Artist Dhvani Behl’s work is not easy to find on the internet. Her most recent works, the tents she designed for the new Raas Chhatrasagar hotel is her most public, and one could say, biggest site-specific work yet.
When she set up her printmaking studio in Delhi in 2015, it was an unconventional choice to make. The practice of printmaking as an art form, is a painstaking process, involving huge amounts of time and skill, and is neither popular with artists nor collectors in India. Behl, 31, studied printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design in the United States after studying art for a year in Paris. At Rhode, she learned to work with various mediums and techniques like etching, woodcut, and screen printing, but her passion was in working with fabrics. Her studio Flora for Fauna started with textile printing in its early years. Her mother is a weaver and she was naturally drawn to textiles.
As she tried to break into the art scene in Delhi, she found galleries were not willing to take the risk of working with textile artists. She started finding an audience for her art through word of mouth, she hardly does any publicity for herself. Over the last couple of years, she has built a niche for herself as a printmaker for interior furnishings.
Her studio tucked away in a village in South Delhi, reflects her unconventional approach to her work. A factory that was designed by architect RD Padmakumar, a student of the late architect Laurie Baker, it is made with recycled material, its gritty industrial feel
Artist and printmaker Dhvani Behl
offset by her intricate drawings and textile installations. She showed the space to us on a video call in early October. It is here that she works in the classic and laborious way of printmakers, making everything by hand, keeping technology and automation out as much as possible. Dhvani also talked about why she is constantly inspired by flowers and trees, the work of British textile designer, poet and writer William Morris, how the pandemic has affected her work and the joy she found in building her home.
You started off by working with garments. Why did you shift to art pieces for interiors?
I am trained in fine art and I entered the market as an apparel brand. I tricked people into buying my art by buying clothes and saris that I made. I do love saris, it’s like working on a giant canvas. But I didn’t want to be a designer, I wanted to do art pieces. Slowly I started getting commissioned art pieces for homes. It’s been rewarding to build this up organically.
What do you like about working with interiors?
If I am commissioned a piece for someone’s home, then the process is very personal. I look at their space, what they like and don’t. For instance, one of the pieces I did was for someone who has a home in Lutyen’s Delhi. It’s a contemporary home with light tones and I wanted to bring in colour, while they wanted something really quiet. I finally made an artwork created from woodcuts, spread across 30 feet and held together by 16 frames, and it fit in perfectly into their home.
Your prints are always inspired by nature. Why is that?
I grew up between Delhi and Goa and the flora and fauna of Goa has been a huge inspiration. In monsoon in Goa, nature grows out of every little crack and there’s always something to be inspired from. I always end up doing something with trees or flowers.
Large scale block prints handprinted on prestitched tents with hand-embroidered birds appliqued on the trees, for Raas Chhatrasagar
The tents you designed for the hotel Raas Chhatrasagar caught a lot of attention. What was the challenge you faced while working on the project?
It’s my first big project and it took me a year to complete it. The scale was the biggest challenge. We were working with blocks that were 12 feet by 8 feet. It took eight of us to hold the fabric to print on it, if the fabric would shift even a bit, the print would smudge and destroy the tent. I had no point of reference and it was all an experiment. The prints were inspired by trees that grow in the desert, like khejri, neem, babool and embroidered with birds from the region.
Do you work with a big team at the studio?
I don’t, it is a typical artist studio. I have two people who do embroidery for me, and one person who helps me with printing. I literally do everything myself, after I do the drawing, I make the screens, I carve the blocks and I do the printing. I am the artist and the karigar.
You have talked about William Morris being a starting point of inspiration for you. Has that changed as you’ve progressed over the years?
I love his aesthetic, the fullness of his work, the feeling of it. And if you think about it, he practically stole his designs from India, most of his influences were Mughal. And though I love his work, I don’t want my work to be inspired by any one person. I try my hardest to be inspired by my own work. I try not to look at Pinterest so that I don’t get influenced.
Would you say your work is influenced by Indian tradition?
I work with Indian craft like embroidery and stone inlay and yet I don’t think my work qualifies as Indian. I think art can be beyond cultural connotation, and be about universal truth.
How has the pandemic affected your work?
Work has slowed down and I had to reduce some of my staff. I still have people ordering smaller fabric pieces. But I have taken this time to work on my own art. I am creating a collection of wall pieces. These are not commissioned and a lot of my personal work is from my imagination rather than actual nature.
Since you have just built and designed a home for yourself, can you share your experience?
After I turned 30, I wanted to build a house and there is nothing quite as satisfying. I did not have any architect to help me. I just winged it. I was lucky to have lot of trees in the plot, a banyan tree, a neem tree, and a mango tree, and the house had to be designed around the trees. I’ve left the house almost blank with white walls and plain covers. I guess my house is a break from my work. It’s minimalist.
An artwork with digital print on two-layered silk.
Block printed tassar fabric for custom bamboo framed lights, made by Dhvani Bhel for a client in Portugal.
Woodcut with embroidery on silk organza with printed tassar fabric. Stretched on handmade bamboo framed for an installation for a residence in Delhi.
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