Geeta Khandelwal, a quilter living in Mumbai, India, loves designing and creating quilts and art quilts. She shares her thoughts and her passion for crafts spanning over five decades.
“I have cupboards overflowing with fabrics. Every corner of my home stores bundles of cloth. There are a variety of fabrics - thick, gossamer, plain, colourful, printed, brocades, indigo-dyed and more. One can find bundles of thread and yarn, rolls of sari borders and selvedge edges, remnants of cloth from quilting, and yardage I have bought during my travels in India, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and London. I love every scrap of cloth I have in the boxes and savour the process of quilting with them” says Geeta Khandelwal, a quilter, author and collector of textiles.
She adds that making quilts using used fabrics and scraps is a wonderful way of recycling fabrics, saris, and dupattas, as these quilts give warmth and comfort to the user and strength to the quilter. And so it is that Geeta instinctively preserves threads and scraps, enjoys stitching and working with her hands to create quilts in her beautiful and serene art-filled home, in Mumbai, India.
A Love for Quilting
Geeta’s love for textiles saw her step into the field of quilting five decades ago. In the 1970s she exhibited handmade quilts at the esteemed `Festival of India’ at Galleries Lafayette in Paris, and later at `The International Quilt Fair in Birmingham’ in 2013 and Paris in 2014. She exported quilts for twenty-five years to high-end stores in Europe and the US, creating them as per the clients’ requirements of colour and design.
In May 2010 Geeta wound up her business career and moved on to creating art quilts that can also be hung on a wall. And it is a selection of these artistic quilts that are presently being exhibited at zapurza museum of art & culture (https://www.zapurza.org/), located on the outskirts of Pune, about four-hour drive from Mumbai. It is a lovely complex of low stone buildings set by the backwaters of the Khadakwasla Dam, founded by Ajit Gadgil, a jeweller and a passionate art collector. The galleries exhibit his personal collection Indian art, sculpture, textiles, gold and silver jewellery, traditional lamps and more.
Rooted in Gandhian Values
The fabric of Geeta’s philosophy- of simplicity, of valuing and preserving even the smallest of swatches- goes back to her childhood spent in a large inter-generational joint family during India’s freedom struggle. Her parents inculcated Mahatma Gandhi’s values of humility and simplicity, of working with hands and spending time in meaningful activities.
“We were a large family and very little was available in the 1940s during India’s freedom movement. It was a time of scarcity. Sugar and petrol were rationed. With the prevailing milieu and our upbringing, recycling, repairing and darning were encouraged as hobbies and pastime during the long summer vacations. I stitched my own clothes. Clothes of elder children were passed down to the younger children; clothes were mended. During my years of motherhood, I was making tiny quilts for the children and a few simple embroideries on dresses. After my children grew up, I quite naturally started quilting. Now as a meditation, I enjoy creating art quilts that are inspired by life around me, my travels and people I meet”.
Stitch by Stitch, Piece by Piece
Geeta plans the design of a quilt; the first step is to select the fabrics and threads from her collections. She then cuts pieces of fabric to bring the composition alive. “A lot of thought goes into making the quilt. It needs attention to colour, size, texture, calculations and more”. Yet at other times she allows a quilt to evolve on its own. “Often, I start patching pieces of cloth with no definite pattern in mind. The pattern evolves as I go along, continuing to add the tiny pieces making sure that the colour harmony of the quilt remains peaceful”. Sometimes the cloth may be hand-dyed to a colour she has in mind for the quilt.
Placing the pieces on the base fabric, she stitches them (to it) with different stitches; she also works with an assistant at home, guiding and supervising the work continually. The quilting of running stitch is subsequently worked lines; often in directions such as vertical, horizontal, curved or diagonal (that may cross) to bring forms alive and add life to the quilt. There are embellishments like buttons as seen in her quilts depicting Devi or the Mother Goddess drawn from impressions of her childhood. Geeta created forms of the goddess with antique brocade and embellished them with stitches and buttons after studying how buttons are used in traditional embroidery of Kutch.
Home and City
Geeta lives in a lovely heritage home set amidst lawns and trees. In a fast growing metropolis -that is ever adding skyscrapers to its landscape and never sleeps- her home is an oasis of green, peace and old-world charm. It is here that Geeta reflects on life and enjoys the whisper of the breeze, the call of birds and the soothing shades of green of trees and plants around. Impressions or images of her surroundings are often expressed on quilts like the one depicting her home with its different spaces and rooms. Another quilt has the friendly crow that would often visit her verandah, sharing the toast from her breakfast!
One monsoon morning while seated in her living room, Geeta noticed the white curtains along the large window opening onto the terrace. She felt they appeared like a blank white canvas. Inspired by Buddhist prayer flags (that flutter in the breeze spreading blessings from prayer printed on them) and guided by an inner voice, she spontaneously started writing verses of a devotional hymn Jhini jhini bini chadariya, composed by the 15th century India mystic-poet-saint Kabir, on the curtains. She then took up soft grey thread and embroidered the words in kantha stitch.
