Hanging on the walls of the JSW office in Mumbai is a symbol of gratitude—a unique interpretation of a painting by French artist Anne Pesce. But where Pesce’s medium is oil-on-canvas, this piece uses thread and glass beads to translate her abstract expressions of landscape into tangible reality. Its embroidered surface softly catches the light, and the textured shades of grey, white and pink make viewers stop for a second glance, then lean in closer to admire the dexterity that went into creating it. The work was gifted by the Kalhath Institute as a gesture of thanks, from the recipients of the inaugural JSW Prize for Contemporary Craftsmanship, which was founded in 2018, at the AD Design Show in India. It also signifies a turning point for the Lucknow-based institute, whose pursuit of embroidery education uncovered a new opportunity for craft production.
Lucknow, Kalhath Institute: Serial Skiller
After over 20 years of working with karigars (craftsmen) and luxury houses, French-Italian craft entrepreneur Maximiliano Modesti realised that pride in one’s work was a big driver, and that formalising recognition was as important as addressing wages. He founded Kalhath in 2016, and its mission has been to recognise, promote and sustain craft excellence. His approach to create an impact across craft is now through measured interventions. What this means is that engagements must be deep, long term and, to begin with, in smaller numbers. Sangita Jindal confesses to being completely taken by her visit to the institute, housed in a heritage building in Lucknow: “The work of Kalhath was very inspiring to see first-hand. It is a unique institution and they are doing a commendable job.”
Fourteen karigars recently celebrated their convocation. The faculty had introduced them to a wide spectrum of skill-building engagements, including spatial perception, colour, costing and design. They learnt through practical application, and the programme concluded with an art residency that had them co-creating artworks with artist T Venkanna.
Lucknow, Kalhath Institute: French Influences
But it all began with the initial experiment. The first artwork interpreted by the karigars during the initial stages of the programme was the Pesce piece. Titled New York #14, karigars Mohammed Ishtiaque Ansari and Mohammed Tabriz Shaikh worked on it over a period of two months. Modesti shares the reasoning behind this piece being chosen as the gift: “I wanted to acknowledge the kindness of Sangita’s award with the first-ever artwork we worked on at the institute. This work travelled to the AD Design Show as well.” Visitors to the last year’s show might recall a young man, Ishtiyaque Ansari, working over an adda (a rectangular wooden frame), intently focused on transforming into three dimensions, Pesce’s two-dimensional work.
Lucknow, Kalhath Institute: Bridging the Gap
Embroidered works of art are not new, but the opportunity lies in creating production facilities dedicated to, and experienced in, managing the expectations and the relationships between artists and karigars. Modesti’s view on the final product being classified as either a work of art or craft is telling: “It depends on who the artist is, and what kind of work they want to create. For instance, there is no difference between a painting by Venkanna and his embroidered works: he is using embroidery as [a medium]. However, in the case of Pesce, it is a translation of her work. What is emerging is so different for each artist—and that is the great potential: It is not only one language, it is multiple ways of creating and translating work.”
That Pesce’s work is being translated into five editions almost undermines the understanding of each as a unique work that reveals the potential, and need, of new classifications between craft, art and design. It is perhaps in these new classifications that the future of craft lies.