Maternal Health Cloths

Illustration, Printing, Sewing • RMIT Melbourne & Assam India

In conjunction with a maternal health project conducted by Soumitri in the Department of Industrial design, I was commissioned to design a series of illustrations around the ideas of maternity and the nature of women’s health in the east Indian state of Assam. These products were designed as devices to educate, empower and communicate information around women’s reproductive health in rural India (Assam). The corresponding textual content is not included in this post, designed both as narrative and song.

After discussions with Soumitri I planned the content and drew out the drawings on imperial sizes sheets of watercolour paper – I then used a mixture of gouache and water colour to paint in the details – finishing the illustration off with a black outline in a calligraphy pen.

The first set of 16 panels were designed to be presented in conjunction with a song that directed the narrative of marriage, pregnancy and the critical events around it. Using the Patachitra scroll paintings as a starting point – and its recognisable language for a rural audience I developed a series of panels that referred to the feelings and possible fears around pregnancy as well as the intervention options and government schemes available to rural women. My initial reluctance to draw the human form was overcome by studying the energy of the Patachitra artists’ forms without undue attention to the details of morphology – like hands!

The second set of 3 large and 16 small cloths were designed to be given to the women – these referred to clocking a menstrual and/or birth cycles over 365 moons. Using embroidery and buttons girls use the cloth as a calendar to understand their cycles – as well as young brides to identify and clock their pregnancies. Other cloths offer patterns for home made sanitary pads open discussions on menstruation and health as well us understanding pregnancy as a visual reference of size. Illustrations were informed by the circuitous nature of addressing these issues in a more conservative society as well as the brightness of colour that typifies women’s textiles in India.

The paintings were then printed on to linen – which was the best material to offset the intense colours – these I then backed with old silk saris. Old Silk saris in India are often traded for weight for steel utensils, or used to fashion quilt covers or babies bedsheets. They are never thrown out. Over time washed silk acquires the intimacy of skin. In this context it gives an intimacy and privacy to what is otherwise a difficult object to explain.

The visual narrative style of the larger cloths allows for a certain mystery and interpretation – it can sit within an interior without causing embarrassment or anxiety. It can serve as a talking point without necessarily addressing its primary content.

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