Australia Council Submission

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.

The proposed project “Speaking Cloth” builds upon two past works: 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. This cloth on the ground deflected the gaze and so was successful in producing a free flowing recounting of events from women. Two, in 2012 an illustrator was commissioned to produce drawings based upon 5 themes for future engagements with women in remote rural communities. Emerging from these works is the conviction in the power of visual narratives and the desire to depict the collective experiences of childbirth in rural and poor communities in India as a large painting.

Towards the development of the Speaking Cloth Project I have been in discussion with an Indian Textile artist to set up a project to get remote-rural-poor crafts women to paint – 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. Words are a great vehicle for the urban educated but as ‘technical vocabulary’ they also become the very instruments that disenfranchise the lived experience of pregnant women. In the use of the gallery, the exhibition space in urban centres as the stage where these voices are expressed, the aesthetics and form of the story 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”.

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).


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 will be 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 in-kind 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 in-kind 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 in-kind support. Also in-kind support for venue and accommodation in Bangalore from the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology.


The project expression imagines a program composed of two kinds of events: one, to plan and execute the tapestry, and two, to facilitate the engagement of the artists with the creative arts communities in Melbourne and New Delhi/India. The ‘engagement/ collaboration’ will have a programme of activities that provide a space for dialogue and interaction of the artists within the communities of practice in Melbourne and New Delhi. The specific events, institutions and the related communities of practice will be as listed below.

Melbourne events

  1. Master Class: At RMIT textiles and/or Victorian tapestry workshop on the large tapestry/embroidery pieces targeted at textile artists.
  2. Bheda Artist Talk: Public talks at these locations Australia India Institute, RMIT Design Research Institute- Design Hub, Craft Victoria.
  3. Studio tours: Visits to textile artists and hand work studios in Melbourne. Visits to fabrication workshops and computer embroidery facilities.
  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), Melbourne, Gallery to be confirmed.

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 (New Delhi), India International Centre (New Delhi)
  3. Airing the Project: Showing the project in development and talking the project. Public engagement with White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood (New Delhi), UNICEF, Indian Institute of Public Health and women’s health activists.
  4. Exhibition of Tapestry (Completed work), Melbourne, Gallery to be confirmed.

The Making Project

The Project to plan, design and execute the Speaking Cloth will have a programme of activities as follows. These will occur during the day alongside the programme of events (potentially in the evening) in Melbourne and India. The project will consist of independent development and Skype collaboration to discuss the layout envisaged in this proposal and to detail out the layout-design and visual treatment. Once the layout is final the next stage will be the visualisation of the individual panels and the depiction of events and stories/ myths/ practices. A week long workshop in Melbourne is proposed at this stage to work collaboratively to discuss the ‘design’ of the speaking cloth. The drawing and painting of the individual will be undertaken next. Once the drawings/ paintings are completed the next workshop will occur in New Delhi. During this workshop the digital printing will be commissioned and the fabrication of the panels will be undertaken. The planning of the embroidery and the trials of treatment will be done at this workshop.

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. 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.

Collaborator Bios

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. 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. A sample of her work is posted at this link:

CHANDRASHELHAR BHEDA 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. A sample of his work is posted at this link:


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. A sample of his work is posted at this link:

Published by Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg

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