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Bharti Kher: A Bag Full Of Love

When Bharti Kher summons her artistic prowess to reinterpret an iconic fashion accessory the results might well tread into a near-cerebral experience. Rajashree Balaram finds out what happened when the Lady Dior bag met the peerless artist

By Rajashree Balaram  January 18th, 2021

Someday, when the world finally staggers its way out of the pandemic, artist Bharti Kher would love to simply sit at the edge of a city square and “watch people walking around, doing their own thing”. The need to sit still and absorb the vibrations of an arbitrary cross-section of humanity is not merely emotional merchandise spun during lockdown—Kher has been at the centre of ceaseless action and accomplishment for the past nine years, sometimes travelling between New York, Delhi, Ireland and London in the same week, or busy installing three exhibitions in a span of two months. She fully deserves the time out.

Bharti Kher
Photograph: Justin Keene

The 51-year-old would also like to set an unambiguous future date for other pursuits that have been kept on hold for far too long—motorbiking and deep-sea diving. Her fascination towards underwater depths does not exactly come as a surprise—Kher is known to delve deep before she summons her gifts for any artistic invention: “I love to peel at the history and anthropology of things before I get started.” Her approach to the Lady Dior handbag has been no different.

The London-bred Indian painter, one of the 10 artists and collectives who have been handed carte blanche to design the Lady Dior handbag as part of the fifth edition of Dior Lady Art, admits to having taken an uncommon length of time before putting pencil to paper. Her preliminary homework involved a lot of research on the history of handbags. Not many would know that a fashion accessory as innocuous as the handbag would come stashed with its own weight of gender history. “In the 15th century, men used to carry handbags to store herbs, tobaccos and wads of cash, because pockets hadn’t arrived on men’s garments till then,” shares Kher. “Women didn’t need clutches or purses because their clothing was so voluminous, there was always enough room to tuck things in.”

Historical trivia aside, it was the sperm-shaped bindi—Kher’s lifelong idée fixe—that opened the door wider for her imagination to mount its interpretation. In sync with the themes that drive the Dior Lady Art project, the resulting outcome is as much desire as art and packs in equal assaults of tactile beauty and visual force. The bag, set in calfskin, which will be available at select Dior outlets around the world early next year, is printed with satin and glossy-finish pigments and embossed with Kher’s signature “spermatoid design”. “I wanted the bag to feel like a little animal that one could pet and stroke and caress,” she tells us. “It’s something that I would want to take with me on a girls’ night out.”

Kher resolutely avoided embroidery to keep at bay, the clichés that would nip at her Indian identity. “We are the land of master embroiderers, but that would have been the most predictable thing for me to resort to.” She is deeply Indian about many other things that bring her much- needed comfort and fortification these days, especially after her tryst with the COVID-19 virus in early March. “Adrak and tulsi chai, neem infusions, and all those Indian herbs that our elders spoke of are doing me a lot of good,” she says. Though she would love to contemplate new mediums like stone carving, large- scale ceramics and video installations, her life is now centred on simpler joys. “The coronavirus made me realise that as much as I am crazy about my work, it cannot be the only thing that defines me. My family and friends come first.” Kher knows that many things may not survive a pandemic, but love always does.