya, resonating with the need for ‘repair and recuperation’, indispensable to a frail body or a disintegrating fabric. While the irreversibility of life was hard-hitting, her optimism and faith in the
power to recuperate and coalesce brought a thematic shift in her creative process.
Priya incorporated the unpredictable and unforeseen possibilities of the material form in her work, with ruptures and wounds acquiring a deeper signicance. She began working with organic material, combining natural bres extracted from paper pulp and bark, indigo bleeds, twigs and palm leaves, embedding and overlapping them to collapse layers between the interior and exterior, the inner and outer being. The skeins and veins under the surface created an expressive texture, while the partial traces and patches opened the work to imperfections, incorporating sudden, unforeseen ruptures in the once reliable order of things. Art became a tender foil to her recurrent pain, a therapeutic process, with her works suggestive of moments of quiet reflection, or the evocation of a state of mind, a mood or memory.
The artistic and the personal intuitively merged and owed into one another. Fighting an illness without cure, for fourteen long years, in one of her last travels to Bhutan, she chanced upon a bark of a tree, as hard as a bone. She soaked it and began to unravel it. The obsessive engagement, an alternative treatment if you will, was indeed a cathartic vision of abstraction and dematerialization, that released forever the inevitable fear of the perishable body/matter.
I employ the metaphor of rafoogari or traditional darning to invoke sudden, unexpected and violent rupture in our daily experience. It is a symbolic affirmation of the place, significance and act of existential ‘repair. The natural ‘cloth’ fibres disappear into the paper, the natural ‘paper’ fibres vanish into the cloth.