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Weaving Cultural Bonds

Fulbrighter Kanchan Wali-Richardson used her experience in Varanasi to design the River Sari series, a homage to the Ganges River. 


Kanchan Wali-Richardson is an interdisciplinary visual artist. She was born in Massachusetts to a mixed Indian American heritage. Early on, Wali-Richardson developed a penchant for creative endeavors. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Massachusetts. In 2014-2015, she traveled to Varanasi as part of her Fulbright-Nehru research grant to study the pollution of the Ganges River. Her time in the city inspired her to design a series of four handwoven silk saris, called River Sari, celebrating the Ganges River. Wali-Richardson works with a variety of concepts, styles and materials, including drawing, textiles and, most recently, plants, dirt, stone, seasons and time.

Excerpts from an interview. 

Please tell us about your early life and educational background. 

I grew up on a small island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and went to the Waldorf School of Cape Cod, which provides a kind of arts-based alternative education. As a kid, I was always entertaining myself by making things—little clay animals, comic books or haphazard objects out of leaves and twigs in the woods. When I was 18, deciding to attend art school specifically was a very hard choice for me. Art had always come so naturally to me, but I had many other interests as well and was nervous to pursue it full-time. Ultimately, I ended up at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, which is an incredible university for art, architecture and engineering, and I would never take back that choice. 

As an interdisciplinary visual artist, what styles and materials do you use in your work?

My projects have culminated in many different kinds of media—sculpture, video, writing, textile design—but my primary mode of thinking is always through drawing. Last fall, my practice took a big shift. I’m currently pursuing a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. I’m now learning an entirely new set of tools and ways of making. Though I see my interests here as a direct extension of what I was trying to do in my earlier work, the scale has exploded exponentially. 

I became interested in landscape architecture as a way to have more of a direct impact on the environmental and spatial issues I had been trying to address through sculpture and installation. But obviously, the materials I’m now having to work with and consider are a world of their own—materials like living plants, soil micro-organisms, dirt, stone, concrete, as well as human behavior, the seasons and time. I’m now being trained on how to design with the ever-evolving and shifting processes of both natural and urban systems. 

How was your experience of staying in Varanasi during your Fulbright fellowship?

It was an incredibly intense and powerful experience, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever spent time there. The spiritual, mythical and historical richness of that city is indescribable. It was deeply humbling to live there, and to attempt to approach such a complex and fraught situation as the pollution of the Ganges. I found that the bulk of my “work,” as part of the Fulbright, was to unlearn my American way of seeing and judging the situation. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried to use art as a way to process the visual and emotional cacophony that the experience roused in me. 

My experience living there was also tied to my family history. My grandparents met and married while studying at Banaras Hindu University, and my mother was born there, while they were still living in the campus housing. As a person of mixed Indian American ethnicity, it was an important rite of passage for me to live in Varanasi for a longer term because I was able to deeply absorb that part of my family’s history, and to bring it to life in the unfolding of my own story. 

As a result of your trip to India and your studies of the Ganges, you designed the River Sari series. Please tell us more about it. 

I spent many months attempting to make artwork addressing the health and environmental crisis of the pollution of the Ganges River, but found that I wasn’t getting anywhere. The grief and complexity of the infrastructural and social challenges were paralyzing. So, I decided instead to celebrate the river and the beauty of everything the river means, specifically to the identity of Varanasi. 

The River Saris are a homage to the richness of my experience in Varanasi. Each element of the saris’ pattern was inspired by a personal experience of the river’s mythology and the ways that mythology permeated the daily life in Varanasi. 

The bodies of the saris are composed of the flowing lines of the river’s currents, with alternating symbols of eyes, speaking to the multiplicity of views. The river is revered by some as a living goddess, the embodied divine; by others, as the foundation of agriculture, industry, development, a vehicle for shipping or even the answer to India’s growing energy demands. Then, along the borders of the saris are the ghats, the cascading steps that frame people’s approach to goddess Ganga, who is herself envisioned as the sacred staircase to the realms of afterlife. The saris’ pallus show the intense rolling waves of the river, with goddess Ganga’s mythical mount, the Makara [a sea creature]. For me, this image is about the power of the river, and the sweeping bewilderment that can suck you under when trying to understand the situation. 

What can be done in the face of rapid development, pollution, the physical suffering of those made sick by waterborne disease and yet, simultaneously, the deep existential faith of a culture reminding itself of the sacredness underlying everything, the challenge to let go of disgust and aversion, and an ideal of total forgiveness? I think, it’s a beautiful question; one which pushes you to look ever harder and deeper. 

Finally, the divider strip in the saris’ pattern is composed of a string of gazing eyes, speaking to the all-pervasive eyes of the Hindu deities, gazing out from their numberless shrines throughout the alleys of the city. To me, these eyes also speak to the long history of mystic saints, gurus and poets who have been drawn to Varanasi in search of insight. 

What are your current plans?

To survive graduate school! And, to find a way to return to India and continue to build on the incredible relationships I developed when I was there.

 

Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.