A Game Of Hoops | Verve Magazine
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October 07, 2020

A Game Of Hoops

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

The art of embroidery has conventionally been associated with domesticity – the unenticing fate awaiting girls supposedly without other ambitions. While the practice is still a relaxing pastime, a contemporary resurgence is seeing women reclaim that archaic narrative and even quitting more lucrative career paths to take on needlework full-time. We speak to Anuradha Bhaumick, whose visually complex pieces (featured on her Instagram account Hooplaback Girl – yes, a pun on the Gwen Stefani song) represent idyllic scenes from the lives of book lovers like herself

 

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Anuradha Bhaumick’s work had first shown up in the Explore section of my Instagram feed on April 4th, exactly 10 days before her intricately embroidered hoops made an appearance on Emma Roberts’ book club Belletrist’s feed. When I finally speak to Bhaumick months later, she recalls the memory with much reverence; the Belletrist post triggered an impressive spike in her followers (600 to 2,000 overnight) and queries to purchase her work poured in. Coincidentally, it also happens to be the day that Roberts reposted the Belletrist feature to her own Insta stories, but when I congratulate the embroidery artist on it, she sounds completely bewildered before embarrassedly admitting that she missed seeing herself tagged there before I brought it up. (She promptly requested a quick break from the interview to eat the chicken lollipops her fiancé was preparing to celebrate her achievement).  At the time of publishing, the 28-year-old, who quit her job as a designer at Wrangler earlier this year to pursue embroidery full-time, has 7,402 followers – a number that only seems to be rising with each detailed image of a completed hoop posted on her feed.

And yet, Bhaumick hasn’t let the popularity go to her head. She patiently answers each question that I, an embroidery novice (I was famous among my classmates for often accidentally sewing the fabric I was working with onto my school uniform), throw at her and takes the time to explain the details of how clusters of stitches work together. And patience is a virtue the NIFT Bangalore graduate has in abundant reserves; she began embroidering at the age of five, after her mother introduced her to the art form to help take her mind off the itchiness from a bout of chickenpox. Where most kids would have resorted to throwing a daily tantrum or perhaps taking advantage of the situation to negotiate increased screen time, Bhaumick sat with a preternatural stillness and soaked in everything her mother, who is a master embroiderer, seamstress and artist, had to offer. “My sister and I grew up in Thailand, and it was of utmost importance to Mom that we learn all about our homeland,” she explains. “Be it making gulab jamuns at home, learning how to sew or do Bharatanatyam, we were well immersed in Indian culture. My mom has been my biggest inspiration; she used to stitch Thai silk lehngas for us because of the lack of Indian fabrics available. We would make art installations out of lentils and build the 10-foot Raavan that used to be burnt in our town for Dussehra in our own living room. Embroidery is what I chose to carry forward out of all of the creative options she laid out in front of me.”

Bhaumick claims that inspiration is always close at hand because most of her muses are real people and her works are flush with patterns of foliage, which is easy enough for her to recreate since she is an avid succulent collector and has more than 50 plants at her home in Bengaluru. “Everyday things, homebodies and simple living inspire me. The whole idea of my embroidery is to elevate the mundane within the monotony. A person comfortably reading a book on their favourite couch surrounded by lush vegetation and a stacked bookshelf is my idea of happiness, and looking at them gives me infinite inspiration.”

The lockdown has allowed Bhaumick to devote more time to honing her skills, and her more recent pieces show a marked improvement from the ones she completed just earlier this year. The artist grins when I point this out, explaining that the expertise comes at a dear cost: the intricate work takes a toll on her eyes, and she has had to change her spectacles thrice since November last year. It’s the reason she doesn’t take too kindly to strangers on the internet who assume that embroidery is only a hobby rather than a respectable pursuit of the arts. I wonder if Bhaumick worries about unintentionally playing into the narrative of domesticity and stereotypical femininity that the practice is rooted in, but she assures me that she doesn’t let any misconceptions linger. “A famous bookstagrammer once commented on one of my works saying, ‘Oh how I wish I could fulfil my granny dreams of embroidering and doing nothing all day.’ I swiftly responded, saying that I am 28 and do this for a living, which resulted in her sending me a lengthy apology via DM,” she recalls. “If you can respect someone who creates art using brushes, clay or spray cans, you should respect an embroiderer too – they essentially do the same with their needle.”

 

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I had recently watched Enola Holmes, and Bhaumick’s complaints hit a raw nerve as a particularly abrasive line spoken by the titular character comes back to me: “She was not an ordinary mother. She didn’t teach me to string seashells or practice my embroidery.” It might have been the 1900’s, but could the patriarchy be dismantled simply by taking variables like embroidery out of the equation? As if a woman’s worth is quantifiable by the number of stitches she sews. As if expunging sexism from our society is as one-dimensional as swapping needlework for more “masculine” recreations. Today, women are picking up the needle in defiance, in resistance, in solidarity. Like Victoria-based Diana Weymar, the founder of Tiny Pricks Projects, who embroiders Donald Trump’s obtuse quotes onto dainty fabrics. Closer to home, @singhleton also draws her followers’ attention to pressing social and political issues. On September 28th, she marked the occasion of International Safe Abortion Day by stitching a simple hoop with the phrase “Gira do” (colloquial for “abortion” in Hindi) surrounded by additional words like “guilt”, “stigma” and “fear” that are so often associated with pro-choice movements. Bhaumick herself recently embroidered the English translation of a powerful monologue about Dalit girls from last year’s sociopolitical drama Article 15, to condemn caste-based violence in India. “Besides, it is also a remedial art form,” she reinforces. “Embroidery is known to calm the senses, inculcate patience and provide clarity of thought. At a time when there is global bedlam because of a seemingly inexorable pandemic, especially when you live in a country like India where waking up to horrifying news every other day has become the norm, the simple act of embroidering allows a brief respite from the unrelenting assault on one’s senses.”

