About ‘Weaving Stories’
Aaron Sinift (b’66) is an artist living and working in Beacon, NY. He has a BFA in painting from University of Iowa (96′) and an MFA from Boston University. He instigated the 5 Year Plan project 5 Year Plan.org to engage with Gandhi ashram khadi collectives to deepen his understanding of life in India from the perspective of Gandhi service, which he found to be life changing. He lives with Greta Byrum and 4 year old son, Orion.
“Weaving Stories: Artists in collaboration with Gandhi Ashrams” is to be published as an article in the forthcoming book Freedom of the Presses: Artists’ Book in the 21st. Century It is a personal reflection. It explores how the idea of a 5 Year Plan book was conceptualised and how Gandhian ethics and economics underpin the project. It then goes on to present the evolution of the first two books, 5 Year Plan and Other Imaginings.
Reflection on the old, the new and an extended family
Continued from Part 4
The ashram has the dusty feel of a moribund institution isolated in time, sheltered by old walls while all around it the national culture has been largely overtaken by an ideology of American style capitalism; ashram service is not seen as a future but a throwback to the distance socialist past. In commissioning the jhola panels to printed, it was discovered that the screens were made from hand tracings directly from original artworks, this meant that the designs we wanted printed must first be hand painted in the proper size for the tracing. This was traditionally the task of the ashram artist who had retired in 2004 but who lived nearby. Gulabji gave them the address of Jagdish Prasad Jaisawal who agreed to do the painted copies but needed us to buy him paints and paper since he’d given them away some years ago. The copies, made from 2 old jhola bags, were commissioned on the spot for Rs. 1500 each ($25). Over the next two years we commissioned 4 more jhola art copies and 6 new works ($40 each) on themes such as “technology” and “Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan” and one he instigated on his own about Kargil War with Pakistan which became part of the finished book.
Most of the workers are middle aged and elderly men who will soon be aging out, with very few younger people to take their place. The work is done slow, there’s no rush, there’s nowhere to go. In two years we had about 22 jhola designs printed, which was very frustrating for Jitendra (who did most of the Akbarpur work after Kahkashan also became pregnant). It took about a year before we found out that the workers were slow partly because they knew they would have to wait a long time for their wages, the institution being so cash strapped. Our solution was to approach the ashram officials and offer to pay the workers directly and provide a donation to the ashram for the use of their facilities. This worked very well, work sped up considerably, and bonuses were paid when our last page was printed.
Kahkashan gave birth to a boy named Kabir, on March 22, 2014, and Jitendra was to be the “at home parent”, very much bucking traditional Indian society. At the same time I was also the “at home” parent, also taking care of a baby boy, Orion (born August 21, 2013), so it was decided that Jitendra would have to work on printing the khadi book closer to home. Jitendra located a Varanasi artist workshop called Chinmoyee Kala Niketan run by Snehasish Ganguly, and over the next 2 years we commissioned 14 artworks to be printed as woodblocks onto homespun khadi cloth. The block cutter, Prakashji, cut 44 separate blocks in his tiny workshop by the road. All the while Jitendra is sending me photographs and little videos of our work progressing, and as fathers sharing baby news and encouragement.
Not only are Kahkashan and Jitendra breaking with parental gender norms in raising their child, they also faced fierce societal rejection for their interreligious marriage. Their families broke with them when they were married because Kahkashan is Muslim and Jitendra is Hindu, creating deep friction with some family members and potential violence from society at large (much like miscegenation in the America). Even a “love marriage” is rare and against societal norms in India. Jitendra is from a small village of very modest means who educated himself and went out to college; Kahkashan was raised by Muslim intellectuals who cultivated their daughter’s strength, raising her on campus of the Gandhian Institute of Studies from the age of 5. They met while working for World Literacy Canada. Since the birth of their son, antagonisms are softening somewhat and there seems to be gradual reconciliation.
Most of the workers who made the book were paid approximately Rp. 120-300 ($2 -5) a day, spinning cotton at home or weaving it into khadi, same for printers and block cutters. To address the radical income inequality between ashram workers and myself in the US, it was decided that copies of the book should be shared among participants so that the finished work of art would be of service to everyone. A copy of the finished book was allocated to each artist, and to individuals who did much of the work, such as Prakashji the block cutter, and Arjun Paul the weaver, as well as the institutions and artisans that provided their services. Each participant was a given a copy of the finished book; or if they preferred, we would sell their copy and give them the whole of the purchase price received. To date (10/31/17) we’ve paid out $3100 since completing the boom in the fall of 2016. We allocated 13 copies to Kahkashan & Jitendra so that proceeds contribute to their household as the books sell.
Our 5 Year Plan Project has created or supported at least 7,000 days of employment for people, mostly of the ashrams, most of whom are some the world’s most economically vulnerable. Our 5 Year Plan & OTHER IMAGININGS books are in at least 40 institutional & private collections around the world, where they are a resource to students and scholars, and are exhibited in the US and India. Our profit sharing and ongoing projects continue to provide supplemental income to activists and artists, even paying for the construction of a new home for one of the artists. The ashrams have benefited by the work our collaboration provides, but also from the fact that we honor their labor and sacrifice in a way that preserves their legacy. Copies of our books are now in the Gandhi ashram collections as a part of their historical record, and for many Americans our books are the first substantive exposure to Gandhi’s ideas which inspire and sustain millions of activists around the world. I believe that our work helps to preserve an under-recognised facet of world history, a utopian vision shared by millions of people but which may be in its twilight. It would be fully tragic if we were to forget Gandhi’s vision of sustainable self-sufficiency and be left with the superficial popular perception of Gandhi as a simple “pacifist”. Gandhi’s vision was radical in recognizing early the dangers of village automation to village economies and he acted upon a plan to restore economic balance throughout Indian society. Our artwork is your invitation to experience and participate in a great experiment in sustainable self-sufficiency, envisioned by Gandhiji, and embodied by those who love and serve their communities.
For myself the process has taught me more that I could have imagined and introduced people into my life who have become part of an extended family. Together we are planning a 3rd and final 5 Year plan book to be grown from seeds, that will address the realities of India’s cotton farmers, and follow the processes of spinning and weaving this particular crop all the way through to the completed khadi cloth. We hope you will join us.
Feature Image: OTHER IMAGININGS pg.4-5; Unknown ashram artist, untitled “Spinner”, screen print by Sri Gandhi Ashram, Akbarpur; & Duncan Tonatiuh, “ZapaShiva”, screen print by Rudraksh, Jaipur; both printed on khadi cloth