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Cover Story
May 21, 2018

Paper Tigress: Sabeena Karnik On The Art Of Quilling

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Sushant Chhabria. Styling by Nidhi Jacob. Assisted by Divya Bavalia. Make-Up and Hair by Tashi Dolma, Inega Model Management

Mumbai-based artist Sabeena Karnik is able to shape paper to her will and bend it to the sway of her imagination. She tells us why she took to quilling as a career

Call it serendipity or what you will…. A name that crops up at work and is researched extensively makes me rewind to the last Independence Day when the bright Google Doodle had caught my eye. The creation showed the Parliament House in saffron, the Ashoka Chakra, flanked by two peacocks, India’s national birds, in shades of blue and green. I remember noticing that this form had been intricately quilled.

I swiftly find the Mumbai-based artist Sabeena Karnik’s work online and spend some time browsing through it on several platforms. In a leisurely fashion, I zoom in and out of the images of her intricate and colourful works, making mental notes on how paper has been lovingly shaped to create different forms that represent letters, sayings, monuments, brand logos and more. Just recently, on creating the letter S in the shape of a swan for the @36daysoftype on social media, Sabeena had been described by that artistic community thus: ‘a true master in her own style and technique…. Her amazing works are all handmade, and made by playing with the organic forms of the material and with a vibrant colour palette, to create illustrations that stand out for their complexity and their delicacy. A style that has made this paper artist from Mumbai internationally known….’

Having read about a hedgehog’s prickly quills and a writer’s elegant quill, I dive into the creative world of an artist who shapes paper to her will, bending it to the sway of her imagination. I learn more about quilling, the art form that is also known as paper filigree. It has been chronicled how during the Renaissance, nuns and monks would roll gold-gilded paper remnants trimmed during the bookmaking process, and use them — as a substitute for costly gold filigree — to beautify religious objects. It later became a polite pastime of young ladies in 18th- and 19th-century England. The practice is supposed to have spread across the Atlantic with the colonisers, who used it to embellish their home decorations.

The art needs a lot of patience. Strips of paper are rolled into coils, pinched into shape and then glued together in different ways to create decorative designs of differing details, shapes and sizes. It is largely done as a hobby or used to decorate gifts, but Sabeena has made it her profession and garnered attention and assignments, predominantly from overseas.

Meeting Sabeena for the first time in her suburban Mumbai home, I sense the quiet that envelops her simple abode. She ushers us into her bedroom that functions as her workspace as well. It’s neatly organised, with not a scrap of paper — the tool of her trade — on the floor. On a cupboard alongside the wall she has lined up boxes (which she makes herself) with some of her work.

Always fond of art, she loved creating things right from her school days at St Anthony’s Girls High School in Chembur and she subsequently moved to working in calligraphy, typography and quilling. She admits, “I am not aware of anyone else doing it as a full-time profession in India. When you think of creating with paper, it’s always considered to be for gifts. Quilling is something that you learn in a hobby class; no one really thought of taking it to the next level. I wanted to break that barrier.”

Although keen on pursuing fine arts, Sabeena studied commercial art at Sophia College for Women in South Mumbai — completing first a rigorous five-year course, and then a major in typography. She states, “It was a tough decision because I believe that being creative is to work for oneself, whereas commercial art is ultimately about doing things for people. I wasn’t convinced initially but I realised that as a career choice it would be better in the long run. It was a fantastic course, one that makes you tough. You end up slogging through the night. But that’s when I started doing things with paper as a hobby.”

Incidentally, the potential of paper was not alien to her creative sensibilities, having seen her father work in the printing industry. He was based in Africa for almost 20 years and every year, the Karnik family would go to Africa for a vacation. After completing her education in Mumbai, she lived there for a couple of years and worked with an NGO, where she created things with paper and was also a guest lecturer. After three years, she returned to her homeland and joined an advertising agency — something she categorically says she did not enjoy. She felt like a square peg in a round hole during her stint there and rewinds, “They realised that I was doing a lot of things with paper and encouraged me. But whatever ideas I had were passed off as theirs — there was a lot of politics.”

Once she quit, she occupied herself with a number of freelance jobs. “I decided to start my typography series and thought of making individual letters with paper — A, B, C, D…going right up to Z. By then, I had my own website and started posting images of what I had created. Even before I had got halfway through the alphabet, I was offered my first project with Tanishq. They sent me some pieces from their Mia collection and asked me to make letters inspired by the jewellery. It was an exciting assignment but I was still not sure whether this could take off as my full-time profession.”

