78-year-old Ramdas Kajave’s most prized possession is a 60-year-old needle. A hand embroidery artist from Maharashtra’s Ichalkaranji town, Kajave has spent more than 30,000 hours over six decades on embroidering 60 portraits. “I bring out the same expressions with my embroidery as the ones in the original photo,” he says.
Kajave has sketched the portraits of Lokmanya Tilak, Rabindranath Tagore, Lata Mangeshkar, Abdul Kalam, Swami Vivekananda, Aishwarya Rai, Hema Malini, Madhubala, Nana Patekar, Narendra Modi, Sharad Pawar, as well as a lot of birds. For every bharatkam or hand embroidered piece, he uses at least 20 different colours.
Unable to complete his class tenth due to finances, Kajave entered the textile industry. His interest in art began in 1960. “My elder brother, Maruti used to paint on canvas. I always wanted to do something different so I thought of sketching using threads. His wife taught him to stitch. But as to the detailing? He credits that to practicing every day.
His wife, Anita Kajave, 73, says, “I taught him the art of creating better strokes, but because of the household chores I could never dedicate a lot of time to the art form.” Initially it took Kajave five years to complete three portraits. Now he spends over 500 hours spread over six months per painting. “Earlier, I didn’t know how to needle a thread. Today I can do it even without looking at the needle,” he says.
Each one of his works has its own story. “One of my friends zoomed in Gandhiji’s photo which I had planned to sketch. He showed me at least six different shades in the eyeballs.” It took him awhile to get the hang of shading and blending he admits. Of the 540 hours spent on sketch of Nana Patekar from Natsmarat, he spent 120 hours only on his beard. The maximum time he has spent is 800 hours on a portrait of Shivaji.
In the 60s and 70s, photocopying machines weren’t available in the town, so Kajave used a grid method to scale the photos and spend a week transferring the photos onto cloth and then start embroidering. Now he photocopies the photos, traces them on paper and starts.
In all time, only two people have come to him to learn. “I can teach this art form in just four days. After that, it’s just patience and perseverance. Unfortunately, people don’t have the patience to sit for countless hours for one sketch,” he explains.
Perhaps what’s truly surprising is that Kajave has never sold a single of his works. “In India, people don’t value art. I spend close to six months on every portrait and people ask me to sell it just for Rs 2000.”
Kajave hasn’t been able to sell any of his paintings to date. He says, “In India, people don’t value art. I spend close to six months on every portrait and people ask me to sell it just for Rs. 2,000.”