The Project

The project envisages a collaboration between creative practitioners in Melbourne and New Delhi, India:

To produce a 50 metre long cloth ‘mural’ or ‘tapestry’ narrating stories from women’s experiences of maternity and childbirth in rural India.

1st probe

Two previous works inform the current project : one, a detailed drawing on cloth depicting the maternal health ecosystem in rural India was used as a device to engage women in remote rural poor communities in Assam (India) in conversation. The cloth, a cultural probe, deflected the gaze and so was successful in producing a free flowing recounting of events from women.

santhal woman

Two, in 2012 an illustrator was commissioned to produce similar cultural probes upon 5 themes for future engagements with women in remote rural communities. These pieces have been submitted for exhibition to Craft Cubed 2013 (An annual event of Craft Victoria). The proposed project “Speaking Cloth” builds upon these past works and aims to depict the collective experiences of childbirth in rural and poor communities in India. Through being exhibited in galleries the cloth aims to provoke an appreciation and a respect for the maternal health condition seen from the eyes of marginalized women. The “speaking cloth” draws upon the mode of the story telling tapestry to portray a contemporary situation – rural Indian women’s collective experiences of childbirth.

Emerging from the 5 probes that were illustrated by a Melbourne based designer is the notion of visual narratives (image on left). I have since early 2012 been working with an Indian Textile artist to set up a project to get remote-rural-poor crafts women to do similar paintings. These paintings are their stories – telling of their experiences of their childbirth experiences and of incidents in their community. These works are a way for the “voices” of these women, and the stories from remote rural communities, to be heard in urban centres through exhibitions of their works. (This transnational collaboration is the subject of a grant application being developed for submission to the Australia India Institute). I arrived at this project – of visual narratives – because of the dissatisfaction I felt upon reading all the texts on the subject of Maternal Health in India. Words are a great vehicle for urban educated – but as ‘technical vocabulary’ they also become the very instruments that disenfranchise the lived experience of pregnant women.

And here is the question – how can these women speak so that they are heard, so that their voices are heard in all their complexity and not in a simplified way that fits into current public health theory?

My answer is to use the gallery, the exhibition space in urban centres as the stage where these voices are expressed. The aesthetics and form of the story will go a long way in retaining the details in the narratives. By becoming images the meaning embedded in these works is not reducible to “formulaic problems”. This format (gallery) and this location (urban) is one part of the project focussed upon contributing a unique dimension – the perspective of remote rural poor women – to the policy discourse surrounding maternal deaths in communities distant from urban centres. India is the country with the highest incidence of maternal mortality in the world.

The collaborators are – a creative practitioner from RMIT University, a textile artist from New Delhi and a Melbourne based Artist-Illustrator. In addition the project will involve traditional crafts people in New Delhi, textile technicians (working in the computer embroidery Laboratory at RMIT Textiles) and external textile facilities in Melbourne and New Delhi for Printing and dyeing. In addition the project will utilize facilities in New Delhi ( the studio of Mr Bheda) and Melbourne (RMIT Industrial Design, the Design Hub and RMIT textiles workshops).

Additional Resources

The project seeks funding from the Australia Council for the key component of:

1. Fees for the artist and craftspersons to enable them to commit time to the ‘making’ component of the project. The contribution of Soumitri Varadarajan is an in-kind contribution from RMIT University.

2. Mobility costs for travel and accommodation to enable the collaboration to happen with the artists physically co-located in Melbourne and New Delhi.

The project will seek additional resources from the following sources:

1. Australia India Institute: The Australia India Institute has expressed an interest in being involved in efforts orientated towards engaging with Maternal Health in India. At the moment of writing this EOI I have been in discussion with the Australia India Institute for some time to define a creative practice approach in the space of Maternal Health that accords with the programme needs of the Institute. The drawings and outcomes of the probes have been shown to the institute and I am hopeful that I will be able to secure additional funding for the project targeted towards a travelling exhibition.

