Quilling Skills and Other Secret Superpowers – Part I

Swaati Chattopadhyay is, in her own words, “a freelance writer, Odissi dancer and WAHM (Work At Home Mother) to a very opinionated toddler. Dilliwali by all definitions (love and hate), she describes herself as a compulsive work at all-fingers-in-every-pie kind of multi-tasker, trivia-hunter and conspiracy-theorist who tends to oscillate between oh-so-social and asocial modes.


She started quilling about five years ago, when she found herself “at a certain point of inflection,” in her life: “living a massive chunk of vela time, in a completely different city - away from family and friends in Delhi where she had always lived; a city she always loved.” Her love for paper, making things with her hands, and funky earrings therefore, converged quite naturally into quilling, which now fed all three passions. “I thought I should fiddle with it a bit. Then I fell into it eyes­wide, face­down, and now it’s become such an important idiom in which I speak,” she told me, when I managed to catch up with her.


But my luck didn’t quite end here.

Next up, I also managed a conversation with Mumbai-based Sabeena Karnik, who is – and prepare to stare in wonder here – a paper typographer. Simply put, she combines paper and lettering, typography or illustration, in order to create eye-catching, colourful pieces of art. And trust me when I say, they’re nothing short of masterpieces, some of them taking up to a whopping twelve hours to complete, and that’s just one sitting! Surreal, but true.


In her own words, Sabeena is interested in “anything artistic, creative and handcrafted, be it clothes, music, food, movies, fine art.” “What defines me as a person,” she says, “is originality and not wanting to be like anyone else. My friends and family perceive me as someone who is strong, focused, crazy, unstoppable even, till I’m completely satisfied. And I always follow my heart.”

In her own words, Sabeena is interested in “anything artistic, creative and handcrafted, be it clothes, music, food, movies, fine art.” “What defines me as a person,” she says, “is originality and not wanting to be like anyone else. My friends and family perceive me as someone who is strong, focused, crazy, unstoppable even, till I’m completely satisfied. And I always follow my heart.”

Meet The Patron Saints of Paper – SWAATI CHATTOPADHYAY 

Q: Why quilling?

A: “Quilling is an art form that uses a pen-like tool, and paper strips, to create spiral coils that are folded, pinched and shaped into various designs. It began in the Renaissance period, mainly as a way to recycle precious gilded books – the page edges would be cut into strips, quilled into intricate shapes, and stuck profusely on paper or boxes, or even furniture. In Victorian times, it was an art form taught to women to cultivate resourcefulness and patience! Modern quilling employs several techniques: you can use a manual quill, an automated quill, handroll the coils, or use a comb even!


So there are about a thousand different kinds of quilling now, but my interest lies mainly, in accessories, more specifically, earrings. I like to work with more sturdy types of construction and make standalone pieces. Traditionally, quilling involves making elaborate spiral designs that are glued to a surface but I like my style to retain all the delicate lace-like work of quilling – with enough body and strength to endure wear and tear. I also make sure my designs look like paper and do not masquerade as anything else – I don’t hide my earrings under several layers of paint or varnish to make them ‘water-proof’ or ‘hardy’. I enjoy the texture and crispness of paper. If someone wants waterproof, indestructible accessories, they should buy metal and silver, not paper. Exactly the way we wouldn’t ask for fine china when we’re actually looking for stainless steel! Sometimes I wish I was good at the original kind of quilling – where you make a hundred small paper coils and pinch and shape them into large swathes of quilled landscape – but I know that I’m just not built that way as a person, and there’s no point wishing I could be any different!”

Q: What do you love the most about what you do?

A: “That I can make a thought turn solid. I am a writer by profession, and one of the most frustrating things about it is how cerebral it can be – thoughts become a few squiggly alphabets typed on a page, which are read and then become thoughts again. But when I think of something and quill it into shape, I end up with something very tangible - something I can hold in my hand, turn this way and that, wear onmy person, hand over to someone else who can do the same. Sometimes I need that kind of simple and profound translation from thought to thing.


Another thing I love about quilling, and paper-crafting in general, is the sense of touch. I love creasing paper with my hands. I love looking at it and soaking in colour and pattern. I find the spirals of quilling so meditative to gaze at. It calms me down, shushes the mad tangle of voices in my head and gives me utter, childlike glee. At the risk of sounding a little phoo-phoo, I’d say it’s a kind of healing. That’s so precious in a time when we’re bombarded with sensory detail and overloaded with technology. Perhaps the last thing would be the way in which the whole Quillkaari journey has made me have these intimate conversations with total strangers who have engaged with my work: it’s something only art can do. Over the years, ‘customers’ have become friends and other artists have become confidantes rather than ‘competition’. I really enjoy being a part of this craft-loving community; it’s full of joy and sharing and charade-less, facade-less, honest conversations.


