French-Indian textile designer brings back Mughal patterns

Textile designer Brigitte Singh tries to perpetuate the Indian art of block printing which flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries – Copyright AFP Wakil KOHSAR

Laurence THOMANN

Textile designer Brigitte Singh lovingly spreads a piece of fabric embossed with a red poppy plant which she says was likely designed for Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, four centuries ago.

For Singh – who left France for India 42 years ago and married into the family of a Maharaja – this exquisite piece remains the ever-inspiring heart of her studio’s mission.

The 67-year-old strives to keep alive the art of block printing, which flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries under the conquering but sophisticated Mughal dynasty that then ruled India.

“I was the first to give a revival to this kind of Mughal design,” Singh told AFP at his traditional printing workshop in Rajasthan.

After studying decorative arts in Paris, Singh arrived at the age of 25 in 1980 in Jaipur, in western India, the “last bastion” of the technique of using carved wooden blocks to print patterns on the matter.

“I dreamed of practicing (miniature art) in Isfahan. But the Ayatollahs had just arrived in Iran (during the Islamic revolution of 1979). Or Herat, but the Soviets had just arrived in Afghanistan,” she recalls.

“So by default I ended up in Jaipur,” she said.

– ‘Magic potion’ –

A few months after his arrival, Singh was introduced to a local gentry who was related to the Maharaja of Rajasthan. They married in 1982.

At first, Singh still hoped to try his hand at miniature painting.

But after scouring the city for traditional paper to work on, she came across workshops using block printing.

“I fell into the magic potion and I could never go back,” she told AFP.

She started by making a few scarves and, when she was in London two years later, gave them as gifts to friends who were connoisseurs of Indian textiles.

Upset, they persuaded her to show them to Colefax and Fowler, the famous British interior design firm.

“The next thing I knew I was on my way back to India with an order for printed textiles,” she said.

Since then, she has never looked back.

– The comfort of the soul –

For the next two decades, she worked with a “family of printers” in the city before building her own studio in Amber, a stone’s throw from the famous Jaipur fort.

It was her father-in-law, a great collector of miniatures from Rajasthan, who gave her the Mughal-era poppy cloth linked to Shah Jahan.

His reproduction of this print was a huge hit around the world, proving particularly popular with Indian, British and Japanese customers.

In 2014, she made a quilted Mughal poppy-print coat, called Atamsukh – meaning “comfort of the soul” – which was later acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Another of his works is in the collection of the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York.

– ‘Sophistication of simplicity’ –

Singh begins his creative process by handing precise paintings to his sculptor, Rajesh Kumar, who then painstakingly chisels the designs onto wooden blocks.

“We need a remarkable sculptor, with a very serious eye,” she said.

“The carving of the wooden blocks is the key. This tool has the sophistication of simplicity.

Kumar manufactures several identical blocks for each color used in each printed fabric.

“The poppy pattern, for example, has five colors. I had to do five blocks,” he said. “It took me 20 days.”

At Singh’s workshop, six employees work on pieces of fabric laid out on tables five meters (16 feet) long.

They dip the blocks in the dye, place them carefully on the fabric, push and tap.

The work is slow and complex, producing no more than 40 meters of material per day.

Her workshop makes everything from quilts to curtains and rag dolls to shoes.

Singh has just completed another Atamsukh for a prince in Kuwait.

“The important thing is to bring the know-how to life,” she said.

“More precious than the product, the real treasure is the know-how.”

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