‘Blindfold’ embroidery: Ritika Skand Vohra

Textile artist Ritika Skand Vohra challenges embroidery norms with 'felt stitching,' using a blindfold technique as one of her methods to explore touch, sensation, and self-awareness in her art. RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA and PRUTHA CHAKRABORTY report

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When textile artist and embroiderer Ritika Skand Vohra sits down to work, she ties a blindfold around her eyes.

Then, picking up her needle, she starts to make free-flowing hand stitches, using the sense of touch instead of sight to create her designs.

“I use tactile sensations to integrate other senses and create surface textures,” says Vohra describing her process. “Restricting the sense of sight amplifies the sense of touch.”

The technique has evolved into a model of art practice she calls “felt stitching”.

Close up of a purple and white cloak
‘A Cloak’ by Ritika Skand Vohra

Felt stitching is my way of challenging visual sensory ways of making embroidery, as informed by the western fashion system which works with visual centric mark making and aesthetics,” she explains to Indian Link. “My practise is led by curiosity – avoiding the visual, and using touch as the medium.”

Currently finishing a PhD at RMIT’s School of Fashion and Textiles, the 37-year-old’s body of work reflects her deep desire to be “free of constraints and set patterns.” Having worked for years in the fashion industry in India as well as in Australia, Vohra was aching to go beyond the mark-making technique, in which a defined framework is followed religiously. “I moved on to creating textured textile surfaces but even that was still rooted in the same genre. I wanted to challenge that.”

While she admits that the traditional methods are beautiful and produce wonderful works, she finds them time-bound and monotonous as they cater to a westernised system. She claims she is now seeking to expand her own creativity, by pushing boundaries and inculcating new philosophies to decolonise this ancient art.

Ritika Skand Vohra's 'felt-stitching' on dissolvable fabric
‘Project Squid Dream’ by Ritika Skand Vohra, for her Out of Site residency.

“My entire body is engaged in my technique,” she notes. “Touch becomes a way of feeling emotions. I feel as I move with the touch – memories and imaginations emerge that usually don’t visit when working in an industry practice catering to trend-driven market demands. An entire other layer of consciousness is involved, making the process more intuitive, and therefore deeply satisfying.”

She adds with a smile, “It’s actually humbling; it’s not just me making the works, but the works are also making me.”

The creative process in Ritika Skand Vohra’s work

Vohra works on backgrounds like textiles, paper, silk, organza, plastic, instant photographs, garments like stockings, thick yarns, even dissolvable fabric.

Whatever the setting, she is not restricted by the medium.

“Currently I’m working on thick fibres of wool as my medium, and even stitch in the empty spaces between the yarns. The medium is actually air – you could say it becomes a kind of free-flow weaving.”

What about outcomes, though? Is she happy with the work when the blindfold comes off?

a brown and yellow embroidered piece hangs near a wall.
‘Project Plastic’ by Ritika Skand Vohra

“I don’t intend anything as outcome,” Vohra reveals. “At first, I was not happy with the results, but I realise now that I was still rooted in the old practice – habitual of seeing a pattern. But what I wanted was a shift from following that very visual aesthetic! I’ve made that shift, and there’s no judgement anymore – the outcomes now make sense.”

By relearning her own creativity, Vohra is redefining herself – by not following rules, exploring, taking risks, making mistakes, and not seeing them as mistakes.

Clearly, for Vohra, the beauty is in the idea, the process, and the feeling, more than it is in the final product.

This becomes even clearer when she talks about her ‘favourite’ work.

“I don’t have a favourite work, but I do have favourite moments from the creations of my works,” she says. “In my project Re-visit Sites for example, I discovered pauses. I paused as I tried to remember what happened in a given space, the kind of sensations I felt, and what those sensations of the past mean and how they feel in the present – and then expressing them into hand-stitches.”

Also Watch: Sutr Santati

Of pain, healing and self awareness

The deeply personal nature of Vohra’s work also emerges from her own lived experience of rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

“In Pain, a project I made in the initial phases of my practice of felt-stitching, the name emerged because it was the inspiration behind the piece,” she describes. “The pain on my palms had then become somewhat severe.”

She made a figure of her palm on paper, punched holes inside it where the pain particularly bothered, and then threaded her needle through the holes to make random stitches.

Did the stitching on the holes become an attempt, one wonders, at healing, or binding with care?

Or was it an attempt at becoming connected (or reconnected) to her own self, at some deeper level?

an embroidered hand
‘Project Pain’ by Ritika Skand Vohra

It was an early step in her art practice using touch as a way of feeling emotions or sensations.

“As pain grew over my body, I wanted larger and larger surfaces, as if to engage my entire body in my work. And so my piece A Cloak was born. It is made on a 2m by 2m dissolvable fabric on which I made random stitches – it brought me closer to my body and memories of my own body.”

It was called A Cloak because she draped it around herself to familiarise herself with her new medium.

Ritika Skand Vohra's blindfold embroidery piece A Cloak
‘A Cloak’ by Ritika Skand Vohra for VAMFF 2020, at Abbotsford Convent.

“When I finished it, I wanted it to be even more free, so I thought I would dissolve the fabric to see if the stitches survived.”

That experiment wasn’t so successful, but it showed her that she no longer wanted to be linear in her work, and more and more spontaneous instead.

In her piece Lungs, Vohra allowed her method to be guided by her own breath. This work was created in a pandemic residency called ‘At Home’ which brought together practitioners of art in different fields.

“I collaborated with another artist who filled a diary with drawings of lungs. I took them on and interpreted them in my own way, stitching on them, related to my breathing. I stitched in the pattern that I was breathing – I followed my breath. For eg, if there was a sigh I would make a large stitch, even going beyond the boundaries, or even the page sometimes, stitching whole pages together.”

Now, the visual becomes part of her sensory practice, rather than controlling it.

Ritika Skand Vohra's watercolour style lungs held together with some embroidery
‘Lungs’ by Ritika Skand Vohra

Underscoring Vohra’s practice is the therapeutic nature of it all, or at the very least, the tones of self-care in it. It induces a sense of letting go, of living in the moment and cherishing it. To simply release and embrace whatever arises or whatever is present.

A sense of liberation must surely follow such acceptance.

It is no wonder then that Vohra wishes to exhibit her pieces in a manner that encourages dialogue with the audience.

“I want people to engage with my works, to touch and feel, to move around them. It’s a lot more rewarding that way.”

She continues, “In workshops with students, where we’ve deliberately restricted the senses, I’ve seen it all lead to an increase in calmness – while challenging conventional ways of seeing.”

Ultimately for Vohra, her art practice is an exploration of the self, using embroidery – its threads intricately interwoven with ways of thinking and expression.

READ ALSO: Dena Lawrence: Aussie artist’s Kashmiri silk carpet designs 

Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni is the Editor of Indian Link.

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