“The verses praise the wonder of creation of man weaving tapestry and speak of God with metaphors of how we weave our lives very carefully and painstakingly, but finally leave all our belongings behind”. And now when the wind blows through the curtains she feels the words of the poet are carried forward through the house spreading Sant Kabir’s message and that the curtain is akin `a talking cloth’
Reminiscing about the days when the postman would cycle from home to home delivering letters, Geeta put together cloth covers of parcels she had received in the mail and created a quilt with images relating to the postal service. “I miss the interaction with the postman, the packages wrapped in cloth that he would deliver, unlike the couriers today that deliver packages wrapped in plastic”.
As a tribute to the city she was born in and has lived for the past eight decades she created a pictorial map of Mumbai on a blue fabric, evocative of the Arabian Sea that skirts the city. She added lines and images depicting the suburban trains, the dockyards, buildings, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, ships and more.
Travels and Writing
An interest in quilting led Geeta to explore the tradition of quilting in Maharashtra state; Mumbai, the city she lives in, is the capital of Maharashtra. Setting off on the first trip in mid- 2010 (after closing her business), Geeta and her team of driver and photographer, who speak the local language Marathi, made thirty-five trips, over a period of three years, travelling to villages in different parts of the state.
Though Geeta was aware of the tradition of quilting godharis (that are thick layered patchwork quilts, created out of pieces of old clothes, thus giving them a new lease of life, creating functional, multi-coloured and eye-catching quilts rooted in recycling) “in every backyard of Maharashtrian homes”, she was keen to meet their makers and know about their lives.
The team met with village women who quilted in their homes. They worked instinctively without any pre-thought patterns on paper nor any measuring tape or tools. She found their creativity amazing. She observed how the quilts preserved memories as sections of a child’s dress, a mother’s sari or a father’s dhoti/trousers appeared in the quilt.
Geeta marvelled at their efforts at layering multiple fragments of cloth, quilting them together with a heavy gauge cotton thread and a thick needle, and simply tying a piece of cloth around a finger to function as a thimble to create strong, vibrant and functional quilts. She was told that these quilts were made for home use only and that these quilts were never made for sale. The women also made endearing smaller quilts that swathed a baby who would be “comforted by the softness of its well-worn cloth and the mother’s smell in the old clothes that compose the quilt”.
These enriching travels led Geeta to write an interesting book Godharis of Maharashtra. “It is the first attempt to research the humble godhari. I have tried to capture in words and images the unknown rural women I encountered and their exquisite creations”. Going through the book, many readers learnt how to make godharis and recycle their clothes especially during the pandemic years.
“I found the village women powerful, beautiful and always attractively dressed in saris and jewellery including anklets and nose rings, a bindi, green bangles, and a tattoo on their forearm”. Geeta’s interactions with them also inspired her own work; she went on to create charming quilts depicting the village women in their milieu. One of the quilts is the Shantabai quilt named after a woman whose name is “Shantabai”. The quilt depicts Shantabai quilting while seated cross-legged on the floor in her home with cooking vessels on the side, an image of a deity on the wall, a baby close-by and a cow peering in through the window.
Geeta is always thinking of new expressions. “In 2016, I created the first miniature costume inspired by the book ‘Indian Costumes from the Calico Museum’ Ahmedabad. Later it grew into making fifty-five Miniature Maharaja Costumes. In October 2019, these were displayed at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The response was overwhelming response”. She is presently creating tiny dolls’ quilts ranging from the traditional to the contemporary styles. Geeta also creates patchwork carry bags, jackets, shawls and scarves from recycled fabrics.
“Quilting is a daily ritual for me. The process is relaxing, creative, meditative and spiritual. I don’t think when I quilt; I simply do as it is an integral part of my life, of me. I love life, people and every scrap in my box, and am at peace when I quilt”. Seeing the wonderful spectrum of quilts displayed at zapurza museum, their layers and details, the poignant and endearing stories in their many fragments of cloth and in their entirety, one is privy to her personal journeys, expressions, values and sentiments.
- Exhibition of Art Quilts by Geeta Khandelwal at zapurza museum of art & culture, Pune, India, from 18 February till 31stMarch 2023.
- zapurza museum of art & culture https://www.zapurza.org/
- For Godharis of Maharashtra Western India by Geeta Khandelwal published by Quiltmania please see https://www.quiltmania-inc.us/boutique/books/collection-books/godharis-of-maharashtra/ The book is available at the museum store of zapurza museum of art & culture, Pune, India
- For further reading on Kabir’s hymn please see:
Text by Brinda Gill
All Images Courtesy: Geeta Khandelwal