Guest post from Traditional Artist Sunanda Sahay

In the Fall of 2016, we wrote about the Hindu festival of Diwali going mainstream. We wondered what it means when ancient holidays, grounded in ethnic identity and religious belief and celebrated by cultural insiders for centuries, are brought to mainstream, high profile venues to be shared, celebrated, and interpreted?

Two years later, we hear from Sunanda Sahay, a traditional artist who practices the North Indian art of Madhubani (also known as Mithila). She describes her 10th year of sharing her art at the Museum of Fine arts. Here is her guest blog post.

For several years now, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) has been celebrating the joyous Indian festival of Diwali in early November. I am fortunate to have taken an active role by conducting folk art workshops/exhibits. This year, the event took place on Wednesday November 7th which coincided with the day of Diwali, making me wonder if that would drop attendance.

Lo and behold! The visitors swelled as the evening rolled in. Since I have been organizing the workshops at the museum for many years, I thought I was prepared to handle the crowds. But the unprecedented crowd and long lines at the museum caught me totally off guard! While some of the visitors managed to find seats to sit down and draw,  the others looked around at the paintings or rotated through the room. Thanks to the immense support and patience of the museums staffs and volunteers, many were able to sit down and create their own artwork they could carry home.

For the first time, more than a dozen of my students ranging between 7 years to 47 years of age exhibited their art and assisted with the workshop. They reveled in the glory of being a part of one of the best museums in the world!  They excitedly helped the attendees, answered various questions, and proudly shared the stories behind their creations. It seemed that the room had turned into a village celebrating its own version of Diwali – strangers sat together and talked, encouraged each other, suggested and commented on the art pieces, and just enjoyed the atmosphere of shared creativity. Some of them sat down hesitatingly, but then quickly surprised themselves with the brightly hued wonderful forms they created with the simple motifs. This is what I love about my art!

Folk arts have this special ability to form communities. In my home town where Madhubani/Mithila art has been practiced for centuries, women get together and paint murals on their homes to depict scenes from traditional epics, festivals, and village activities. Art is essential to the living cultures. The process of creating visual stories forms social bonds not only between the women creating the art, but also between other adults and children who inevitably become part of the stories.

When I held the first MFA workshop in 2009, I could have scarcely imagined that the event would recreate social ambiance similar to the native villages. Initially, it was a personal and a creative challenge, and I endeavored to create something new and unusual each year. In addition to the Madhubani art, I also introduced other folk art forms such as Warli to the visitors. I made sure they understood the art’s historical background as well as its continued survival through cataclysmic changes and growth. And I encouraged the visitors to not only paint the traditional themes but also push the boundaries, and use their imagination to tell modern stories through an ancient medium. My students certainly heed my advice; one of my apprentices created a Disney story in Madhubani and everyone loved it.

I regularly run into people who know about this annual workshop and look forward to the event. More and more Bostonians are becoming familiar and appreciative of the folk arts of India and I am hopeful that at least this folk art will not die under the constant onslaught of digital intervention and lack of support.

Guest blog by Sunanda Sahay of Acton, Massachusetts

The power of a custom-made religious garment

Detail of embroidered attarah saying, “Hear our voices” on tallit by Amy Lassman

I first met Amy Lassman in November 2017 at a craft fair held at the Hyde Center in Newton Highlands. The artistic craftsmanship and depth of meaning in her work stood out from the rows of vendors offering beaded jewelry, crocheted blankets, and felted critters. Amy’s table displayed a combination of Judaica (Jewish ceremonial art) including tallises (prayer shawls), yarmulkes and kippot (head coverings), coverings for challah (braided bread), and afikomen bags used to hold matzoh during the Passover Seder, as well as secular handbags and scarves.  It was only when I visited with Amy at her Needham home and studio that I learned she recently decided to focus strictly on the Judaica.

Amy’s Judaica work involves custom design, selection of fine fabrics and notions, sewing, embroidery, lettering, and knot tying — all of Amy’s work is deeply informed by her practice of Judaism, familiarity with the sacred sartorial objects of religious ritual, and her educational background in psychology and family dynamics.

In addition to my recording gear, I had brought my late father’s tallit, tefillin, and yamulke as a way of reconnecting with these religious objects and to learn something of how tallises dating back to the mid-1930s differ from ones custom made today.

Tallis, tefillin, and velvet bag belonging to Maggie’s father

For a folklorist, I am remarkably uninformed about my own heritage. Unlike Amy, who attended Jewish Day school and high school, worships at a local synagogue, and is very involved in the Jewish community, I was raised without formal religious education and self-identify as a “secular Jew.”  Although I  have fond memories of attending Passover Seders with extended family and friends, I have never stayed home from school or work on Jewish holidays.  And although my father’s family attended a conservative temple, the rabbi there was a socialist. My mother’s father was anti-organized religion and felt more affinity with socialism and unionism than Zionism. So it was especially meaningful to get tutored in the meaning of the contents of my father’s velvet tallis bag.

