The Power of Cloth

Artist: Lochan Upadhyay
Location: Vagad, Rajasthan, India
Year of completion: 2009

Researcher: Gregory Door

In The Power of Cloth, artist Lochan Upadhyay enlisted residents of rural Vagad, Rajasthan, India in creating an installation that probed and questioned the caste-based marriage traditions of the region. Upadhyay, a native of Vagad, built, with the help of local craftspeople, an artistic rendering of a traditional wedding structure. Constructed of a steel scaffold hung with cloths made from local, donated cast-offs, the piece is in the form of a traditional wedding tent, or shamiana. Inside are two oversized chairs, which in a traditional wedding would belong to bride and groom. Photographs from local weddings were incorporated into the structure.

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The rural Vagad region is home to traditional tribesman, many of who observe a dowry system (illegal since 1961), under which the bride’s family is expected to give gifts to the husband’s. Originally intended as a way to get around the prohibition of passing inheritances to women, the dowry system has been criticized for contributing to violence against some women while objectifying all. It’s also blamed for indenturing families with daughters and providing an incentive to terminate pregnancies based on gender. Because illegal dowries are often hidden or disguised under cloth gifts, one “power of the cloth” is to perpetrate the ongoing dowry system to the detriment of women.

Rather than address these issues in a confrontational manner, Upadhyay devised a participatory process to involve the villagers in his project. “The project followed a series of conversations and discussion amongst the local public in context of the social norms and customs that they live by,” explains the artist.

In the practical construction of the installation, Upadhyay invited local craftspeople into the process. Some provided metalwork or carpentry, while others gave the textiles used to create the walls. This collaborative approach was key to the project’s impact, the artist says. For one thing, it provided the opportunity, “on a purely creative level, to unearth new opportunities for local craftspeople” by introducing them to the artistic process. In turn, the ironworkers, tailors, and carpenters informed the project’s concept.

Equally importantly, the collaborative nature of the project gave the opportunity for sharing and engagement with the subject matter of the piece. In particular, Upadhyay enlisted “a group of community women to help build up the structure” of the piece, says Upadhyay. During this construction phase, the women “developed relationships of friendship and exchange through long conversations sharing their experiences with marriage and the issues related to it.”

Another strategy to invite community discussion was Upadhyay’s design of the shamiana’s cloth. The tent walls are typically printed with ornate designs and beautiful scenes, but in this case, Upadhyay printed photographs collected from local resident’s wedding albums. As a result, the choices, traditions, and caste differences of the area were highlighted in a humanizing and aesthetically pleasing manner. Villagers enjoyed finding their old photographs reproduced—and the juxtapositions allowed further conversation and reflection on the local traditions.

By providing these multiple entry-points, Upadhyay’s piece allowed a variety of responses. “The audience participated at different levels,” he says. “Some identified themselves in the installation by sitting on the chairs or finding their photographs on the side walls of shamiana—or singing and dancing as they do for marriage ceremonies.”

The installation traveled from rural Vagad to the city of Jaipur, and from there to an international school, and more recently to Tel Aviv.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency