I love to browse through antiquarian books and read stories of the India that was….
One day, I was flipping through the e-edition of a profusely illustrated book written by Louis Rousselet, a Frenchman who travelled from 1864 to 1870 to the numerous kingdoms that dotted Central India and was treated as an honoured guest by the rulers. In June 1865, he reached Baroda in West India and was received with great pomp by the Gaicowar Maharaj ( as the king liked to be called). I was reading his account of the grandeur of the palace, when I came to a sudden stop on page 99, captivated by the young dancing girl who stared back at me.
She and her companions had intrigued Rousselet too. He writes
Several young and pretty dancing girls, covered with trinkets and attired in thin chemises, mingle with the strange and motley crowd that fills the palace. These are bayadéres, or dancing girls; who have perfect liberty to go wherever they please. They enter the king’s apartments, seat themselves on the floor, and converse boldly with persons of the very highest rank. This singular privilige accorded to the bayadéres is of very great service: their presence makes up, in some slight degree, for the absence of the ladies shut up in the zenana.
At evening the strains of lute resound on every side; the chambers and terraces are illuminated, and brilliant circles are formed around these charming nautchinis, who give quite a vestal aspect to the palace songs and dances… (while) the king and his ministers …discuss State affairs...
The bayadére has been beautifully captured in this print made from a wood engraving. Not in a a thin chemise, but covered from top to bottom in voluminous folds. As I looked at her, it was there, the proud and confident bearing that the Frenchman refers too. But was there something more? A hint of pain…and a resigned acceptance of her fate? Was there amusement at the ways of the world in the slight curve to her pouting lips? This young girl, about 15 or 16 old, was after all, no more than a concubine. Just a little better than a slave in the palace. Available to whoever fancied her. Was she really free to move out of the palace? What went on in her mind as she posed for the white man who sketched her? Her eyes spoke to me and called out to me to bring her alive!
About the copyright: I spent several days trying to establish who owns the copyrights to the image. The book itself has been re-printed several times, including by an Indian publisher some 10 years ago. I wrote to the latter but got no response. Some stock image websites carry the image, and one site has even sold a print from the original wood engraving. But it is clear from the general information available online that because of its antiquity, the image falls in the public domain.
I enlarged the picture on my laptop, removed the background on MSWord and prepared the vector image on CorelDraw.
While I debated how I wanted to create her (it was certainly not going to be a black and white image), I did two miniature quilts based on prints from the same book! You can see the Pali Darwaza that he visited before he came to Baroda, in a previous post. From Baroda he travelled to the Rajpootana (Rajasthan today) traversing through the dreaded Bheel country, where the wood engraving for this cenotaph, the tchatri of Tintoui, was made.
By this time, I was getting around to the idea of doing a miniature for my bayadere too and I started work on her from the A4 size image I had made. Finally, I would combine my two loves, painting portraits and quilting!
I trace the outline of the girl on tracing paper, using an Iron On Transfer Pen acquired on my last visit to the USA. I am not very happy with it, as it is not as fine as I would have liked it to be. But it serves my purpose. I transfer the image twice, once on to the cream coloured background fabric and then just the upper garment–the odhani (stole) on pink damask silk fabric. The face is traced separately on cream coloured quilting fabric–just the eyebrows, pupils and mouth to act as a guide for placement of the features during painting. Then is traced the left hand that peeps from under the sleeve and the foot that ventures out from under the ghaaghra/ lehnga (long skirt).
The Bayadere Comes Into Being
I use Inktense pencils and a 000 size brush to paint the face.
…and the folds of her odhani.
I want a suitable setting for her and browse the net for images in public domain. I settle for this image of a stone screen door in Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. It will take forward the story of my Bayadere beautifully!
I experiment placing the screen on the background fabric using this stabilizer by Floriani that I had read about and bought. You just iron it onto the back of your applique piece and hand press it to the background! No pins required and nothing messy like glue. It works beautifully well and the finished piece is not stiff. You can easliy peel it off and adjust the placement on the background.
I then iron on the tracing of the full outline of the girl on the background. Time to start working on the ghaaghra/ lehnga (long skirt). I rummage through my silk and brocade scraps. I find the perfect pink brocade for the tiny pleated sleeves that peep from under the odhani and decide I like the black brocade for the ghaaghra. I do not have enough of it, but let us see how we will get around that!
I rummage some more and find gold fabric that can work for the petticoats peeping out from under the ghaghra. Working with these fabrics is not easy as they are stiff and I want real folds to mimic those on the original. Moreover, I cannot afford any raw edges, as the fabric frays; so I add misty fuse under the gold fabric to stop the fraying. The ghaaghra is hand-stitched to the background with a hemming stitch. I am lucky to have a part of the selvedge in my scrap and that will work great as a border of the ghaaghra. I also add black tulle to the shadowed areas, but that doesn’t work for me and I end up painting in shadows with black. Making the ghaaghra and petticoat to my satisfaction takes me the better part of a day! I later work more on it, but we’ll come to that.
