Mural painted saris awaiting new dawn: Artist Sujatha Sankar on life, art & pandemic

mural sari painter sujatha
Sujatha painted her first mural for textile retailer Kasavukada.

Twelve years ago when Sujatha Vinod Sankar picked up her brush to paint murals on Kerala's traditional kasavu saris, it was a medium to escape the grief of her husband's sudden death.

But when the swabs of paint fused on the handwoven off-white fabric to form murals of gods and goddesses, Sujatha knew: art was her calling in life.“My husband constantly reminded me that an artist's work was meant to be enjoyed by the outside world and not locked away in some dark corner,” Sujatha says.“I painted my first mural for textile retailer Kasavukada, thirteen days after my husband's death. I painted hundreds of saris that year. It gave me the solace I needed. I have not looked back since,” the artist recollects.That year, Malayalam actress Amala Paul appeared in Kasavukada's ad with Anoop Menon. She had donned Sujatha's work- a spectacular sari with a Krishna and Radha mural on it.Demand for mural work saris increased manifold that season.

The deluge and the pandemic

Sujatha paintings
Sujatha's canvas paintings (L), A sari handpainted by Sujatha (R)

The handloom industry was severely affected in the year 2018. When the deluge swept the traditional handloom village of Chendamangalam in Kerala's Ernakulam district, the industry was left in shambles.“We had sympathisers. The 'Chekutty' dolls made from the saris soiled in the flood was a good initiative but it was hardly enough to revive the industry. The demand for handloom was severely depressed,” Sujatha recalls. But the COVID-19 pandemic is the worst disaster yet. “For the first time in a decade, I did not paint a single sari during an Onam season,” the artist said.

With the Vishu saris still lying unsold in showrooms, it made no sense to design more, she said.

Sari Handpainted by Sujatha
Sari handpainted by Sujatha

Sujatha cites two reasons for the depressed demand.

One, very few take the effort to distinguish handloom from powerloom and buy it. The higher price is another reason.“But handloom is not as overpriced as is widely believed. Handloom guarantees better quality cloth material, low chemical processing and use of only vegetables dyes and adhesives,” she said.Two, the COVID-19 has locked away women from handloom outlets. “Women are usually specific about the fabric and the work on the sari. One of the primary reasons for the huge stock of saris lying unsold is the lack of women buyers in the market.”The lack of public interaction and social gatherings is also another reason for the low demand this time round.

The technique

“Mural-painted handloom was trending much before Kalamkari began conquering fashion circles. But its not a lost art yet. Murals can never fall out of trend. It will reappear in new forms and shapes every generation. It's just awaiting a new dawn,” Sujatha says.

Sujatha admits to be a little old fashioned when it comes to painting murals on fabric.“I do not encourage the use of frames for fabric paint. Truth be told, I prefer to spread the entire sari on a set of joint tables before kick starting the process.”

She begins her act by sketching the entire mural and then methodically painting it. The choice of paint is important here.

“Most of the acrylic colours which come in tubes lack the adhesive required for staying put on a fabric. One needs to rely on bottle paint for this,” she warns. For silk saris, it's best to give a white coat before painting, she added.Born in Elampal in Punalur region of Kollam district as the daughter of an art teacher and cartoonist, Sujatha discovered her affinity for art only in her twenties.“My elder sisters were always keen on sketching. But I never took a pencil to sketch till my college days.”It was during her travels to Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu for a pharmaceutical course that she felt the urge to attempt her hand at the canvas.

Sari handpainted by Sujatha
Sari handpainted by Sujatha

Though born to a family of artists, Sujatha is not formally trained. Her brief stint at the Vastu Vidya Gurukulam in Aranmula, a while ago, is the only education she has ever received.

The birth of Madhavi

Sujatha Vinod Sankar

Though known for her meticulously designed, unique mural-work saris, Sujatha's heart lies in canvas painting.

Those who are familiar with her work will also know the endearing little girl Madhavi.

Clad in a white petticoat dress, this little girl may be found in most of Sujatha's paintings-- sometimes on Lord Krishna's shoulders with a flute, embracing Lord Ganesha, or inspecting the folds of Buddha's robe.

“Madhavi is the child I never bore. She embodies the innocence and quest for knowledge inherent in children. She's a child of the gods,” Sujatha says with a tinge of affection.

“Her image came to me seven to eight years ago, as the daughter of Adikesava Perumal. I immediately sketched her image and later developed her into a painting.”

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, I've had a lot of time to explore Buddhism. This is reflective in my recent works of Madhavi and Buddha. Buddha taught the importance of dissociating oneself from the world. It is important that all growing children embrace this,” she said.

Paintings by Sujatha
Paintings by Sujatha

As she continues her solitary journey, Sujatha hopes to hold Madhavi by her hand and introduce her to the fantastic world of myths and legends.

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