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And then, I pull the reed…" Monika Correa, one of India’s first—and still among a few—weaver-artists is telling me about what sounds like a transcendental moment. At some point in her weaving of a tapestry, with the neat warp and weft following meticulous lines, she orchestrates chaos by “pulling out" the reed. The reed is a comb-like structure that keeps threads equidistant from each other, giving woven fabric its tension and structure.

This technical ingenuity enables Correa to move from the structured order of conventional weaving. “There’s something very controlled about weaving and then it disintegrates. I thought that was India, too, in a way," says Correa. For art historian Jyotindra Jain, it is an important determinant of her aesthetic, allowing her to inculcate “a kinetic quality—moving branches, flowing water, mingling shadows, whistling wind and a magical play of shadow and light".

Monika Correa with her loom at Sonmarg apartments, Mumbai, in January
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Monika Correa with her loom at Sonmarg apartments, Mumbai, in January (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

I am meeting Correa at her home in Sonmarg apartments in Mumbai’s Malabar Hill, an iconic residential high-rise designed by her late husband, the Padma Vibhushan winning architect Charles Correa. Copper pots of various dimensions gleam on a windowsill, making for a unique domestic art installation. There are paintings by modern artists S.H. Raza and Akbar Padamsee, and sketches and prints by Howard Hodgkin and Leo Lionni—all friends of the couple. There is a quirky installation of empty Yakult bottles in a large glass jar and Correa’s own tapestries preside over a few walls. But the most imposing presence, by far, is a loom in the centre of the living room, a fixture of five decades.

It was in 1962 that the loom entered Correa’s life. On a visit to Finland, she had been struck by rya-rugs, beautiful creations in luxuriant wool, with deep, resonating colours. A month later, when Charles was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, and she was searching for someone who could teach her to make rya-rugs, she had the good fortune to meet Marianne Strengell, the influential Finnish-American modernist textile artist who had just retired as head of the Cranbrook Academy’s textile department. Strengell took Correa under her wing, even giving her the working drawings of the special loom she had designed to set up once back home. On her return, Correa continued her training at the Weavers’ Service Centre in Mumbai, a research institute founded by the cultural activist Pupul Jayakar.

While Correa has produced a limited body of work—a lot of her work has been commission-based, and she briefly retired in the 1980s—her work has now found its way to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The MoMA and The Met in New York, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Tate Modern, London. Her Banyan Tree (1984) was the first woven art piece to be collected by the National Museum in Delhi. Large-scale commissions include Axis Mundi (1997-99), woven in six sections, each 8x12ft, for the entranceway of Sarjan Plaza, Mumbai.

Trained as a microbiologist, and as someone who never formally studied art or weaving, Correa is excessively modest about her practice. This wave of global recognition, she tells me, started in 2013, when she exhibited her work at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai, at the urging of gallerist Shireen Gandhy. “It was my first exhibition after a long time. Shireen had acquired a large new space and insisted I show my work," says Correa.

‘Mood Indigo’ (2019), made with vegetable-dyed indigo cotton, is on display at the ongoing India Art Fair
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‘Mood Indigo’ (2019), made with vegetable-dyed indigo cotton, is on display at the ongoing India Art Fair (Photo courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary)

While that show wasn’t sold-out, it led to notices by the right audience. Priya and Amrita Jhaveri of Jhaveri Contemporary signed her on and have been taking her work to Frieze New York and Frieze London since. Correa’s latest, Mood Indigo (2019), is part of their booth at the ongoing India Art Fair in Delhi.

“(Until 2013) There had been a long gap since my last exhibition in 1987. When you have an exhibition, it can’t be more of the same, it has to be a new statement…when Shireen asked me, I had already closed shop. Given away some implements. You see, weaving is back-breaking physical work…but Charles heard me decline and said, ‘You are going back.’ We quarrelled and he won. So I got back."

One of the challenges in working with textile is depicting light. The painter Akbar Padamsee had died the day we met in early January, so the conversation veered to him. “He once said that if he wants to create a diagonal line, he just has to take a paintbrush and move across. A weaver, on the other hand, is slowly building that diagonal line. You have to go step by step. Most times, I work in reverse. I place a mirror below to have a look at the front side. You never even have the whole canvas in front of you. The thing is, there is no canvas."

The weaver-artist, then, creates the painting and the canvas. It’s an intensely engaged practice, which leads me to ask why she set up the loom in her house. “When I started, my daughter was very young," she says. “This was truly a cottage industry, carried out within the confines of my own home. This is why I have never felt the need to exhibit this work just for the sake of having an exhibition," she says.

At the Weavers’ Service Centre, Correa worked alongside weavers who came from backgrounds very different from hers. Questions of her privilege were bound to come up. “The weavers would ask me why I was getting into weaving when they were trying to get out of it," she says, adding that her formidable collection of handloom saris—it includes rare pieces bought from auctions of temple saris at Kanchipuram—prompted them to ask her if she was a Gandhian. “I had to say no. I just want to weave."

