|Contributor: Helen Knights
A Canadian’s journey across a land rich in Traditional Crafts
Helen Knights, Canada
My introduction to Michael Scott, was an advertisement in the Ontario Craft Council’s magazine in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, stating he was conducting a craft tour to Australia and New Zealand. I went on this tour in 1982, it exceeded all my expectations. In 1984 Michael Scott, editor of Craft Report, Seattle, arranged another craft tour, this time to India. He contacted Malathi at Indebo, New Delhi, India to accompany and organize this tour to see the hand made crafts made in India. Between them, this tour was born.
This is my account of that remarkable journey across India, to the cities of Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Bombay and Delhi, where crafts were an integral part of every day life.
Ten Americans and myself, a Canadian signed up for the trip. Art is universal and each of us was accomplished in a variety of techniques. We were all eager to see for ourselves, the work of Indian artisans and meet the artists themselves. We found each district was unique in design and workmanship. You knew which district the work came from by the names given to their work such as Kantha embroideries, from Bengal.
Our tour started in Varanasi, where we were taken to the Weaving and Design Centre. Here we saw silk in its many forms -spinning, weaving, designing for the looms and the finished length of silk (4 to 9 yards ) when complete. The Sari is the dress of the Indian women. Thus, weaving of the Sari is an important part of the economy, second only to agriculture. Later we found looms for weaving were in humble homes and co-operatives. Saris were always hand woven on looms for every day wear or elegant for special occasions.
We first met the artists who were at desks designing very intricate work on graph paper, to be transferred to the looms for weaving. The designs were so beautiful, that many of us wanted to buy one. Each was signed by the artist . The Centre would sell them, only if each person would give their name and address - to make sure none of us used them commercially.
The Weaving Room was very large with looms down one side of the room, all busy with weavers at work. Down the other side were the spinners, spinning the silk thread from the silk cocoons. I found the spinning fascinating as the spinner sat with a bowl of hot water in which the cocoons of the silk worm were floating. The liquid dissolved the natural glue, releasing the fine silk thread which was spun directly onto spindles. These cocoons were produced often in humble homes by cultivating the silk worms, living on special diets and under strict living conditions.
We watched the men weaving the different designs in sari lengths. One father and son were hired together, as they were the only two in India who knew their particular pattern. Crafts were basically hereditary and the designs were passed on from generation to generation. Men were proud of their ancestors and it was an honour to pursue and excel in a family design, as these two men were doing. This particular pattern was for a sari woven in cotton, and as sheer as gossamer. It would take 8 months of 8 hour days to complete. There was a design in the sheer centre, as well as a special extra thread in the borders. It was a very lovely piece of work. The other men in the room were weaving the patterns created by the artists.
As the men finished the work at the looms, they carefully covered their work with a cotton cloth. It was important to keep it clean, due to the length of time it took to complete. In one corner of this large room, we saw an old bicycle. This was still being used to wind wool. We didn’t see it being used, but it brought to mind the mixture of old and new methods.
Our tour at the Design Centre ended at the Show Room, where the finished saris were hung. It was a glitter of gold, rich colour and magnificent patterns.
A display to entice a buyer! It also showed the amazing work of the artist designers we had met and the beautiful weaving done by the men.
Following our silk route (as I am calling it) we visited the co - operative where the weaving was done in humble homes. The looms dominated their rooms and the weavers worked with very little light. They used the jacquard punch cards, where the threads were pulled through special holes to produce the design. We saw pride in their faces as we were shown their work. Pride gave a person dignity and respect. The homes faced a large field where the children were playing outside. They were happy and crowded around us and laughed when the flash went off on a camera. Everywhere we went we were treated with respect and every one seemed interested in why we wanted to see them at work.
Visit to the Saree shop was another unforgettable experience. We had to go down a dark hallway - to a room carpeted in a thick white pile rug . We had to remove our shoes to go in and then we sat on one side of the room. The other side had saris piled high on the shelves. Suddenly we were in the midst of swirling silk, as sari after sari was unfurled across the room by the sales person. The scarves were tossed on top of the silk . In trying to retrieve a treasured piece the ladies found themselves knee deep in a sea of silk. There was almost a look of disbelief on their faces, at the imagery of it all.
One of the ladies wrapped a sari around her and proclaimed “ I want this, even if it costs a million dollars !” She did buy it, but at the regular price. I bought a blue scarf with a design of elephants on it and a green sari . Both were threaded with gold. They had to clip the gold threads on the back of the sari before I could take it , as the clipped threads were melted down to retrieve the gold.
A country as old as India, experienced many conquests. Varanasi was reputed to be the world’s oldest living city. It was here at the Hindu University that we saw the miniature Mughal art, evidence that the museums kept India’s past and present alive.
Continuing our journey, we saw a multitude of crafts being made, and never saw enough. They were in the markets for sale, as well as being done by apprentices. Some worked on their own family patterns, others were displayed in Museums, others in collections which we were privileged to see.
