IMPRESSIONS OF INDIA
It was my good fortune that Karen Selk and Michele Wipplinger had met Malathi Ramaswamy and that in turn they were willing to share her with a group of fellow textile enthusiasts, to make us the beneficiaries of her understanding of Indian textiles and of her profound knowledge of her culture. While Malathi was identified as our guide, that term fails utterly to express her significance, for she is a woman whose passion has been not just to introduce foreign visitors to Indian culture but to explain its infinite subtleties to them.
I was not unaware of the extraordinary range and richness of India's culture. I grew up in England and besides the political imperial connection between Britain and India, there was Indian art in the museums and Indian food in restaurants. And there was a more direct familial connection. My father and brother had both traveled to India and brought back tales of their adventures.
All that remained was the opportunity to visit India and this came twice, in 1989 and 1991. The reality of what I saw and experienced was even greater than my imaginative anticipation of what it might be. We traveled for weeks, from Delhi to remote villages in the Kutch, from Calcutta to the tribal villages in Orissa. And these are only a few instances of where we went. Everywhere I saw extraordinary art and architecture. I also observed an astonishing range of ordinary life, which I was not prepared for. Delicious food, sounds, smells and customs. There were also things that were pleasingly familiar: cricket, road signs and British puddings !!!
India is, after all, a vast land, a subcontinent. Color stands out in my mind. There were many street markets, with innumerable piles of vibrantly colored textiles. And everywhere people wore beautiful fabrics and wore them with extraordinary naturalness and grace. Textiles were not the result of studio work or of exhibitions in galleries and museums but an integral part of everyday life, which gave me a deeper sense of what it means when a culture genuinely possesses a great and living tradition of textile art.
It gradually became clear that the production of textiles in India is a co-operative labor. Thanks to Mahatma Gandhi. The finished cloth takes the collaboration of many people Besides the raising of silk worms and the reeling of silk, there are men who wind a warp, a boy may tie the warp to prepare for ikat and someone else may dye and over dye even before it reaches the loom, each person having a special skill.
In the case of the well known Salvi family in Patan, in Gujarat. who continue the tradition of weaving double ikat that has gone on for three hundred years, we saw two brothers`who spend an entire day weaving two inches of a traditional Patola (double Ikat) sari. Yes - it takes all that time! Of course, such a tradition is threatened by modern technology or this unique technique will be lost on account of cost factor.
However, I was reassured that the weaving techniques would slowly pick up, when we visited several Weavers' Service Centers where weavers and those involved in the textile industry were once again made familiar with their own textile traditions. There was a positive connect between the Officials of the Service Centers, who were themselves weavers and the weavers who had come over to learn new patterns or to revive the old ones that were disappearing!
And all the time as I struggled to introduce some order into the welter of impressions, Malathi helped us all by subtly, patiently, perceptively, enlightening us about religion, politics, caste, class, the position of women, marriage customs, education. I realized that there were, and always will be, layer upon layer of meaning and complexity that visitors would never grasp completely.
There is one important question which still interests me after twenty years. Why is it that in India people have the patience and tenacity to produce textiles regardless of the time it takes ? How is it that with simple tools and the resourceful use of those tools, the most sophisticated cloth is made? In the West, people make wonderful textiles often with the help of complex equipment, many parts of which they do not use. It is as if they were using only two gears on a fifteen gear bicycle. In India it seemed to me they often made two gears perform extraordinary feats.
For instance in Bagru, Rajasthan, we saw a man pushing mud through a cheesecloth with his leg to make a resist. He did this twelve hours a day. In Nuapatna. Orissa. there was a seventy-five year old man winding a red silk warp in the village street, apparently working each morning for several hours before stopping to eat. In Sagarpalli, in Andhra Pradesh, we were introduced as weavers to two boys threading a loom- silk at one hundred and thirty ends per inch. They giggled and it was explained to us that they did wonder how, if we were weavers, we could possibly have enough money to travel half way around the world. They worked ten or twelve hours a day and could afford just a roof over their head and two meals a day!
I feel enormously enriched by the immense impression that India has made upon me. I have expressed my impressions of what I saw and my experiences which have broadened and strengthened my ideas of how culture and textiles interact. A culture closely woven with tradition!
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Places visited in Gujarat : Ahmedabad & Patan
Places visited in Orissa : Bhubaneshwar & Nuapatna
Places visited in Rajasthan : Bagru - about 40 kms from Jaipur
|Small places cannot be correctly located in these maps. May we request/suggest that you look into Google Maps for the location of these places in the particular States of India. Thank you for your understanding.