Sewing small pieces of colourful cotton cloth, a group of women give shape to a scene from Haridwar ghats, where lakhs of people congregate every day to wash away their sins in the Ganga. On a thick five-foot-long cloth that forms the canvas, they portray the river that is considered sacred by a billion Hindus, but has been polluted beyond control.
Guiding them is Odia applique artist Devi Prasad Nanda, who aims to bring the holy and ugly facets of the river to the fore through his craft. Chasing the Ganga in its 2,500-km-long journey from the Gangotri glacier to the Bay of Bengal, Nanda—who is the founder director of Puri Creative Handicrafts Cooperative Society Ltd in Puri, Odisha—is creating a 36-metre applique work, which will depict what the river goes through to nurture the world revolving around it.
Aptly named ‘Namami Gange’, it begins with an episode from mythology depicting the origin of the Ganga as it descends on Earth from the matted locks of Lord Shiva. “The story of Ganga will unfold in 18 episodes through the artwork,” Nanda says.
At least 20 women, who have learnt applique craft from Nanda and his master craftsman Bharat Bhusan Parida, are working on it. “The idea of Namami Gange came to me after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Namami Gange programme to clean the sacred river in May 2015,” says Nanda, who has also created a 30-metre applique work on Nabakalebara Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath, Devi Subhadra and Lord Balabhadra.
His team has completed four episodes of Namami Gange, which will also feature people who eke out living from the Ganga, and its pollution in Haridwar, Rishikesh, Varanasi and Kolkata.
All episodes will be stitched together to show the river’s journey before it meets the Bay of Bengal. “Starting from the dead being disposed of into the river at Varanasi, tanneries releasing chemical waste in Kanpur, discharge of sewage into the river in Kolkata, Howrah and Allahabad, the work will show every place that contributes in polluting the river,” says the artist, who holds the Limca record for creating largest applique work (54 metres long) depicting the Indian freedom struggle in 33 episodes.
Nanda uses motifs from Pattachitra, Warli and Saura tribal paintings in his work.
“In Pipili, applique works are mostly circular as they are designed only for decoration. Our works are handmade and include a lot of human figures as they are intended at telling stories. Hemming is the only form of sewing that we practice,” says the artist, who belongs to the traditional stone carvers community in Pathuria Sahi of Puri.
For this project, he has used cotton cloth as it is an easy medium to create long applique works. In other smaller works, the raw materials vary from raw silk, jute cotton, and poplin to markin fabrics.
The artist, who has been working with the Odisha government for training applique artisans, plans to exhibit Namami Gange in New Delhi this year.