Priya Ravish Mehra, Untitled (1/C-3), 2016, twigs, paper pulp, 22 × 14 1⁄2".

Priya Ravish Mehra, Untitled (1/C-3), 2016, twigs, paper pulp, 22 × 14 1⁄2".

Priya Ravish Mehra

Priya Ravish Mehra spent her summers in her grandfather’s house in Najibabad in northern India, where she often saw rafoogars, or darners, who would come to collect rare shawls and other heirlooms from local households for repair. Mehra’s interest in textiles grew over the years and led her to study weaving in the early 1990s at Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, where her parents were also once students. What Mehra learned during that time—and immediately after at London’s Royal College of Art and West Dean College in West Sussex, UK, where she specialized in making tapestries—helped her express her enthusiasm for natural landscapes and their vibrant colors. In her early tapestries, blocks of sharp greens and blues rise up as mountains or fade into each other and stretch across as grassy plains. Such works show the early locus of Mehra’s interests in “Woven Memoirs: A New Kind of Nature,” a retrospective mounted a year after the artist’s death in 2018 at the age of fifty-seven.

But for a retrospective, “Woven Memoirs” had many gaps. The tapestries of the mid-to-late 1990s were interspersed with works on paper and textiles made between 2014 and 2017. In the intervening years, Mehra had devoted her time to researching Indian textile traditions for various handicraft organizations, undertaking design commissions, and raising two children—though no representation of these activities was in the show. In 2004, Mehra also began documenting the stories of the families of rafoogars in Najibabad with the intention of making their invisible work visible. A year later, when Mehra was diagnosed with cancer, the project took on a greater personal meaning, becoming a metaphor for the repair and healing of a worn-out body.

In her small textile works from 2017, made with pashmina cloth in collaboration with the rafoogars, Mehra used “darning” techniques to join pieces of plain beige with tiny colorful patches, bringing attention to sutures that would otherwise be hidden. Her intention was not only to highlight the darner’s skill, but to show the possibility of repairing what appears irreversibly torn. Fine threads reach out from one fabric to another, and a moving optimism emerges in the face of an illness that eventually devours all. In a large untitled work, also 2017, darned stitches connect one mended strip to another, forming fragile branches bearing paisleys. Through this intervention, a beautiful transformation rises from the remnants of once-exquisite textiles.

Elsewhere, three bunches of fibrous material hung from the ceiling. These forms came across as still bodies, tired and quiet. Slowly, over months, in 2014 Mehra painstakingly loosened the mesh of fibers from the bark of the daphne plant, which grows in the Himalayas and has been used in the region for making paper that resists weathering. The daphne fibers also appear between layers of handmade paper, along with twigs and seeds, in a large body of work spanning 2014 to 2016. Unable to weave due to the debilitating effects of her cancer treatment, Mehra took to working with pulp and plant material picked up during her travels and from her garden in Delhi; occasionally she even employed gauze bandages.

Mehra’s use of paper and textile resonates with the events of her life, so the delicate and tender forms she created with these materials must be considered principally within the context of her lifeworld. Toward the end, Mehra fixed perishable objects between layers of paper, preserving things that grew and flourished but would have otherwise eventually disappeared.