Ranjith Raman sews together his elusive thoughts, images and fleeting feelings as if they’d disintegrate if not given a solid form. Memories, experiences and our lives are a bit like that. If we don’t hold on to them they slip away into oblivion. And yet, what is it that we are holding on to but a few sensations that can barely be given any tangible form? To paraphrase Paul Klee, Ranjith’s art does not produce the visible, rather it makes visible.
At times we see an abstract and other times representational depiction of space. The essence of various locations is embedded in the geometry or in the organic forces that have shaped them. There are expansive textured topographical views of housing amid slender coconut trees in monochrome. In another composition there is a quiet little temple evoking the calm of being in an austere place. Contrast that with the large untitled diptych teeming with differently shaped and vibrantly coloured fabric patches, reminding one of an unorganized urban skyline marked by concrete blocks of tall buildings and modest dwellings. The shifts in language reflect his temperament. Colour is central to Ranjith’s expression. The medium of silk and cotton fiber embroidered on fabric usingdifferent stitches embodies his visual vocabulary and showcases his intent.
Fibers and fabric are akin to paint, brush and canvas. Spontaneity, much as it may seem improbable for this medium, is apparent in the present body of work. Ranjith prepares the surface of the cotton fabric covering it from edge to edge with the running stitch in one colour much like one would prime a canvas. Engrossing himself in the time-consuming process he begins these works with an instinctual idea of what he wants to create. Stitches, like brushstrokes, veer off in different directions, creating texture. One becomes aware of the power of line. Loose strands, exposed knots, superimposed appliqué and layers of differently coloured cloth are some of the complex techniques used in these panels. As light falls on fibers their dynamic tonal qualities add another dimension to the imagery. Neat stitches and the untidy reverse side of hand embroidering are used equally towards the goal of achieving the visual in his mind.
Ranjith’s work falls within the vast genre of fiber art, which includes practitioners all over the world making wall work, installation, and sculpture relating to a vast scope of contemporary concerns. Lately there has been an upsurge in the use and interest in textile and embroidery in contemporary art practice across continents. While multi-disciplinary artists have used the medium on and off in their practices, there are an increasing number of artists like Ranjith for whom embroidery is the principal form of expression. Bold, controversial and cutting edge work with this age-old medium has relocated the boundaries of art and craft. One of the early uses of textiles in fine art can be traced to Bauhaus abstract textile artist Anni Albers. The Bauhaus school of thought challenged the hierarchies of mediums, disciplines and the arts and, encouraged interdisciplinary experiments. Another notable practice is that of the well-known Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti (1940–1994) who was a leading member of the Art Povera movement until 1971. He is best known for two bodies of works Mappas and Tuttos made in collaboration with Afghan embroiderers.
Ranjith doesn’t subscribe to the medium’s prevalent associated metaphorical meanings suggestive of gender politics, violence, pain or fragility. For him it’s not about conceptualizing or contextualizing historic traditions of textiles and embroidering either. Fibers and fabric are the stuff of Ranjith’s voice and visual language. The gradual repetitive process where every little stitch adds up to make the tactile image is japa, a meditative act for him.The tactile and textured quality of the material is almost a necessity in order to grasp or reach out. In a spiritual vein Ranjith says, “Stitching is like a prayer for me. I am trying to create an inner space.” So it is important to him that he does all his work with minimal assistance. The process of art making is part of his quest and not an agenda.
The appeal of this medium started years ago when he watched his sister embroider using an array of techniques to create patterns and designs. After his formal education in Fine Arts in Kerala, he moved to Ahmedabad where he lived for six years. His early work was conventional – acrylic on canvas – but his childhood fascination came back in this city with its culture and celebration of textiles and colours. One can imagine how the rich collection of historically important pieces at The Calico Museum of Textiles would have become part of his visual vocabulary. Thereafter his canvases included paint and embroidery, until from around the year 2000 thread took over completely.
Ranjith’s academic background compels him to create and review, stitch, unstitch and, on creative impulse make decisions when to stop embroidering a work. He doesn’t have a detailed sketch before he embarks upon the process. He uses the principles of drawing and painting that he’d use with more conventional material. These are paintings where coloured thread and fabric are used to create imagery pixel by pixel. The relationship between process and concept is prominent.Sewing and embroidery are everyday as well as historical traditions across ancient cultures, which are renewed and contemporized in Ranjith’s practice.
Jasmine Shah Varma
Mumbai based writer and curator