Photo Essay: Abu Dhabi artist paints pictures in cross stitches

Nira Varma's detailed images take months of painstaking work

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Nira Varma has created almost 100 striking, romantic artworks, working from home in the Embassy area in Abu Dhabi.

But, although she refers to them as paintings, her creations are painstakingly embroidered using thousands of X-shaped stitches.

Each cross-stitch work generally takes between 10 months and a year to complete. Her biggest piece, entitled Autumn Goddess, took 19 months to finish and measures 86cm by 114cm.

Her images are mostly of women. “There has to be something that's very attractive in the picture or the image that I choose to make,” Varma tells The National.

“Sometimes it takes me up to a month to select the right image, colour and the proportions of everything. That's because I know that when it’s done, when I look at the paintings, it should catch my eye.”

Varma was taught how to cross stitch by her mother when she was a child. After learning the basic technique, she continued to teach herself, gradually creating more ambitious works.

Originally from New Delhi, India, Varma has lived in the UAE capital for more than 48 years with her family. She has two children and four grandchildren and worked in the family business, a chain of restaurants in Abu Dhabi where some of her works are displayed.

When Varma had children, she didn’t have time to cross stitch, but then took it up again as a way to kill time on long journeys.

“I revived my cross stitching when I used to do long-distance travel from here to the US and back,” she says. “I would spend 15 hours and 20 hours and 30 hours on flights just stitching.”

Whether it’s a woman sitting on a river boat, dancers in a ballroom, the sun setting against a picturesque landscape, the study of a peacock or the portraits of Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Zayed, the works are colourful, precise and detailed.

It’s an art form that Varma believes has evolved over the years.

“People earlier used to do it on bedsheets or saris or any soft furnishing when we were growing up,” she says. “But over a period of time, I've changed to pictures, because pictures are something everybody can appreciate, and they won’t die out.”

Planning each artwork is labour-intensive. Varma will find an image online that inspires her and then print it on to an A3 size sheet of paper.

The image is then divided into 10x10inch squares which fill the page and are transferred on to the fabric that will be cross stitched.

Depending on the size of the work, a piece by Varma can require between 80 and 100 A3 pages.

Last year one of Varma’s pieces, entitled Elements of the Earth, was also displayed during Cop28 in the blue zone.

“The painting shows the four seasons of the Earth, and it when it went up at Cop28, I was just super-thrilled and excited,” she says.

Varma says she enjoys cross stitching because it keeps her mind active and brings her tranquillity.

“The process helps me with a couple of things, one of them is your brain is active and I have to be very attentive while working,” she says.

“It's also a lot of peace of mind. I've become calmer and calmer because a lot of concentration goes into making the work.”

Updated: February 18, 2024, 5:04 AM