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Kalamkari – Desi Art in Switzerland

Kalamkari – Desi Art in Switzerland

The walls of the Ethnographic museum in Zurich are adorned with beautiful brightly coloured fabric art from India – the Kalamkari! A visit to the museum and one gets to see very large depictions of the two Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. There are also many other illustrations including the different avatars of Vishnu.

“This exhibition displays many of the museum’s Kalamkari pieces for the very first time.” says Mr. Andreas Isler, one of the two curators of this Exhibition.  Isler and Paola von Wyss-Giacosa have been working together on Indian topics at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich. As lecturers in the field of Social Anthropology, they specialize in material culture, religion, and textiles.

Lord Krishna

Speaking to Namaste Switzerland about the Exhibition, Isler said the Kalamkari collection of the Ethnographic Museum came to Zurich for the first time in 1926.

“The then museum director, Hans Wehrli bought some textile paintings in Madras (today Chennai). He intended to document the Hindu pantheon in different media and iconographies for the university’s collection and for education purposes.” said Isler.

These densely composed cloth illustrations were made at the two of the most famous Kalamkari production centers in India, the Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh and Sikkinaickenpet on the Kollidam river in Tamil Nadu.

Nearly 60 years later, in 1987, an opportunity arose to complement this small collection. A Kalamkari artist, Leburu Krishaiah, bought more contemporary pieces from India and sold them in Zurich.

This exhibition opened to the public on the 11th of March, 2016 and will be on until the 19th of March 2017.

Some of the displays at the exhibition include The Tree of Life – A beautifully blooming tree that represents development, growth and cosmic balance. One also gets to see the sacred wedding of Parvati to Shiva, Krishna and the Goddess Durga.

Kalamkari Cover vorne

“We did some research by preparing the exhibition.” says Isler. Working along with Kalamkari specialists in Srikalahasti and with a Telugu translator in Heidelberg, Germany. Paola von Wyss-Giacosa and Andreas Isler have published their findings titled “Erzählstoff aus Indien.  Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich 2016”(Tales from India.  Ethnographic museum of the Zurich University). The 148 pages publication has more than 60 colour displays of Kalamkari and can be bought at the museum’s shop.

Isler observed, that the exhibition has attracted more local Swiss people visiting the exhibition than Indian tourists or expats.

Isler encourages us the women launching Namaste Switzerland by saying,  “There are several powerful female protagonists in India’s rich culture, such as Draupadi and Sita that are placed prominently on the temple cloths.”

He exclaims, “A wonderfully drawn Kalamkari with the Goddess Durga, is by itself worth a visit!”

Photos © Universität Zürich 24.11.2016

About The Author

Keerthana Nagarajan

Keerthana Nagarajan is a freelance journalist and lives with her husband and two little girls in Zurich. She has written for Swissinfo covering Indian-Swiss Expat stories. She also shares her motherhood experiences at Motheringmatters.ch (An Expat- Swiss Parenting website) Keerthana worked previously in the Netherlands at Radio Netherlands Worldwide, covering South Asia news, and at CNN’s sister concern in India, CNN-IBN, a 24-hour news channel. Continnect is her first start up online project.

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