Green velvet bag to hold tefillin

Amy looks at my father’s tallis with care. She says that it is typical of the early 20th century and most likely commercially made, noting that the edges are beautifully knotted. “The tassels mean nothing,” she explains “they’re just pretty. The only [tassels] that count are tied into the four corners of the garment and are called tzitzit.”

Corner of tallit belonging to Maggie’s father, showing tzitzit .

She goes on to explain that although Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews have different ways of tying tzitzit, the combination of the number of strings, knots, and twists must equal 613. The sum represents the original number of mitvot (commandments) in the Torah (Jewish written law).  “Honestly, nobody really can fulfill all 613; that’s the ideal. That’s perfection. It includes the number of times you pray each day. It includes kashrut (keeping kosher). It includes the way you treat your fellow man. It’s not just good deeds, it’s intentions – who you are as a person and how you relate to the world around you, and what your connection is to God.”

Amy Lassman holding up the corner of a tallis with tzitzit

Once Amy finishes a tallis and the client returns to pick it up, she purposely leaves two of the four corners untied. “I will teach them how to tie and I will talk to them about the meaning of tying. And they will tie them themselves. So, it’s not just the design piece;  the concept of it, it’s actually physically creating the garment . . .  And so many times, when it’s a parent of a grandparent, and a Bar Mitzvah, then they’re all tying together. So that ’s going to be part of that memory as well.”

(Youtube provides an instructional video on YouTube for how to tie tzitzit.)

Amy holding up afikomen bag embroidered with Hebrew letters for Pesach.

Having sewn all of her life, it was just a few years ago that Amy began making challah covers and afikomen bags.

Soon after, people started asking Amy to make a prayer shawl or head cover. She admits it was intimidating at first. I ask why and she responds, “Because it’s a lot of responsibility. A tallit is something that once you have you’re going to wear for the rest of your life. It  represents your foray into Jewish adulthood. . .  So now, I have this responsibility of bringing all of this to a piece of fabric. And because of this, it’s a daunting task.”

It is a task Amy Lassman is  undeniably up to.

  

Through the many stories Amy told of working with clients, the most moving were those recounting her work with individual families with children who are preparing for a Bar or Batmitzvah, and adults who missed out on the experience. The process of making custom tallises reveals the power they hold as personal and ritual objects. Amy tells me of working with a family over the creation of the young man’s tallit. His favorite color is red, but his father preferred the more conservative and typical white and blue. The story is also recounted on her website:

“A family arrived in my studio to create a tallit for the upcoming Bar Mitzvah of a very bright young man. Before our appointment, he let me know that his favorite color is red. Armed with that fact, I shopped for silks that had red tones for him to use in the creative process. Meeting the expectations of mother, father and son can be a challenge. Combining the tradition of simple blue and white prayer shawls with a more contemporary vision that includes a variety of colors, Hebrew embroidery and symbols, we came up with a design that everyone loves. The attarah (neckband) is embroidered with the Priestly Blessing, the red silk is a subtle highlight on a finely woven cream woolen shawl and in the inside corner, his Hebrew name is embroidered in gold thread. When this young man came to pick up his tallit, I taught him how to tie the tzitzit (woolen strings) at the corners of his garment. When he wears his tallit, hopefully for many years of good health and happy occasions, he will always remember that he inspired the design, that his parents worked with him to create something meaningful and he is wrapped in his families’ love.”

Amy described how clients often come in with an old tallit, saying they would really like their son or my daughter to wear something that had belonged to somebody in the family. “So, we will take something – we may just take the attarah, the neckband, and create an entirely new garment and just use that.  We may only take the corner fabric.”

At Amy’s workbench

Amy prefers the word “integrate” rather than “recycle” or “re-purpose” to describe this use of a relative’s old clothing, wedding dress or veil in a chuppah (wedding canopy), or the embroidered attarah of one’s grandfather’s tallit.  Stressing the importance of creating something new, she says, “I want [the old piece] to have a new life. And I want the person who is using it to feel connected to it, not just because it was in their past.”

Amy continues,  “In some traditions, a person will be buried with a tallit . . .  what some people will do is they will actually cut one corner, they will cut one of the tzitzit out. And that will be something that the person closest to them will keep as a memory. I have had the honor of creating a tallit  from this cherished string. I’ll actually stitch a little pocket underneath the attarah and put the tzitzit inside. Whenever the tallit is worn, you’re actually carrying your loved one with you.”

Tallit created by Amy Lassman for a Cantor in New York. The text reads “Right by the side is the Eternal to all who call out, seeking truth for all who desire it”

Maggie Holtzberg is Folk Arts & Heritage Manager at Mass Cultural Council.

 

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