Bhaumick breaks down the process behind six of our favourite pieces 

READ IT FORWARD

Size: 6.5” diameter

Date of commission: May 2020

Concept: This piece of art was made in collaboration with the Read It Forward Book Club. They had written an article titled 10 Best Literary Instagram Accounts for Book Lovers, out of which one was mine. I was very pleased since Read It Forward is one of the most sought after and genuine book clubs on Instagram. They had just announced a literary sweeps and my brief was to make a relatable piece of art for it: a woman enjoying a book in her own meditative and calming zone at home.

Favourite part: This piece is almost like a self-portrait. I always read with a cup of Oolong tea in my hand, just like I have depicted in the embroidery. It’s heartening to see so many people relate to it.

Most challenging element: I have never sewn on such lightweight fabric [lightweight cotton poplin] before. Although it was difficult to maneuver in the beginning, I got the hang of it within the first hour.

Technique: Satin stitch, back stitch, fishbone stitch, chain stitch, French knots and basketweave stitch.

Threads: Cotton embroidery floss and non-divisible cotton embroidery floss.

Time Taken: 20 hours.

Muse: The ‘Read It Forward’ womxn.

BLUE-HAIRED BOOK LOVER

Size: 12” diameter

Date of commission: April 2020

Concept: Shatakshi, my muse for this embroidery, has striking blue hair, and I knew I wanted to make that the focus. Like me, she eagerly burns through books, and I tried to emulate her aesthetic through this artwork. I simply approached this with the aim of capturing a bookworm in their natural habitat.

Favourite part: The Siberian Husky on the rug, happily watching over its owner.

Most challenging element: The sofa is made of felt, which I had to appliqué over the muslin. Even a tiny millimetre of thickness in fabric causes a lot of stress and tension on the cloth and the stitcher alike. The felt was very difficult to sew as it was 4 mm thick.

Technique: Satin stitch, back stitch, fishbone stitch, chain stitch, French knots, basketweave stitch, running stitch and seed stitch.

Threads: Cotton embroidery floss.

Time taken: 55 hours.

Muse: Shatakshi Pandey, a photographer and visual artist from Pune.

DESERT SUNSET

Size: 5” diameter

Date of commission: November 2019

Concept: This embroidery was inspired by the episode Fish Night from the Netflix Series Love, Death & Robots. I was completely mesmerised by the animation, and the striking neon colours against a sombre desert skyline inspired me to make this piece. Even though the episode depicted something truly sad, it was just breathtakingly beautiful – I wanted to embody that spirit in my embroidery.

Favourite part: I usually use muslin as a base for my embroidery, but in this one, I have used duck canvas. I love the texture it adds to the already tactile embroidery of this piece.

Technique: Satin stitch, brick stitch, encroaching satin, fishbone stitch, French knots, cross stitch and backstitch.

Threads: Cotton embroidery floss.

Time taken: 25 hours.

STAYCATION SUNDAY

Size: 8.5” diameter

Date: August 2020

Concept: This piece is like a mood board for what a day off should look like. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bubble bath; it could be anything that breaks the monotony of daily chores. This pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have taken a mental toll on the fittest of the lot, and a little self-love goes a long way.

Favourite part: The scented candle from Japan on the mini bookshelf.

Technique: Satin stitch, encroaching satin, fishbone stitch, split stitch, back stitch, basketweave stitch and French knots.

Threads: Cotton embroidery floss.

Time taken: 50 hours.

Muse: The tired woman juggling multiple tasks simultaneously.

SUNFLOWER FRIDA

Size: 11.5” diameter

Date of commission: April 2020

Concept: Sunflower Frida is the reading room of my dreams: lush foliage, leather-bound books, a larger-than-life library, a cozy couch, a Persian rug and, of course, the Border Collie. I made this embroidery on a whim at the very start of the lockdown. I had many commissions piled up, but I chose to make this. At that moment, I felt very insincere for doing this despite my workload, but in retrospect, this is exactly what I needed to do in order to gain a sense of semblance.

Favourite part: The 3D ikat cushion on the couch, made from one of my mother’s favourite kurtas.

Technique: Satin stitch, back stitch, running stitch, French knots, fishbone stitch and basketweave stitch.

Threads: Cotton embroidery floss.

Time taken: 45 hours.

Muse: A safe haven in quarantine times.

SIBLINGS

Size: 12” diameter

Date of commission: August 2020

Concept: Tracy Fisher, who is a literary agent with WME (William Morris Endeavor), wanted a piece which showed her two children reading and depicted their collective love for movies. She shared pictures of her New York home with me, and I knew I had to do justice to her wall library. A literary agent is a professional extension of a book lover, and my work, after all, is an ode to all things bookish. I added movie posters to this piece along with a raging Godzilla and roaring dinosaurs, all of which are her kids’ favourites.

Favourite part: The board games. You can see Scrabble, Monopoly and Taboo on the lowermost rack of the bookshelf!

Technique: Satin stitch, back stitch, fishbone stitch, basketweave stitch and split stitch.

Threads: Cotton embroidery floss and acrylic yarn.

Time taken: 60 Hours.

Muse: The children of Tracy Fisher.


Other embroidery artists’ work she enjoys:

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