Ruby Jagrut is a well-known natural-dye artist whose paintings capture “the state of the cosmos.” She conducts workshops on natural dyes in India and overseas where she teaches how to extract colours from natural products of environment-vegetables, fruits flowers and others. Her trust, the ABIR Charitable Trust organises an annual art competition and exhibition, First Take to handhold the young artists, bridging the gap between their beautiful art and the people who appreciate art.
SheThePeople interviewed Ruby Jagrut and below is the interesting mix of art, expression and inspiration that the interaction unfolded:
1. As a child, you were interested in painting, drawing, and doodling. Today you are a natural dye artist. What inspired you to use natural dye as the medium of your art?
Natural dyes for me have been a journey of self-discovery. It is subtle, unpredictable, eco-friendly and it has beautiful earthen shades. It is also a way for me to express my intent and expression for nature. Every time I make a colour, I feel a sense of adventure which ends up differently from the earlier. This is a very unique medium and each time it is an exclusive experience. There is so much to explore and at times things are beyond my control but in a good way. To see all it happen that way is a beautiful experience, just like a little miracle each time, taking my sense of wonder to a newer place. Speaking from an anthropological perspective, this process connects many dots, such as time, organic pigments, substance and form. There are many stories being subtly whispered and expressed through them, and that is very fulfilling.
2. There are more than 450 plants in India that can yield natural dyes. However, natural dyeing has not commercially flourished in India due to lack of technical knowledge and the database of the dye-yielding plants. So do you think that encouraging natural dyes in art, textiles, as you do through your workshops, will help India to grow as a country?
Dyes have been there forever since the dawn of nature, even before mankind discovered the language and or settled into civilisations. We find them in cave paintings, miniature paintings, frescos on walls, clothes, rugs, etc. They came from flowers, roots, vegetables, insects, minerals, wood, and mollusk. They were a part of human evolution as we grew into communities and diversified into cultures from various geographies. Synthetic dyes were made in 1856. Before that, there was deep knowledge, understanding and use of the natural dyes. However, cheaper cost, availability, and industrial production of synthetic variety have completely marginalized natural dyes. They take meditative patience, time, diligence and care. Returning to these pigments and creating something aesthetic and useful is not just service to art, but also an effort to reclaim that very long human journey. There is a bigger cause than just supporting artists and craftspeople. It is, in a way, a fight of memory against forgetting; organic against industrial. In this process, we need to support, reassure, and celebrate our artisans and practitioners who have kept the tradition alive despite all the challenges.
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3. Your art is an amalgamation of individual experience and the cultural and environmental values of natural dyes. Would you say that culture and heritage plays an important role in a person’s life?
Of course, they do. Your individual experience makes you what you are. Growing in western India brought me close to the rich colours and traditions of not just nature, but also people and society, rituals and festivities. Each society strikes an equation with its nature, an ecosystem unique to their own geography and in the process finds its own colour code. Similarly, people in the coastal south have a different set of colours, then people from the Himalayas to people from Rajasthan. Art is a manifest of the emotions experienced, journeys traversed and celebrating life and its moments in both private and public spaces.
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4. Many Dalit paintings like Mithila, Bharni also use organic cow dung and natural colours in their paintings. It is not only symbolic of self – expression and freedom but also an important political weapon to breakdown the hegemony of caste. Do you think that using natural dye empowers an artist and secularize the art?
I see Mithila, Bharni, Kharad, Mata ni Pacheri, and Pichwoi as our folk or tribal art, and not as Dalit or tribal painting. For example, I don’t see myself as a woman artist. I am just an artist. Art and expression should be beyond biases of gender, class and caste. My concerns are rather on how we are going to protect these forms and pass on the legacy. In Kutch Khatri Muslim community people are brilliant in natural dying techniques, likewise Madhubani Artists from Bihar. Thanka painters from Buddhist monasteries are well informed about using soil and stone pigments. I learn from everyone. My guru, Toofan Rafai, was a Muslim artist and dyer. I never thought of secularizing the art but I am passionate about wanting to practice, protecting, promoting and preserving this rich heritage of colours which we have inherited. Only preservation can empower us and our dyer/artist communities.