Her start was tentative — and the way ahead unclear. Her backup plan, had she failed at quilling, was to be an artist. “I would have taken up painting but getting noticed would have been tough. I always knew that I had to be doing something that no one else was doing. My work had to set me apart.”

When she took to quilling as a career, Sabeena remembers, “My mother was supportive, but it took my father quite some time to accept that I wanted to do something that seemed strange at that time. I told them to give me a few years and if it did not click, I would reconsider my decision. I felt that unless I tried I would never know if it could have worked and did not want to live with regrets.”

Right through our conversation, she tends to gesticulate constantly, emphasising what she is saying. I watch her agile fingers whose movements seem to mimic the ones she makes while rolling paper and shaping it. “I know that as an artist I observe things differently. I want the layout of my room to be in a particular way. It is also reflected in the way I dress.”

Her sense of design and aesthetic is a reflection of her personality. “Whatever I do, even if it’s the smallest thing like cutting a vegetable or a fruit, I want it to be perfect — it has to be done precisely, in a pattern. And you will see that attention to detail in my work as well.”

I wonder aloud how she ensures that works do not look similar, especially as the medium in all is plain paper. She answers matter-of-factly, “Although it may appear to be similar because everything is made from paper, I ensure that I do each piece differently. In life also, I do not like doing the same thing every day. Every time, I strive to do something bigger and unique so that people do not think my work is predictable.”

She believes that this effort is reflected in her Google Doodle for Independence Day which is distinctly different from her creation of the Mysore Palace. “I draw inspiration from various sources — nature, Victorian and art deco buildings in Mumbai — and when I travel to new places, I am exposed to different ideas. When you look at the Google Doodle, at first glance you realise that it is about India. Then you see the peacocks and the Parliament House and then it slowly comes to you that this has been done by hand, with paper. I remember my miniature replica of the Mysore Palace with pride — it suggests grandeur, creating a mood of celebration and festivity. Done for Karnataka Tourism, it was challenging as I had to create the entire piece in a span of four days.”

Unfortunately, quilling as a full-fledged profession still has to catch on in a big way in India even though it is recognised abroad. She points out, “Here, we tend to prefer safe options like photographs or digitally created artworks as against something unique that is created by hand because you don’t know how it will turn out. There has to be a change in the way people think and this needs to start from a very basic level where children are taught to appreciate art. Then you will want to use more of that in advertising, in print or online.”

For her, the starting point of success perhaps was the Tanishq assignment. It helped her to get more jobs. Among the clients in her kitty, apart from books like What A Great Word! by Karen Moore, are names like Google, Instagram, Ulta Beauty, Crains Chicago Business, Star Tribune, American Olympic Swimming 2016, Southern Living magazine and Spar supermarket.

Once a job is assigned, her process, she says, is very basic: “I send them some sketches done with pencil. I give them a lot of ideas, they zoom in on what they like and ask me to fine-tune it. Sometimes they bring up my past work as a point of reference. Usually, clients like to see images of the work in progress because that gets them really excited.” When it is done, she has photographs sent to the clients which they use in different ways like the stationery brand Papyrus has done. At times, the clients ask for the original creation. But more often than not, her masterpieces are at her home, stored away in her boxes.

She experiments with different kinds of paper to get the correct effect: “Different papers react differently due to the weather and especially humidity. I used a lot of Italian paper but now we get some good quality ones in India. I buy papers from anywhere — I generally use Fabriano, Gruppo Cordenons, Sona Papers, and a lot of coloured paper from stationers in Mumbai.”

Therapy is a word Sabeena uses to describe her work. She feels, “My work relaxes me. It has made me a better person, more patient with people. I used to be very short tempered and rather intolerant, but quilling has had a positive impact on me. You have to bend paper to your will — gently mould it the way you want it to be. When you are working with a strip of paper and you go back to it after some time, it will ‘remember’ the shape you had given it earlier. You have to be patient and gentle, and exert the right amount of pressure in the right direction. It is like dealing with people — they will not be what you want them to be and yet you have to work with them.”

Workwise, she treads alone from her space at home, dealing with clients across the globe via the internet. “I have never felt the need of working with someone. Sometimes when I get a project while I am working on others, I do wish that I could have some help. But I know that I would spend more time training them so I feel that it is much better to do it myself. I am an introvert. I love meeting people, but it also exhausts me. I need to be by myself to clear my thoughts and bring myself back.”

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