Puja Bhakoo thrives on creative expression and dons many hats that help her express herself so. A renowned and accomplished tapestry artist, poet, writer and blogger, this advertising professional found her niche in Tapestry art in 2012. Taking a popular European art form, she assimilated it into an Indo-western style depicting anything from cattle herders, Bollywood actors to the female body. Bold, striking and impressive, many of these artworks take up to a year to complete.
What reveals Puja’s most endearing quality isn’t her talent for weaving threads or words but rather her passion for creating change for good. The list of her charitable pursuits and contributions is long, with the inception of Tapestry-For-Charity in 2015 being the closest to her heart. Puja uses the proceeds from her art sales directly towards the education and rehabilitation of underprivileged children, and 50% of the proceeds from the sale of her tapestries go towards charity, which in her own words is “the most fulfilling part of my life.”
Coffee and Conversations sat with Puja to get to know her better and understand her passion for art, writing, and philanthropy.
What is your creative process for art (tapestry & painting) and writing? How different is one from the other?
Embroidery has always been my first love — a passion that borders obsession. My embroidery kit is pretty much like the blanket Linus Van Pelt carries in the Charlie Brown comics – always within comfortable and comforting reach. I can embroider a tapestry in solitude, in company, in jeopardy, and in harmony!
While my art may or may not require solitude (depending on what part of a tapestry I am creating), my writing definitely requires loads of silence, hours of ‘think’ time, and long stretches of brainstorming with Ajup — my alter ego (Puja spelt backwards!). I think what makes a good writer is an authentic, organic passion for the written word. Without this passion, you will not bother about the subtle nuances that separate good writing from ordinary writing. A good writer is a bit like a wine connoisseur or a sommelier. S/he can blend the texture, tonality, and vintage of different words, swirl them on the palate of their intellect, and create beautiful writing.
I think I’m a yo-yo writer. Some days I’m prolific, ideating in copious proportions; other days, I’m warding off the inner voice, urging me to put a finger to the keyboard. Blogs and articles I would like to write far more frequently than I currently do; poetry, of course, is an all-season passion that I indulge in regularly.
I usually write better at night because I get long uninterrupted stretches with no one around to puncture my thought bubbles. On a good day, I can churn out chapter after chapter for my book. Other times I go completely off the writing radar. Sometimes when a social or a political situation bothers me, I write a blog on it. Other times I write to clear my mind and declutter my thoughts. Sometimes I write for a friend or a loved one. Other times I create a tapestry and write a poem on it.
What’s been the most challenging artwork or piece of writing, and why?
Some of my Petit Point portraits have been extremely challenging to create. Every facial feature comes with its own set of challenges, whether it’s flowing beards, symmetrical cheeks, or identical eye expressions.
Unlike a painting where a simple swoosh of a brush can erase a creative anomaly, a hand-embroidered tapestry is tedious to unpick. There’s also an additional threat of damage to the cloth.
Sometimes, the size and scale of a project are so overwhelming that an aberration goes unnoticed; it pops up only once the art is framed, leading to the Sisyphean task of unframing, unpicking, re-embroidering, and reframing.
Among my contemporary art series, I have loved creating MINDSCAPE the most. Even though this series was in complete tandem with my state of mind during the beginning of the pandemic, it was written during a very challenging time for everyone. I wrote blogs and poems to inspire my friends and followers, urging them to keep a positive mindset in crises. So Mindscape translated my thoughts into art on fabric.
The most challenging piece of writing was undoubtedly my recent composition ‘In a Blink’ – a poem that I wrote more than three decades after losing my daughter Ashwi to a freak accident on her first birthday – the wound had been festering ever since. The more I refused to recall that fateful day, the more prominently it featured in my mind, mocking me and urging me to seek closure. So last October, on the eve of Ashwi’s birth-cum-departure day, I decided to relook the tragedy in the face. I relived those moments on a loop and vented out my grief, my guilt, my loss through a poem – because it was a story I had waited too long to tell and also because I had to write my daughter an obituary I long owed her.
Another very challenging poem was the story of an acid attack survivor who went on to walk global ramps as a fashion model: The Story of Reshma: #Victim to #Warrior. The creative process would break me, infuriate me, and then empower me, from stanza to stanza.
What art form do you gravitate towards instinctively, tapestry or poetry?