She was also an anomaly at the centre on account of her gender. Apart from regions like Assam and other parts of the North-East, where women use a waist loom at home, women were absent from the weaving process. Correa was key in starting a new tradition. “Women don’t get to the loom. They help with winding bobbins, they do embroidery, they sew. In traditional weaving communities, women weren’t trusted with family secrets because they would take it with them when they got married."

An installation view of ‘Original Sin’ (1972) at Jhaveri Contemporary, now in the collection of Tate Modern
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An installation view of ‘Original Sin’ (1972) at Jhaveri Contemporary, now in the collection of Tate Modern (Photo: Randhir Singh)

A NEW TRADITION

In her five-decade-long explorations of the medium, Correa has produced a lean but distinctive body of work.

Her early forays into texture, colour and construction are apparent in Original Sin, which was made for her first exhibition at the Bombay Art Society (“Nothing sinful about it. That time I was very much into the circle.") A 1972 version of this piece is now with the Tate Modern: The top half of the composition has a large circle, woven in shades of vivid pink that contrast with the surrounding area of red and brown wool. The lower half is divided with horizontal lines of pink, orange and white to balance the composition.

Correa was influenced by the geometry of architectural drawings made by Charles and their architect-friends like Philip Johnson and Richard Buckminster Fuller. She speaks of being enveloped in an “environment of art and design" and her exposure to the inventive work of their friends like Riten Mazumdar, Abhijit Barua, Shona Ray and Haku Shah (an exhibition of the works of Mazumdar is on at Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal gallery). There were other exchanges: The British painter Howard Hodgkin acquired one of her pieces; Johnson invited Correa for a commission for New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in 1987.

Over time, Correa moved from the colourful, pictorial and geometric forms reminiscent of Mark Rothko or S.H. Raza to subtle abstraction, where the weaving process presents itself to the eye. After experimenting with different weaves, she now uses only the twill weave. “There’s a lot of energy in it. If I am doing tapestry, I want people to look at it, so things should be happening." She had started off by weaving dhurries but “didn’t like people stepping on it" and so began to put them on the wall. The design constructions too changed accordingly, as it’s “a different spectacle when you are looking down and looking up".

Most of Correa’s pieces use a bulky, handwoven woollen weft thread, which she was introduced to in the 1960s by Madhukar Khera, one of the early associates of Fabindia, who would dispatch large bundles to her from Panipat. “I then got this wool dyed in Mumbai to the vibrant colours I favoured," she says. The heavier weight of the woollen threads distorts the finer cotton warp, making it bend and twist out of alignment. “Sometimes I clip the wool, sometimes I don’t. I like the textures and shadows it creates. Most of all, I like the grit." It is this movement, paired with the removal of the reed, that changes the nature of the work halfway through, as in Roots I and Roots II (1984 and 1985), where the reed’s extraction helps to denote roots. In Backwaters Of Kerala (1986), the reed’s removal demarcates the waterline, the unstructured area below creates an impression of the rippling water’s surface.

ART AND CRAFT

Correa’s first mentor, Marianne Strengell, was one of a group of European émigrés that included Anni Albers, Marli Ehrman and Trude Guermonprez, graduates of the Bauhaus weaving workshop who helped bring developments in European textiles to the US. As curator Grant Watson notes in his essay for Frieze, while these weavers often designed fabrics for practical application, many of their students saw their own work as avant-garde art.

“I always considered my work as art. I didn’t sell very much and it was a very expensive medium...my husband subsidized me totally," says Correa, with a gentle smile. Even as the fiber art movement of the 1960s took a turn from a Bauhaus-influenced utilitarianism towards expressionism in America, in Mumbai too Correa was influenced by artists such as K.G. Subramanyan, who visited the Weavers’ Service Centre in short stints to work on his “fibre sculptures".

Ultimately, it was the gallerist Kali Pundole who convinced her to start selling her work. “If you don’t sell your stuff you won’t be considered as having arrived," he told her. She showed at Mumbai’s Pundole art gallery in 1972, her first commercial show, when her works sold for 250-1,250—not a bad sum for the time. She went on to have only three more shows until 1987, when she temporarily retired. Her works are now priced as high as 30 lakh.

FRIENDS AND MENTORS

The apartment in Sonmarg has a photo shrine to Charles Correa, who died five years ago. Theirs is a movie-script love story—but that is off the record. It is evident that her illustrous and visionary architect husband had a deep impact on her person and practice. But how did she influence him?

“Texture was more my thing. We would talk about colour. We would see films. We were both very influenced by cinema," she says. Correa points to the large black and white tapestry in the living room titled Killing Fields (1985); she had blown up a print of a scene from the film and put the whole paper under her warp to create that landscape.

“Charles was on multiple government boards and committees and would travel extensively. I would buy my own ticket and go along. He was on the steering committee for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for nine years and we went to Indonesia, Turkey, Senegal, Tanzania... We talked about a lot of things: the kind of stone, the kind of concrete," she says. “We worked very well together. But I never did commissions for him. I didn’t want people to think he was putting his wife there. He was conscious of that too," she says.

“I was his greatest admirer and his greatest critic. It was the same with him. He pushed me on. He said I was foolish to retire," she says. “And here I am."

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