Eye of a Needle

A creative individual tends to oscillate from the small group contact to the large group contact, balancing one with the other. For him, to be Indian is laudable but not at the expense of being a human being; conversely, to be a human being is laudable if by this he does not lose his intimacy with the immediate environment.1 (K. G. Subramanyan, 1987) 


In the years 1996 and ‘97, Surekha applied washes of watercolour and subtle running stitches on rice paper. The paper metamorphosed into textures of skin, and “body” was present in the abstract without any strong defining shape. At the end of a collection of works, Surekha’s rice paper transformed into a set of blouses. 

Currently, she is possessed by silk – translucent, light, and comforting to the sight. In the gallery, a very long silk cloth hangs like an elegant curtain. Suspended from the ceiling by four strings, the cloth looks like four separate pieces. On the material, a stitch graphically runs in the shape of plant twigs, set in five parallel streams. At the end of every twig is a handcrafted poppy flower. On the floor, dozens of the same flower surround the work, evoking an act of worship. Surekha has titled the work – “They grow everywhere”. 

After World War II, beginning in Flanders, endless blankets of poppies grew in several parts of Europe. They grew, so to speak, ‘out of flesh and blood’. On 11 November every year, people all over Europe wear them on their lapels. The British Legion donated about 2,500 flowers to Surekha, “feeling guilty” about the Indians who fought for the British, but got no epitaph, or even graves. 

Apart from her stitched material, tiny, yellowish brown photographs reveal Surekha’s other preoccupations. Most of them record a nude wearing her plaits, made from beads that look like jasmine flowers. The plait puns on the structure of the spinal chord, stretching snake-like on the back of the nude model. The beads are partially hidden by stitched silk in the shape of leaves. Among these poignant pictures, a single photograph violently pelts a different feel. It is a picture of a deep brown door. Large needles are pierced upon it. The door hides a sacred symbol at Phool Mahal2 in Rajasthan – the impression of a hand of a ten-year-old girl, who willingly committed Sati3 as her fiancée passed on. The photograph is pregnant with suspense – the viewer cannot see the impression – the door blocks out a private truth. Instead, the needles on the photograph stand in for a hallowed brutality you may never encounter. 

Dakshina Chitra

In January 2003, ‘Sites of Recurrence’ was the workshop theme at Dakshina Chitra in Chennai. The aim there for artists was to improvise with craftspeople from various locales. Time was a major constraint; about two weeks were all they had. Surekha encountered a dozen craftswomen. The women chatted incessantly while they stitched, and stitched incessantly while they chatted. A woman held forth about sex and tied a knot every second. “The decisions made in a tradition-oriented society are apt to be unconscious decisions” observed Charles and Ray Eames, after touring India for three months in 1958 – “in that each situation or action automatically calls for a specified reaction. Behaviour patterns are pre-programmed, pre-set. 

“It is in this climate that handicrafts flourish”, they inferred, “changes take place by degrees – there are moments of violence but the security is in the status quo.”4 (Italics in original) 

Collaborating with these women, Surekha prepared a large cloth by setting quadral arrangements of four beads each, and constrained them by a running stitch. She left the middle of the cloth open for the loquacious women to work on. The women got down to work on it with large needles and red stitches. They were asked to leave the needles pierced after every stitch. The finished work looks like a work in progress – the frame breathes silence, but is contrasted by a chaotic and graphic patch in the middle that declares a violent presence. 

Eye of the Needle

Surekha’s output in the last seven years has been prodigious. Every time she found a story, oral or written (or hidden), her sartorial sensibilities were activated. Surekha however, is not a storyteller. She clinically sums up what she has seen or heard, while her stitches encapsulate – in oblique ways – wars, weavers, wishes, worries. 

In 1965, John Berger wrote, “A painter is free to paint anything he chooses”5. Three and a half decades have matured his statement. There are no common concerns peculiar to globalized societies, no grand organizing principles, no shared cultural expressions. Artists today gather a million different stimuli and parade them. “True”, says K. G. Subramanyan, “in an open society like that of today, a man’s personal heritage is not as compact and uniform as in older societies.”6 Typically today, an artist of merit writes a proposal, travels abroad, executes the proposal, and returns to narrate a confessional. Even then, choosing or creating material to correlate chaotic sensations is crucial to creating works of significance. 

Surekha sometimes, like most of us, is a foreigner to her own cultural past. This alienation usually helps the groping artist – in freely moving across cultures, in modifying rules or playing out different ones, and finally, in creating speckles if not spectacles. Surekha’s present oeuvre, one might suppose, is an attempt at coming to grips with this alienation through the eye of the needle. And we notice after all, in the end, the needles have seen much. 

Raghav Shreyas 
Bangalore, 2003 
Raghav Shreyas is a writer, critic and photographer based in Bangalore, India. Before this, he was a television correspondent, researcher, teacher and critic. His interests include films and classical music.