Tapestry-making has an irresistible gravitational pull for me, a force that hasn’t lulled an ounce in the last four decades. So yes, instinctively, I do gravitate towards tapestry. Having said that, poetry is an activity I enjoy immensely. It’s my go-to at such times as travelling by car, waiting at a parlour, or encountering dim light – any place where I can’t do embroidery.
While creating simpler parts of a tapestry, I often listen to audiobooks, Ted talks, or socio-political discussions. When the mind is in a receptive mode, one thing leads to another, and before I know, a poem begins to take shape in my subconscious.
Poetry, I believe, is power yoga for the mind. Most mornings, I delve into my gestation folder, pick out some or the other poem in need of some semantic plumbing, and dive in. Other times, I allow my mind to meander untended into poetry land, conjuring images, picking thought cues, wooing inspiration. Sometimes I get lucky. The muse obliges, and jumbled thoughts magically give way to a coherent structure that tells me my power yoga for the day is done.
You are known not to shy away from political or social issues. Does being a well-known artist and having a platform help or hinder in speaking one’s mind?
A little bit of popularity as an artist does help me express my views on social or political issues that I feel strongly about. But more importantly, a public platform provides me with a cued-in, caring, and committed audience who is willing to spread the message further, helping expand the reach of my ideas.
I strongly feel that as members of civil society, it’s incumbent on each of us, both morally and ethically, to strengthen the roots of our community and create a thriving eco-system of racial, cultural, and gender equality. So even if the creative platform were a hindrance in some way, I would’ve found a way around it.
What would you like for people to take away from your work?
Thread craft is an art of passion and perseverance. It is also an education in mindfulness. Creating an intricate design, stitch by single stitch, and watching a pattern evolve from the abstraction, can induce a calm state similar to yoga or meditation.
There are two lessons I would like my art to impart. Firstly, how little progress each day can lead to significant results over time; secondly, how using your passion for funding your mission can be a win-win situation for all. On the one hand, it keeps you on a perpetual emotional high; on the other, it helps you give back to society while doing what you like to do best.
I believe that Tapestry-For-Charity provides me with my Ikigai – it’s the meeting ground of my passion, mission, vocation, and profession. However, there’s some collateral damage such as weak eyesight, back/neck issues, insomnia. But, it’s a small price for enjoying the journey of driving a purpose close to my heart, with passion.
What are some of the different charities closest to your heart that have benefitted through your Tapestry-For-Charity initiative?
Over the years, I have volunteered in several charitable organizations, including the Earth Foundation, The Learning Ladder, Akshar Gyaan, and Connecting Suicide Helpline, besides extending free designing support to various NGOs and start-ups.
In 2015, not finding enough funding options for my charitable pursuits, I decided to use my embroidery passion to fund my mission for charity. I then founded Tapestry-For-Charity — an initiative that utilizes proceeds from the sale of my tapestries to aid the education and rehabilitation of underprivileged children. So now, every time someone buys a Puja Bhakoo Handcrafted Tapestry, a disadvantaged child can live better. And that, in my opinion, is the most fulfilling part of doing what I do.
I’m now working on a project where I intend to collaborate with acid scar survivors and generate employment opportunities for them by making them a part of my initiative.
I still need to work out the logistics and scalability issues of my project idea because these tapestries require a lot of ad-libbing and extemporization, which might be a challenge to achieve if I try to scale up the project.
My long-term vision is to create an eco-system where untapped and unidentified talent can blossom and become self-sufficient. I wish to help as many people as possible to achieve their IKIGAI through creative pursuits.
Finally, how do you take your coffee?
I take my Cafe Americano with spoonfuls of hope, a helping of contentment, and dollops of exuberance.
IS IT THE MORNINGS?
OR JUST ME?
The mornings have changed
from a gooey tea cake
– a spongy interim
between awake and alive
to a crusty macaroon
etched with foreboding,
slathered with to-dos,
no longer enamored
by the newness
no longer unhurried,
pristine, innocent of intent
no longer supple,
into a rocky day
have the mornings
or is it just me?
thinking too much,
doing too much,
knowing too much
for the virgin rays to
work their magic on me?
when people see me
is it me they see?
or a humanoid?
– a cold techno version
of the once
gullible, dreamy me!
– Puja Bhakoo
Picture Credit : Puja Bhakoo