In Agra we visited the Taj Mahal with its marble inlay work. The technique of that quiet beauty was brought here by the Persian Craftsmen many years ago and now is part of the Indian culture. Walls were decorated in many palaces. We saw young apprentices using the same technique to make articles for tourists. Young boys were drilling holes in the white marble to hold the precious gems, for a perfect fit. Many of the designs were flowers, trellis and trailing vines decorating small boxes , trays and table tops of the white marble. I bought a beautiful tray 9"x 12" with an all-over design of blue lapis lazuli for the flowers which dominated the tray., but also an insertion of rainbow colored shell to add interest and texture. In between were the vines and leaves to fill the spaces. It has a place of honour in my home, on a wrought iron stand on a table top, covered with a hand made silk quilt I made!
It was in Agra, that we first heard about the Festival of India. An exhibition of the best of India’s culture was to be shown in USA in 1985, in the Smithsonian in Washington. We were invited to see several of these collections, as we journeyed across India. We were specially honoured to meet the craftsmen themselves and their exceptional work.
When we entered the studio of the Master Zari Craftsman Sheik Shams Uddin in Agra, we knew we were seeing the ultimate in embroidery design and hand work. He showed us his own collection in the finest of silk threads. Zari work was known all over India for its designs in gold and silk threads. The raised parts covered with stitchery gave a three dimensional effect.
He had a great variety in his collection. His figures were life size. One of Jesus showed him as a shepherd with his flock of sheep. Behind him was a blaze of light in the sky.
He also embroidered Moses which was still incomplete as he could only do a few inches a day and what we saw had already taken him 7 years. There were large birds in brilliant plumage, a tiger with his rich spotted coat, the Taj Mahal in pure white against black velvet. A large silk rug was imbedded with precious gems. Best of all was the privilege of meeting this fine man and have him explain his embroideries to us.
I asked one of his apprentices , whom we had seen working at low tables, to show me the gold they were using in their embroideries. It has a core covered with gold and very pliable but in long strands. They were cut into short pieces of the required length and used as beads. This gave a raised effect when sewn over padded areas on their designs. I saw this work on peacocks and flowers on smaller pieces.
In Jaipur we walked to where the gem sorters and cutters were working. All along the lanes were the markets and people . Our destination was upstairs in an open court with open arches; looking into a well- the only source of light. The men sat on the floor, they were sorting small piles of unpolished emeralds into size, with a guard behind each one. The cutters were using very primitive tools, some- times just holding the small emerald against the wheel., or smaller gems were on the end of a long stick. They used a wheel powered by hand, that looked like a bow and bobbed it back and forth.
Jewelry wasn’t sold here but we were shown emeralds made into very lovely jewelry. In a store, I bought an exquisite tiny pill box in enamel work in silver with tiny rubies for feet. I never saw anything like it again.
Jaipur was a city where we saw a great variety of crafts. In the market I bought a cotton skirt covered with embroidered flowers but interspersed with tiny mirrors held in place with stitching. It was slightly faded but I loved it and brought it home for my own use. We saw hand made paper being made, and also went to see the blue glaze pottery as a person in our group was a potter.
In Sanganer, near Jaipur, we had a demonstration of block printing on an outdoor table. Blocks were used with the design carved into the wood and shaped to fit the hand. A second block enabled the printer to have an accurate repeat pattern of interlocking designs. These were probably carved in another village. He was printing a length of cotton cloth, for a bed cover or tablecloth. Trays and a pad held the ink and controlled the amount used. It was quickly done in a few moves in several colours. He used his little finger as a pivot for accuracy. In open doorways we watched others printing.
In the shop close by, we were bombarded with cottons being tossed across the table at us in a constant stream, as we had seen with the silk. It was an amazing way to sell, as one grabbed a cloth before another was tossed on top. We were the only customers.
Crafts people love to share in another’s vision and wanted to take home special samples of the work they had seen.
In Ahmedabad, we visited the Calico Museum of Textiles, and were treated to their newest collection. Tents were displayed with walls lined with intricate embroidery. In the stair well, wall hangings in fine chain - stitch, were hung from the ceiling down to the first floor. The steps themselves were made of inlaid marble in designs of squares and diamonds. Upstairs another collection was being organized, showing carved woodwork and weaving in ikat dyed fabric with the description of its unique patterns.
The Folk Art Museum and the Utensil Museum, were also in Ahmedabad. We saw wonderfully embroidered costumes. The wall hangings and animal coverings were in solid chain - stitch in red and cream threads, tents were decorated with applique.
The Utensil Museum claimed our attention, when we saw the pots piled one on top of another in a variety of sizes and then hung up in an interesting sequence. The copper on the pots gleamed in the light at night. There were all sorts of tools and old and elaborate door locks..
We had a private visit to the home of Haku Shah in Ahmedabad, He was building up a collection of folk art to go to the Festival of India. At the entrance to his home, his wife was making an auspicious decoration in front of their doorstep with rice flour, which the birds or ants would eat. He welcomed us into his home and brought out his collection which was in a trunk upstairs. Folk art is made up of a variety of crafts, he had nose rings and wall hangings and a great variety of other folk art, some were his own. When we left, he gave each of us a poster which would advertise his collection on arriving in USA. It had two horse heads in action of racing. I still have that poster, signed by himself. In Bombay we met Carmen Kagal, who wrote a book on the work of Haku Shah.
