Taniya Vaidya, a Vadodara-based artist, approaches her art in a seemingly unexplored way- using ancient natural dyeing techniques to create contemporary paintings on the khadi cloth. She has been focusing on this technique for a decade now. This, perhaps, is what makes her paintings so mysterious and awe-inspiring to behold. “My quest has been to develop a different expression while following the complex methods of natural dyeing.”
Starting at the tender age of four, Vaidya has always been drawn towards painting. She won an award at the mere age of six, along with a silver medal at the national level, when her painting was published in a children’s book called Shankar’s Weekly. She pursued her passion for painting as a hobby for the consequent years, and then took a professional interest in it post 11th grade as she starting taking an advanced art class, which included several talks and lectures. She went on to do her graduation and Masters in Fine Arts from Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, followed by another Masters ten years later at the Rhode Island School of Design- RISD Museum Department of Costumes and Textiles to study the ancient natural dye samples. She also went for a Residency programme in France.
How did she come across the idea of using natural dyes? As fate would have it, Vaidya developed an allergy to normal paints. Moreover, having always wanted to find a sustainable source of colour for her paintings, she stumbled upon indigo as one of the means to do so. Vaidya now uses a combination of such natural products, such as the Harda flower and manjishtha (Indian Madder/Rubia Cordifolia) in her paintings. She sources them from various places across the country- South India and Uttar Pradesh in particular. These substances, moreover, need to be tried and ground. This brings her to the process she undertakes for each painting.
Her process is often a laborious one, each painting involving around sixteen steps. Some of these steps include pre-washing the cloth in cow dung (sometimes 7-8 times) till it is white, drawing with natural inks (kalamkari or coromandel pen drawing) or block printing with pastes (ajrakh), continuously dyeing the entire cloth in the desired colour till the colour gets absorbed, followed by washing and drying multiples of times. If the colour has not been absorbed properly, it will keep getting washed out when the cloth is being washed. Hence, the cloth needs to be washed till the colour is completely absorbed into the cloth. For these processes, she has installed vats for indigo fermentation along with a sand bed on the terrace. She has also arranged for the excess water after washing to be used in the kitchen garden. Usually, good weather conditions involving plenty of heat and sunlight significantly reduce the number of times the cloth is washed; one wash tends to be enough in summer. Painting is done either before or after these processes. These paintings may either be drawing-based or colour-based, depending on the absorption of colours along with her idea of what the final painting ought to look like. “Every drawing-based painting will tell me what the process is and what image I want. Colour-based paintings, on the other hand, are done and decided after the kind of colour that comes out on the cloth.”
Vaidya tends to focus on landscape-based paintings. “I realized that it was the landscape–the sun, river, sandy river-bed--that created the paintings,” she says, as she recalls her visit to a riverbed in Andhra Pradesh with a kalamkari artist, C. Subramanium and his family. Often, she combines the image of a map and a human body in her paintings. “I believe the body itself is like a map. Also, when it comes to natural dyes, a lot is dependent upon nature. We are all connected to nature. We forget that we are one, and so I juxtapose the map with the human body as a reminder,” she explains. In her anatomical sketches, she does not always complete the body part. “I don’t actually make the whole body part; there are certain paths in the painting that remind me of the body, thus I connect the path to the part.” She compares this to a musician practicing, who sings a note one after the other and does not learn the entire composition at one go. She also makes portraits based on dance and other such performances.
She further states the fact that indigo led to the Europeans seeking out India and ultimately colonizing it. It was the high demand for indigo that led to certain policies of the British that the indigo farmers felt were not sustainable for the land. It was the movement by these indigo workers and farmers that played a role in starting the freedom struggle. She adds, “The idealist spirit of the Independence movement was the inspiration for many of my works. The literature and movies of and based on the independence struggle inspired the imagery for my paintings.”
Throughout these years, Vaidya has held several exhibitions of her paintings. Her exhibitions in Delhi and Pune included paintings of landscapes from the films of the 1950’s, such as those by Vimal Roy, as they had lots of landscape-based themes. She also had several individual and group shows in Mumbai, New York, and Paris, all based on landscapes of several forms. She also created a public installation/ performance piece in the Centre Square of Providence in Rhode Island, where 12 performers wore costumes dyed using natural dyes from Japan and India and used by Native Americans in order to infuse a sense of invigoration in the urban landscape. This piece connected the history of the land and botany to urban planning. She got a National Endowment of the Arts Grant for this piece from the U.S Government. She also received a scholarship by the Indian Government from the Lalit Kala Academy of Art.
Vaidya’s paintings are truly one of a kind. The final painting reflects the effort made in the entire process, and also provides a sense of satisfaction to her as well as the audience. The juxtaposition of the themes of peace and chaos are done beautifully, and one tends to keep returning to her paintings for more, as something new can be uncovered with each viewing. Vaidya insists on her concentration upon the natural and man-made world. “It is important for me, personally, to blend nature and culture,” she believes. It is thus that one finds effort, novelty, uniqueness, and sensitivity in each of her works, which become a marvel to look at, and it is only after a while that one can look away.