2. City of Melbourne: I have in 2012 undertaken a project funded by the City of Melbourne funded under their India engagement charter. I aim to seek additional funding from the City of Melbourne for local hospitality and expenses for the Melbourne workshop.

3. RMIT University: I will seek to obtain inkind support from RMIT in the form of access to the printing and computer embroidery facilities at cost. I will also obtain event venue from RMIT University as an in-kind contribution to the project.

4. India: I will seek to get inkind support from a few organizations in India to host the India events. This would include accommodation and venue being supplied by the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Venue for events in New Delhi from the India International Centre and India Habitat Centre to be obtained as inkind support. Also inkind support for venue and accommodation in Bangalore from the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology.


Melbourne events

1. Master Class: At RMIT textiles and/or Victorian tapestry workshop on the large tapestry/embroidery pieces

2. Bheda Artist Talk: Public talk at Australia India Institute/ RMIT Design Research Institute- Design Hub.

3. Studio tours: Visits to textile artists and hand work studios in Melbourne.

4. Airing the Project: Showing the project in sketches and talking the project. Public engagement with RMIT Midwifery and community health researchers, Nossal Institute community health researchers and women’s health activists. RMIT Design Hub or Royal Women’s Hospital or Sunshine Hospital.

5. Exhibition of Tapestry (Completed work)

India Events

1. Master Class: At National Institute of Fashion Technology (New Delhi) &/or National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad) &/or Srishti SADT (Bangalore)

2. Gaur Artist Talk: India Habitat Centre

3. Airing the Project: Showing the project in development and talking the project. Public engagement with White Ribbon Alliance (New Delhi), UNICEF, Indian Institute of Public Health and women’s health activists.

5. Exhibition of Tapestry (Completed work)

Media and Performance

Online Presence

The Speaking Cloth project will be represented through a website and social media as an evolving programme inviting people to view piece as it develops and join the journey at the events in Melbourne and potentially 3 cities in India. It is imagined that the website and social media presence will generate a community of viewers who will be invited to engage with the final piece at the Exhibitions in India and Australia.

Exhibition Programme

The project imagines one gallery showing in New Delhi and Melbourne each initially. After this the piece will be retained in Melbourne and shared for display with Galleries as a travelling exhibition.The project envisages a travelling exhibition that stops at key places to conduct a conversation (as a workshop or symposium even). This event is a reading of the stories from the cloths – a conversation that aims to look at maternal health from the perspective of the women.


Each display is imagined as a provocation to initiate a conversation between women’s health activists, policy people and civil society on the evolving nature of interventions in the space of maternal health. Once the pieces are produced – the next activity is the performance. The project envisages a travelling exhibition that stops at key places to conduct a conversation (as a workshop or symposium even). This event is a reading of the stories from the cloths – a conversation that aims to look at maternal health from the perspective of the women. Finally arriving at an understanding about the complexity of the maternal health ecosystem.

Re Experience in The Media and Performance component of the project: This will be a variation on how my previous project The BookWallah Projet was run – using an online ‘broadsheet’, facebook and twitter. (See

Bio – Soumitri Varadarajan

(RMIT University, Melbourne)

Soumitri Varadarajan is Deputy Dean (Industrial and Interior Design) at RMIT University. His creative practice deals with re-imagining mass produced materiality. As part of his work within the research group “Mediated Body” he focuses upon the construction of (faux) materiality as theoretical provocations in health and sustainability. The provocations are aired online as a ‘campaign’ to infect the viewer with improbably notions, as a way to loosen notions of the “right way”. His work is infused with cultural and social research often containing hidden-meanings which are designed to remain secretive and unknown, to await unraveling. His body related work has taken him on field work to remote rural communities to sit down women and listen to them tell of their experiences of childbirth. These collected stories have instilled in him a suspicion of large scale focussed upon changing the way these women think about their bodies and how they act out their experiences of pregnancy. Another recent work deals with the design and construction of a travelling “literary festival” – The Book Wallah. The project, containing an infusion of multiple narratives, involved the construction of bespoke bookcases using hi-tech digital fabrication, which are then covered with kangaroo leather so that it easily degrades and pick up scuffs and signs of travelling.

