SIX yards. Converted to metrics, that’s almost 5.5 metres. That’s the average length of a saree.
It’s also the length of Deepika Gupta and Shikha Grover’s silk canvases. The women are behind the project called Bodh, which has produced a collection of 75 one-of-a-kind sarees over a span of slightly over two and a half years.
Each saree features exquisite Varanasi weaving, Deepika’s creative paintings, and Shikha’s newfound interest in digital art manipulation. “We experimented with so many different fabrics, prints and weaves to produce the product,” reveals Shikha, adding: “Many didn’t work out but it was very satisfying when we finally found the right combination.”
Each of these unique sarees sell as a set, with a hand-painted blouse and embroidered silk sling clutch. Prices start from RM2,500.
“People don’t really wear sarees much these days but I find them versatile and fashionable,” says Deepika, the artist responsible for all the artwork for the project. However, she confides that it wasn’t quite her intention to modernise a traditional garment when she had her art printed onto the sarees.
“I just love experimenting and I found that having my art printed on sarees allowed me to play with different perspectives. Essentially, what we’ve produced is not just something to be worn but it is also a piece of art. It certainly flatters any woman who wears it.”
The saree is steeped in history. Usually in striking colours and with rich detailing, it’s a symbol of femininity in a civilisation that dates back to a time before Christ. The saree began flourishing during 2800-1800BC in and around the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent. Cotton was mainly used at first, and it was woven to produce these lengthy marvels, with dyes made from indigo, lac, red madder and turmeric.
Some may not see it to be the most practical piece of clothing to wear in these modern times but no one can deny that the soft folds and the way the material drapes around a woman’s body confer a sense of fragility and femininity to the wearer. Apparently, there are more than 80 ways to wear a saree, with the most common way being wrapped around the waist, with the midriff bared, while the loose end is draped over one shoulder.
“We’re hoping this will bring back the culture of wearing sarees and remind people that sarees are beautiful. So, putting a more modern spin to something so traditional may just help. Furthermore, I just want to show just how versatile the saree is as it can fit all body types,” enthuses Deepika.
Silk replaced cotton around the 2450-2000BC, making sarees more luxurious than ever before. It is said that the artisanal weavers in Varanasi, a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, produce the most beautiful sarees in the northern region. These sarees are highly sought-after.
“Anyone from northern India who’s getting married would want to have a saree from Varanasi. Without it, the bride would feel incomplete,” shares Deepika, continuing: “And this region is also famed for its use of real gold thread. I have one from my late mother and it is simply exquisite! But it’s also very heavy.”
The duo excitedly point out the painstaking work that had been put into producing the six yards of cloth.
Which is your favourite piece in the collection, I ask. “It’s tough to choose the best!” exclaims Shikha, who secretly admits that she gets a thrill modelling them. Meanwhile, Deepika has no such problems choosing — it’s the black and white ones. “Maybe because it resonates with my personality,” she says, chuckling.
As the pair enthuse over their creation, they agree that the most striking piece in the collection is the blue, white and orange piece worn during a photoshoot for their exhibition at Ilham Gallery. It features Deepika’s painting titled Divinity Entwined.
“The painting was sold at a previous exhibition a few years ago but Shikha was able to digitalise it and recreate it on this silk saree. The painting was inspired by an experience at a spiritual retreat with a Buddhist monk, which posed the question of whether one religion was any different from the next,” elaborates Deepika.
FRIENDSHIP AND LOVE FOR ART
As I sat down with a cup of masala tea in the spacious living room of Deepika’s apartment in Mont Kiara, the ladies continue to regale me with stories of their friendship and their days back in their homeland.
The duo hail from India, with Deepika from New Delhi and Shikha from Mumbai. The 48-year-old Deepika and 51-year-old Shikha are both creatively inclined. While Shikha leans towards Impressionist art, Deepika prefers to paint emotive pieces, inspired by her feelings and thoughts.
Deepika, the more introvert of the pair, remarks this is her 20th year in this country and she has no intention of leaving, just yet.
Meanwhile, Shikha only made Malaysia her home four years ago, but has acclimatised really well. The pair became the best of friends when they met here and as it happened, both live in the same apartment building.
“We got together via our common friends who kept urging us to meet because of our love for painting and art,” recalls Deepika, continuing: “Our friendship became so strong that we decided we should do something together as a way to cement it. The whole project felt so right even though we didn’t know what we wanted to do in the beginning. The process took quite a while and entailed us travelling through India and conducting countless experimentations before we ended up with what you see here now.”
Their “friendship project” is said to be an amalgamation of their love for art, their Indian heritage and 21st century technology. Shikha, the digitally-inclined of the pair, shares: “All the artwork that’s printed on each saree was painted by Deepika. My job was to digitise them and then print them on six yards of silk.”
She confides: “It has been two years since I last picked up a brush but I do enjoy how technology such as Photoshop has allowed me to manipulate pictures. I’m enjoying this new way of expressing myself.”
The duo began drawing when they were kids; both are self-taught. “I love the outdoors and would sit outside drawing trees and flowers,” says Deepika. Nodding, Shikha chips in: “Our only formal lesson in art was the art subject we all studied at school. Neither of us ended up pursuing any formal art courses or programmes.”
While Deepika went on to further her studies in fashion design, Shikha ended up graduating with two management degrees and an interior designing degree.
“Painting was the only thing that kept me sane during some of my trying times,” reveals Shikha who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis disorder in 1987. It was during this period that she found calm and reprieve from the disease by painting, out of the back of her mini Maruti 800.
She recalls: “Apart from that, I believe my work with Childline India Foundation also had a karmic blessing in keeping my disease at bay. So, I’m adamant to continue my social work here (Malaysia) in addition to my art.”
How do you separate responsibilities, I ask.
“You can say we both complement each other very well in many ways. For the project, I may be the creative person supplying the artwork but I have zero capabilities in making money-based decisions,” admits Deepika, chuckling.
“Shikha is the logical one in this relationship and I’m more than happy to let her make all the decisions related to finances. If I were to do it, then I’d have ended up buying everything, just because they look beautiful!”
As the clock strikes 6, I hasten to take my leave and apologise for keeping the ladies from their dinner. “Do you know why we name our brand Bodh?” enquires Deepika, rising from her seat to see me out.
I shake my head. “It’s a Sanskrit word meaning acknowledgment and enlightenment. It resonates with us, like how this project is an awakening for the both of us,” she answers in earnest.
Nodding, Shikha adds: “The past two and a half years has seen so many ups and downs but it hasn’t shattered our friendship one bit. It has actually helped to deepen it. And since Bodh’s pronunciation is similar to ‘both’, it’s just right that this project is BOTH ours.”