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A tiny beach town near Kozhikode in Kerala has been pitching weaving as art for 29 years now

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Flowers fruit peels prints on fabric

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Kozhikode (Kerala): Chaw Su Hlaing calls her work ‘eco print’. She not only prepares her dye naturally -- from indigo, fruit peels, sticks, flowers and whatnot -- she also collects perfect specimens of leaves and flowers of various shapes, preserves them and uses them to print her textiles. The result is such an intricately layered work that craft easily becomes art. She then turns them into trendy t-shirts.

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Hlaing, who is from Myanmar’s second largest city Mandalay, said she has been doing ‘eco print’, a technique she perfected after many experiments, for the last seven years. Her dream is to start a centre back home – she even has a name ready, Saunder – and teach her technique.

Hlaing is one of the 100 participants at Suthra, the month-long textile art retreat that has become almost a tradition in Beypore, a small beach town that sits next to Kozhikode.

Suthra was a brainchild of the celebrated tapestry artist, late KV Santha, a self-taught weaver who had created her own style of tapestry weaving that draws inferences from nature using a technique very different from Gobelins, the popular tapestry technique from the west.

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Santha’s works have been showcased worldwide, including the International Triennial of Tapestry Art in Lodz, Poland. The last show that she participated in was the 2019 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, where she had an installation called ‘Tree of Life’.

Santha was one of the co-founders of Tasara (weaver’s shuttle in Sanskrit), a weaving centre focused on imparting knowledge.

Thirty-five years ago, when Tasara was created, the idea was to put pride back into weaving, said V Vasudevan, Santha’s brother and one of the co-founders of Tasara, who runs the weaving centre with his other siblings in his 2-acre family property.

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"We are not from a traditional weaving family. When our father passed away, we were forced to find a livelihood. After trying our hands at many small businesses, we opened a weaving centre called Spider Weavers in 1977, because in those days weaving was flourishing in Kozhikode, which was exporting handwoven textiles globally. Unfortunately, we caught the tail end of the wave and before long the weaving wave crashed.

"With no money, the families that were traditionally doing weaving abandoned their craft and we struggled to find both people to man the loom and contracts to keep us going," said Vasudevan.

But as they had already invested in the frame looms, the siblings started to teach themselves weaving. Vasudevan took to it like fish to water. Soon, they decided to change focus and Tasara was founded to elevate weaving more as an art than a craft.

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"The only way we can stop people from abandoning their traditional craft is by ensuring that these crafts can afford them a comfortable life. For this, one needs to break through the limitations of the medium and find ways to make it trendy among people. Tasara provides anybody willing to learn the right kind of ambience and infrastructure to experiment," said Vasudevan.

In no time, the annual workshops at the centre, which explored weaving and dyeing techniques from various parts of the world, gained currency among textile artists worldwide. They started to drop by – to learn new techniques as well as to teach what they know. Eventually, about 29 years ago, this paved the way for Suthra.

"When we started, Tasara attracted mostly people from outside India. But of late we are also seeing many young Indians interested in our traditional crafts, trying to find ways to incorporate them in their modern lives. This is also partly the reason why we decided to go all out and make this month (February) a celebration of weaving and dyeing," said Vasudevan, pointing to the young volunteers – most of them are local architect students – milling about his two-acre facility, helping him clean and set up open-air exhibition spaces, and create reels for social media promotions.

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The month-long fest, which will also include many cultural performances this year, will be formally inaugurated on February 3.

"We are exhibiting about 300 pieces of artwork by the participating artists at the venue, which is open to the public. All cultural events are being organised in the evenings. This is also the first time that we will have about 100 people at the same time. But we wanted to think big this year, mostly as a tribute to my sister who passed away last year.

"So far, it has been quite an extraordinary experience because the idea has taken root and is growing in ways we never thought possible. For instance, our neighbours are opening their houses for the participants to stay. Without that, it would be difficult to manage an event of this magnitude," said Vasudevan.

For Hanna Ljungstedt, a 46-year-old engineer from Gothenburg in Sweden, who discovered her penchant for textile art rather late in her life, Suthra is a dream come true. Although she loves her work as an environmental engineer, which involves finding ways to reduce the carbon footprint in the construction sector, Ljungstedt said she loves textile art equally and has squeezed time between her busy schedule to study screen printing formally.

"It’s been two days here and I am so overwhelmed by how much I have learnt already. We haven’t even started yet. I can’t wait for this to begin," said Ljungstedt.

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