The images below are of cloth “probes” developed for use in rural community settings – as a cloth spread on the ground to initiate a conversation. (2010)

BoNi BoNi_Detail MyFirstPeriod

A reinterpretation of the pinard horn to give the mother a way to listed to the foetus. (Ceramic slip cast, 2012)

IMG_0747 IMG_0746

Below are images of “journalling” pieces – these are examples of ways of keeping a record of events during a pregnancy. (Laser cut mdf and thread, 2012)


journalIMG_0741IMG_0745 IMG_0744

The images below are from the field trip to Assam. The trip collected stories about women’s experiences of maternity and childbirth in remote and rural areas.

women fishing TISS field workersanthal woman

The images below are of the travelling library. THE BOOK WALLAH PROJECT can also be seen at –

TheBookWallah_DesignHub-15 TheBookWallah_DesignHub-5 TheBookWallah_DesignHub-4 bookwallah1

Bio – Chandrashekhar Bheda

(New Delhi)

Chandu is a New Delhi based textile artist. Trained as a textile artist Bheda has for decades worked with craft communities to develop new designs for their work.At the same time he has worked upon commissions for mass production fabric houses. He blends his knowledge of contemporary technology with his vast experience of traditional textile cratfs. He executes fabric murals in huge sizes referencing textile crafts as a integral component of his narrative. The pieces he produces have allegorical references to Indian myths and lore interwoven with secrets and personal anecdotes. The pieces he conceives are sketched digitally modified/transformed/ printed and then extensively worked upon by different craftspeople who use traditional craft techniques to sew into/onto the base fabric a layer of meaning. Focussed upon navigating contemporary visual (responses/ projection/imagery) his work forces multiple evocations through a dense layering of motifs, meanings and tradition in textile materiality. His pieces are controlled and directed as a project on a large scale. His artworks have graced the walls of architect built spaces. See also images of sample of crafts used in Bheda’s work here (

The work below shows the stages of development of a cloth piece – on a mythological theme. This a figurative work. You can click on the images to see the images enlarged.

Shri Vishnudashavtara by Chandrashekhar Bheda_Page_2

Shri Vishnudashavtara by Chandrashekhar Bheda_Page_3

Shri Vishnudashavtara by Chandrashekhar Bheda_Page_4

Shri Vishnudashavtara by Chandrashekhar Bheda_Page_5

Shri Vishnudashavtara by Chandrashekhar Bheda_Page_6

Shri Vishnudashavtara by Chandrashekhar Bheda_Page_7

The images below show examples of abstract, geometric pieces installed.



Bio – Sophie Gaur

Sophie Gaur is a Melbourne based artist and illustrator. She runs an independent studio focussed upon illustration and graphic design. Her illustration work has been figurative such as the digital illustration of a range of Australian native flora and fauna – which were then used to pepper a variety of graphic products. In her practice she engages with ‘making’ – as in hand-binding books using traditional materials and techniques, she makes pin-hole cameras and experiments with image creation. As a sessional lecturer she teaches ‘thing speak’ a course on meaning in material objects. Her recent work uses biro drawings on paper as the base for a digital modification and illustration of poetry. She has recently worked upon on the theme of women’s bodies and maternal health to produce five narrative cloth works for exhibition.

The two figures below are for a book on poetry on the theme of silk-worm. The media here is biro pen drawings, scanned and digitally transformed. Click on image to see enlarged image.



The image below is an abstract composition for an orchestra tour.


The two images below are illustration of Australian flora and fauna, composed into a natural setting.

In the background can be seen the Collingwood Town Hall.



The following drawings are the cloth probes. The first one below is on the theme of 280 days  – the period of pregnancy. The circles define a journal – and speak about an alternative way to remember the daily events during the course of a pregnancy.



The drawings below are details from the piece on the theme of puberty and menstruation.