5. How do you use natural dye and your paintings to address the issues of society?
I can’t say if it is a very conscious decision, but anything happening in my surroundings is going to affect me. It might just be a flower in the garden, a monsoon shower, childbirth, a death, some violence, sufferings, etc.; they all affect me as they do to any sensitive human being. My work is an outcome of that. It may defy, disagree or you can say not in alignment with social fabric at times. I am not an activist. I am not trying to make a statement each time. It is a complex process where multiple impressions seep into the making of art; some very visible on the surface, some lay silent in layers and textured. They make me more human than I was before.
6. One of your amazing works was Pratidhvani- The echo of virtue on the canvas. Would you like to talk about how you thought about it?
I would call it a happy accident. Reading Bhagwad Gita made me curious and led me to read the epic Mahabharata. I stumbled into various female characters in the book, who were telling their own story about their own lives, longings, scars, violence, strength, virtues, sacrifices and dignity through its timeline. On the surface, they appear to be on the side, but on a closer look, they are actually integral to the storyline. I am fascinated by their conversations and choices and actions in the book, which I feel are not very different from today’s world. The more I read about them, the more I got invested into compelling destinies they were sentenced to. This helped me see them in a different light altogether. To bring them on canvas was something I thought would give them the focus they deserve, which as our collective memory hasn’t really given them. I also wrote notes about them, which were published later. Through the experience changed me in a significant way, not just as an artist, but also as a woman, and as a storyteller.
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7. What is the significance of the title “Pratidhvani” of a work of art that not only contemporize the traditional medium of art, natural dyeing, but also the eccentric Hindu mythological women from Mahabharata?
Pratidhvani means an echo, don’t you think it is resonating back to us? Every struggle the women in Mahabharata went through is very much relevant today. Whether it is about gender, equality, skin colour, exploitation, subjugation, violence, relationships, sacrifices, love and longings, they still exist as they did in olden days. These are not stories of some forgotten times. When you look at them closely, they are today’s harsh realities as well. We come across instances, such as Rape, dowry, caste bias, the expectation of society from women, etc almost every day. It is not just mythology, it’s a very good mirror of our own society. I just used the name anyone could be a victim of such biases.
8. On the basis of personal interpretation, your art both shows the ephemeral life (by coming out of personal experience) and the immortality in the form of natural dye. Would you like to comment on this dialectic?
My art is more of a response to or manifestation of my emotions and experiences. I am using a medium which is as old as civilization. Maybe in this digital era telling contemporary stories using ancient material are kind of a paradox in itself. But it is an interesting paradox.
10. After reading about your earlier life, it can be roughly deduced that you were also one of those young artists who realised her talent later in life. What would be your message for the young artists in different parts of India, who are still in the dilemma of whether they want to be an artist or a well-paid corporate official?
I was always inclined towards art and experienced it deeply. I believe you don’t become an artist, there is no such process. It is definitely inherent. Either you are an artist or you are not. Of course, art schools do teach you skill sets, art history and perspectives, but it may not necessarily make you an artist. We have many successful Indian contemporary artists, such as Bhupen Khakkar, Satish Gujral, Subodh Kerkar, Dr.Patvardhan, Amit Ambalal, and many more, who are not formally trained but followed their heart’s call. They had the eye, the hand and perspectives to create beautiful artwork. With some restless energy and is driven by passion, they have crossed many boundaries to give us some amazing works of art, ideas and stories. Rabindranath Tagore started painting at around sixty. So, there is no age limit and all you need is a readiness to wither any circumstances. There is no substitute for hard work in any field. It is not an advice per se, I am just sharing my experience. I did my first workshop in 1994 and had my first exhibition in 1999 only, which was after years of being active in this field. I kept learning about dyes from various masters, dyers, craftspeople and so on. You need to have a hunger within to make it happen.
11. In India, art and artists as both a choice of career and way of life are not widely encouraged. What was the thought behind creating Abir?
I guess, parents do appreciate kids taking up art as a hobby at a young age. The problem starts when they want to make it a profession. Maybe as a society, we are not able to provide support or a conducive environment where art and artists can flourish. Many 2/3 cities in India do not have art centres or galleries. The core objective of creating Abir was to provide a democratic platform to young artists irrespective of their geographic and social backgrounds. We receive artworks from Imphal, Kochi, Jammu, seoraphuli, Lalgola, Raiganj, Birbhum, Behror, Mahuv, Chandan Nagar, Medinipur and Port Blair. I believe in holding hands, creating synergy and serving the common goal of the young artist community. It also helps to establish a bridge between art and its patrons.
Picture Credits: Ruby Jagrut.
Rudrani Kumari is an intern with SheThePeople.TV
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