I then trim the odhani from the fabric on which I had painted it, along the outline, and glue it carefully to the background, matching the outline. The face is similarly trimmed to size and glued to the background.
Everything is in place. The neck is not fully trimmed and she is yet to put on her ‘trinkets’ .
Learning: Painting on a separate piece of fabric and then attaching the piece to the background allows one to make mistakes and rectify them. However, it would be better to trim the to-be-appliqued piece about 1/8″ beyond the final outline. Stitch on the outline with the applique in place on the background and then trim it to size. Then the stitching line is exactly where it is meant to be. But do remember where your final stitching line is meant to be!
Once everything is in order, I can go ahead and stitch it down with invisiible thread. I paint in the jewellery on her neck and ears. This is where I make a mistake, which I realised only after finishing the quilt… I forgot to trim the neck and my Bayadere has a fat neck, which I plan to recify now. I do remember not to stitch down the ghaaghra, for I have plans for it.The whole picture looks a bit flat as I finish it. I add a double layer of polybatting and a sheet of foundation paper by George Siciliani to stabilize the piece under the girl and the odhani, and carefully quilt in the folds of the odhani and outline the jewellery to give it depth. The foundation paper tears away and my girl looks lovely after the trapunto! I now ease in more batting between the folds of the ghaaghra and background fabric using a huge needle, to shape her leg under the garment.
I have a brilliant idea for the background. I have found the perfect fabric for the backing; the print is similar to the pattern on the screen behind the girl. I use fusible fleece gifted by my friend Jaya Parker and prepare the sandwich. I plan to quilt it from the back, following the printed pattern!
But before I start doing that, I have to do something to make the back more interesting. I attach a piece of the background fabric on the back just behind the screen. I now quilt it, so that I have a screen at the back too. I consider painting in the stone trellis on the back, but am wise enough to leave it for the end. You will soon find out why.
I then quilt the rest of the background from the back.
I am enjoying the free-motion quilting …and zigzag quilt the shadows around her, intensified with Inktense colours.
I even dare to quilt the tiny face. I then have fun with a a wooden toothpick and sculpt the contours of her trapuntoed face!
Finally, the shadows behind the girl are quilted and the shadows in her ghaaghra are quilted in too. She is done, except for the floor! I consider adding a shadow of the screen door and play around with photopaint to get an image I can work with.
But I decide it is too much work! A quilter friend, Sobana, shows me images of receding tiles in a quilt and asks how it is done. I decide to experiment.
Are we done now? What about the binding, label and sleeve?
Finishing The Quilt
This actually deserves a post of its own. The binding and sleeve are simple enough; I stitch the sleeve into the binding on the top edge. But that hides my lovely arched door at the back and I am glad I did not spend time painting it.
More importatly, I want to keep the story of my bayadere with the quilt and even more importantly, I wished to incorporate somewhere on this quilt, the heart-warming impromptu poem written by my friend, Suranga Date, when she saw the quilt being made.
Some old souls
stunned at a changing world,
clutching at memories
as they watch
fabrics and clothes being abused;
not for their own exposure
but the wearers.
And then one day,
as a honeyed artist,
so much attention
to the odhani design,
folds and design stitched in;
the beauteous ghaagraa
living voluminous in black and gold,
the gold petticoat folds
peering at the base,
typically unsuccesful at covering the feet.
In her world,
it is not the done thing
to speak with words;
It is the eyes
that say them.
So few have receptors
in their brains for these visual words;
It takes a Madhu Mathur
to see and hear them…
This was exactly how it was.
The Frenchman tried,
but this one seems to succeed more.
Perhaps it has
something to do with Jaipur,
and its old Gayatri connections
She smiles a bit more.
It has more to do with
from the artist’s heart.
A big one at that!
Isnt it beautiful? I consider various options and end up doing this!
I design the label with the original bayadere image and its source printed on it. I also write down the story of this quilt in a separate text box. The third text-box contains Suranga’s poem. These are adjusted on a letter-sized page and printed on fabric.
The three boxes are lined with fabric individually to take care of raw edges. I start attaching the label as a pocket with the top edge left open. The plan is to insert the legend of the quilt and the poem inside the pocket. But with one edge of the pocket-label hand-stitched down, I have another brain-wave. I stitch the bottom edge of the strip containing the poem inside the top edge of the label! No chances of the poem getting lost.
Am still undecided with what to do with the legend. And then comes the solution.
The Finished Quilt
So this how the quilt looks from the back.
And here are images of the front.
The folds of the odhani and the ghaaghraa…
And her, finally, is the finished quilt!
I hope I have been able to do justice to the Baroda Bayadere! She looks a bit older here than in the book, but that is understandable, she is older now! She also smiles a bit more in my quilt than she did in the wood engraving of the stranger. That was unintentional. Perhaps she likes me better?