Q: If you weren’t into quilling, what else do you think you might have ended up doing / being?

A: “Some other kind of paper-craft; maybe gift-wrapping or book-folding or origami. I love the ephemeral nature of paper.”

Q: What do you do to get your creative juices flowing? And what do you do when you hit a creative block?

A: “To get my creative juices flowing, I just do one thing – put my baby to sleep! Then the house is quiet, the fan is whirring, the craft table is empty and potent, and I can begin playing. When he’s awake, my whole world is upside down. When I hit a creative block, I do some other kind of craft, which is how I discovered the art of making paper boxes. Quilling is a long, laborious, time-guzzling process, and with work, home and now a baby, I rarely get huge chunks of time. For instant gratification, I started making paper bags and boxes, thinking they’d be great for gifting my quilled earrings – and now I’m hooked, because they’re so quick and give a much bigger canvas to play with colour, shape and pattern.”


Q: What’s on your bookshelf and your iPod, right now?

A: “On my bookshelf, too many when-the-time-is-right kind of books: Ali Smith’s How to be Both, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Nabokov’s The Gift – all in a state of half-tastedness. My iPod – actually, now that you’ve asked me, I realise I haven’t seen it in a long, long time. I barely listen to music these days. Maybe I just enjoy listening to myself in silence now – or don’t feel the need to drown the noise with more noise.”

Q: What would you raid your refrigerator for in the middle of the night?

A: “Nothing. In the middle of the night I am a tired, zonked out momma who’s had the longest day ever, and just wants to go back to sleep. The fridge is far too long a walk away!” Q: What you do to unwind? A: “Crafting is what I do to unwind!”

Q: Favourite vacation spots? Any special, or perhaps funny, travel stories?

A: “I haven’t been on vacation in ages, though if I had to revisit a holiday spot, I’d go snorkelling in Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka. The first time I did that, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This time, I’ll try to do it without wanting to replicate every single marine creature in quilling!”

Q: What is the one thing you indulge in often or after a crazy day at work? What has been your most expensive work related indulgence?

A: “A cold, solitary beer. Sometimes on my favourite bench in the breezy balcony, sometimes while watching a romantic comedy on the couch, and sometimes right there on my craft desk, while making my paper creation of the day.


As for work-related indulgence – I reward myself with a craft supplies hamper ever month, now that there are so many online craft stores in India. Perhaps my biggest indulgence has been buying a set of all the We Are Memory Keepers’ punchboards. Well, almost. Another two months and I’ll get there! ”

Q: A creation of yours that you are most proud of (or a moment till now that has been truly landmark)- with respect to quilling?

A: “I think my first collection of quilled jewellery – Phool aur Titliyaan. It was perfect and pure – I wouldn’t add or subtract anything from it (which is very rare for a compulsive after-thought-er like me). I’ve done a lot of work after that, which probably got a lot more response and sales but I could never make a Phool aur Titliyaan again, although the theme – flowers and butterflies - has been a constant in my work. You know what they say about the enduring perfection of first love, or a writer never being able to replicate the spontaneity of his first novel? Ditto for this one.”

Q: Five words to define your brand of creativity?

A: “Love and joy, shared and doubled.”

Q: A crafter or a fabulous project that you think is like totally awesome and you look up to?

A: “I am a total devotee of this one crafter called Sam Hammond Donald. She makes these beautiful paper project tutorials that are totally my style – clean lines, girly patterns, colour-blocking, 3D feel –and I just love all of them. I feel like a little girl when I watch her videos on YouTube. I want to be just like her in every detail, down to those perfectly painted, UV-treated, weekly-colour-changing nails of hers! And like I said before, there are all kinds of quilling and quillers out there. In quilling typography, there’s this one international artist that every quiller is in awe of – Yulia Brodskaya. Sabeena Karnik, I’d say, is the Indian Yulia Brodskaya! Her quilled alphabets are like a textbook for every quiller – Indian or foreign – working with quilled monogrammes. Of late, her work has been so diverse and so individualistic – not to mention, exceptional in finesse – that she’s definitely a game-changer in the Indian quilling scene.”

You can find, order, commission work or get in touch with Swaati Chattopadhyay on Facebook and  Instagram. Also, watch this space for our fabulous interview with Mumbai’s very own paper-princess, typographer and artist extraordinaire – the warm and wonderful Sabeena Karnik – coming soon to a blog near you; or as we call it, rather simply, Part II.

And that’s a wrap, you guys!