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Julia Raath: ‘For a teacher of textiles, India is heaven’

A painting a day for 100 days: Melbourne-based textile designer, teacher and artist’s latest exhibition in aid of Bengal artisans.

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Textile students who went on Julia Raath’s first tour to India remember as it the “Oh my God” tour – the exclamation that came out of their mouths every place they visited.

They visited large-scale textile factories as well as traditional artisans in the villages. They also got to try their hand at creating printed textiles, natural dyeing, and embroidery.

“This kind of exposure to such a wide variety of textile practices simply does not exist in Australia,” Julia told Indian Link. “It was a life-changing trip for many of the students.”

That was way back in 2015.

Since then, the Melbourne-based textile designer, teacher and artist has led over a dozen tours to India, acquainting Australians with its rich traditions and diverse culture, through the lens of textiles and food.

“For a teacher of textiles, India is heaven,” Julia described. “The markets in Kolkata and Delhi have every type of textile you can imagine; complex patterned silk brocades from Varanasi, Pashmina woollen shawls from Kashmir, tiny knotted Bandhani scarves and embroideries from Gujarat, fine cotton muslin Jamdani from West Bengal and more.”

Julia’s love affair with India began over two decades ago in 1998, when she visited for a textile and fashion conference. Her deep knowledge and interest in textiles has since provided her with opportunities not only to lead many guided tours across India for Australian textile design students and tourists, but also to teach at the National Institute of Fashion & Textiles (NIFT) in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, and Hyderabad.

“I now have friends and students all over India that I still keep in touch,” she revealed. “They are all so generous and welcoming, and we have a shared passion for art and textiles.”

 

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A post shared by Julia Raath (@juliaraath)

Julia is no longer a full-time textile design teacher, but she continues to take tourists from Australia to West Bengal through her company ‘Surfaced’. She usually takes small group tours for fifteen days, with a focus on textiles and crafts there.

“I noticed that there were some fantastic tours already operating out of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi, but not as many showcasing the best of Kolkata and West Bengal,” she said. “I have always enjoyed teaching and wanted to assist first time travellers to get their bearings in India and give them the same kind of guided introduction that I had on my first trip. My tours allow participants to learn a new skill, spend time with locals and really understand and appreciate another culture.”

The tours have been halted lately due to COVID-19, and the impact of this is not lost on Julia.

“The tours provide a great source of income for small village artisans. This year we had plans to work with women from Shantiniketan in West Bengal, to expand their businesses to provide meals for my tour groups, as well as create a comprehensive craft skills programme.”

When Julia heard of the devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan in West Bengal last year, over and above the impacts of the pandemic, she knew she had to help. These were villages she visited regularly on her tours.

“During COVID-19 lockdowns in Australia, I painted every day to keep myself creatively occupied. I shared my work on social media and received much positive feedback and messages of support. When I heard that my friends in India had started a fundraiser, I decided to sell prints of the paintings I had created, with all the proceeds going to cyclone affected areas. I was blown away by the response, as we raised $3000 within two weeks.”

Julia’s love and deep appreciation for India and its people has allowed her to truly experience the country like a local. “There is something about India – it gets under your skin. It is not an easy country to travel in and there can be many challenges, but when I am there, I feel alive, alert, and excited, and the challenges pale in comparison to the delights.”

julia raath painting
A painting by Julia Raath (supplied)

Julia also set a goal to paint one original still life painting per day, for one hundred days during COVID-19. The collection is titled “A still life for a still life” and is being exhibited at The Boroughs Store in Melbourne. The exhibition will run until 14th April 2021.

Up Close and Personal with Julia Raath

Favourite Indian Dish?

Sweet: Mishti Doi; Savoury: Simple, well-made dal and rice

Most used phrase in Hindi?

“Chalo Chalo” as I keep having to remind the guests on my tours to keep moving on from the amazing sights and sounds of Kolkata.

Advice to women travelling to India on their own?

Be sensible, but don’t let fear get in the way of experiencing such an extraordinary country.

Favourite textile found in India?

Super fine cotton muslin scarves from West Bengal. They are hand woven and so soft. I often bring them back home to print on.

Where to shop for textiles in Kolkata?

Start in New Market for something affordable and fun, but for more high end pieces, I would recommend stores such as Anokhi , Sasha, Weavers Studio and an up and coming designer label called Maku.

julia raath exhibition


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Nidhi Joshi
Freelance writer with a passion for travel, food, culture, motherhood and lifestyle journalism.

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