We visited the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts as the Guests of the Founder of the School, the famous Dancer and Choreographer Mrinalini Sarabhai and her daughter Mallika. Our visit was informal. We sat out doors on a large 24' x 24' pad that looked like a patch work quilt! Mallika looked quite stunning in her bright red dress and her long black her falling well below her hips. She was pregnant Mallika achieved International fame in her own right as a talented performer of the Indian Classical Dance. She and her husband told us of their plans for a year in Paris and then to the USA in 1986. W were invited to see Mallika's Dance but our plans did not permit it. What a privilege to be invited and disappointed that we could not accept the invitation!
Our last night in Ahmedabad, we were treated to a special Indian dinner served outdoors. We sat on the ground at low tables with leaves sewn together as plates. We drank fresh cocoanut water, right from the shell and minted tea to cool our mouth after the spicy food. We ate with our fingers or used bread to wrap our food. We felt honoured to be given this special attention. The evening ended with a special puppet show.
In Bombay we still followed the “silk route”. We were invited to the Jehangir Art Gallery to see the amazing display of tapestries and saris on exhibit, before they left for USA as part of the Festival of India.
The first room was lined with tapestries or temple hangings, depicting religious or mythological stories woven in amazing detail. In another room were silk saris, hung full length from the ceiling. It was like walking through a forest of silk, as you walked among them and could see the breath taking detail of each one, up close. There was a label on each one which read like music, as each was described. There was no time to copy these verses but I did copy the label depicting the different types of gold thread, both artificial and pure gold that was used.
"Lurex then is an unthinking modern solution to the question of costing. It directly damages the gold spinners’ art and the structural integrity of the weave. Besides simulated gold is only simulated gold. It tarnishes. Kalahatum is strip gold. Zari has a core of thread, a silver copper alloy enables suppleness. Think of a gold spinner threading his nail with a hair of gleaming metal. Then enjoy all that this can do, its quiet shimmer in tissues of fine count cotton, the hieratic assertion of gold twilled into the weave of deep dyed silk."
Delhi was our last city before we returned home. We tried to crowd everything we wanted to do in those last days.
We had tea with Kamala Devi, she was President of the World Craft Council and brought the Indian Craft council into existence. She is called the Mother of Crafts and worked closely with the people. She tried to improve conditions of the craftsmen and wanted to help them find markets for their work. She started Nayika, a Folk Art Museum, where we saw puppet-like folk art being made They also put on a puppet show specially for us. The puppets were 18" tall and did a wonderful snake dance for us, with snakes that shot across the stage.
We were able to shop at the Cottage Industries Emporium. There were all sorts of eye catching home made crafts. We saw elephants with ivory inlay, colourful bracelets and boxes in paper mache, tiny painted birds, crewel embroidered curtains and much more.
The Folk or Craft Museum had such diverse and fascinating things to see. There were mirrored embroideries on clothing or cushions, animals were depicted in clay, like horses with long necks. There were groups of elephants. Pottery was fired, by covering the fire pot with shards of pottery The list is always long.
The Minister of State, Pupul Jayakar, invited us to have coffee in her home. She was instrumental in taking the Festival of India to USA and Paris. This included the collections we had seen. She was called the Grand Dame of Indian Textiles and a leading figure in the renaissance of hand looms and hand crafts. As we were served coffee, I noted the many pieces of folk art on display in her own home. We felt very privileged to meet her and given time from her busy schedule.
In looking back on our three weeks away, we remembered the people we met, the colour and pageantry of India, their pride and achievements in the fabulous Collections we saw. We were so fortunate to have been in India to see these special works. There was so much to see and much to marvel over in the traditions carried on into the future. We left India wanting to return
Indebo hosted a farewell dinner. It was a wonderful send off and gave us a chance to thank two very dedicated people, Malathi and Michael for our wonderful journey across India. They seemed tireless in trying to give us a carefree trip. They even looked after us when we didn’t know we needed it.
After reviewing our trip of 1984, I realize the great gift India has given to the world in their artistry and attention to detail in all the work we saw. There are many changes that have taken place. One is the loss of this hand work, due to pressure in the modern age. I hope the work done by hand will be renewed and markets found through modern technology.
"Speaking with hands - seeing and showing the unseen world of each artisan, where they spoke with their hands with visions of the master pieces they would produce"
We arrived during the monsoon season with sunshine and left in a storm. Our departure was delayed by 6 hours, but India received the rain so badly needed.
Helen Knights, (age 98),
Printmaker and Fabric Artist.
Details from my own diary plus the total recall of episodes written here, are very sincere. My photographs are from my own album. My friendship with Malathi has remained steadfast for 26 years.
58 High Street South
Thunder Bay, Ontario
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