|Contributor: Diane Divelbess
In 2001, as we were driving toward Jodhpur, Malathi said "would we be interested in stopping at the home of a dhurrie weaver?" Of course we said "yes," but we were in the middle of nowhere. And then suddenly, we were parked beside a house at the back of which under a shelter was a dhurrie loom. The principal weaver had gone to town but a relative smilingly gave us a demonstration and showed us examples of rugs. (In the meantime, a young woman with her child in tow was washing dishes using the outdoor spigot and goats wandered in the yard.) The dhurries were beautiful and were very tightly woven with no slits, unlike the kilims of Turkey. We talked among ourselves about how we would like to make some purchases but we were nearly out of cash as it was nearing the end of the day. The young man disappeared into the house. When he returned he brought a credit card machine. Problem solved! Turns out we purchased dhurries from an outstanding weaver, Mr. Roopraj Prajapati, from the village of Salawas, Rajasthan. His dhurries were strongly patterned using soft colors. One of mine is geometrically patterned and measures 72" x 48" exclusive of fringe. The other measures 73 1/2" x 49" and is centrally designed.
Since I just mentioned the kilims of Turkey and the fact that they have slits and the Indian dhurries do not, I feel I should clarify this. Both kilims and dhurries are tapestry flat weaves, but with kilims the weaver sometimes allows the weft fibers to enter and exit the warp at the same places, so that even though the warp shed alternates between each line of weft, the fibers are not bound together where the change of color occurs, hence the slit. Beautiful examples of tapestry slit-weave on a small scale are the narrow borders woven in the Kulu Valley area in the Himalayan foothills of India. The patterns are crisp but the material is weakened because of the slits. Curiously, I found a cap with a woven Kulu border attached, and this particular border was tightly woven (no slits). You can see that the pattern is not as crisp.
Another interesting kind of weaving is non-loom ply-splitting. Since the fibers are commonly natural colored light and dark goat hair, the resulting four-ply pattern is a light-dark reverse. What is dark on one side is light on the other. Because it is very strong most ply-split work results in animal trappings such as camel girths, so it's no surprise that the best ply-split weavers are in the west, especially Rajasthan. I actually found an old camel girth remnant in the Bhuj market. It is 71" long, 4" wide and has tassels at one end that are 11" long. It has figures such as a man, a camel, a woman carrying water, a scorpion and also stripes, checker board and squares within squares. An excellent account of split-ply camel girths is on page 64 of Traditional Indian Textiles mentioned earlier.
But now back to dhurries. In 2010, traveling with Malathi in Tamil Nadu, we stopped in the town of Bhavani to see some dhurrie weavers and I expected to see the same lovely soft colors woven in complex designs as I had seen in Rajasthan. Total shock! These dhurries were all of brilliantly loud, almost garish, colors which nearly took one's breath away. The two dhurries I bought are meant to be viewed vertically (unlike the previous dhurries which can be viewed from any direction). The larger one is 87" x 47" and has end bands similar to a Mexican serape. Within its three interior borders is a picture of a vase on a pedestal with three lotus flowers branching from it, a Tree of Life. There are also green parrots in the corners plus variously colored wheels or blossoms, all on a brilliant field of red. The smaller dhurrie, 30 1/4" x 24 1/2", has a central figure of Devi manifesting as Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. She wears a gold turban and a gloriously brilliant dress of red-orange, gold and white with gold glitter threads throughout. An ogre head is the keystone of the arch which surrounds her.
Just as an aside, one of the joys of traveling in India is looking at all the things in the small shops and booths in the bazaars. And among those myriad things are amazing, inexpensive decorative items: bright fabrics with tinsel; tassels and ribbons; crowns and chest collars made of paper, beads and glitter; and pith cutouts glued to flocked paper. All wonderful!
Hanging on our entryway wall next to the Bengali Ramayana Scroll is another of my favorite possessions, a Chou dance mask. It is fabulous. Made from papie'r mache', the woman's face is beautifully modeled and painted a strong yellow with prominent features. The headdress is a marvel of Indian decorative craft using both gold and pearl colored beads, gold foil pieces, threads, papers and plastic feathers. From the chin to the tip of the headdress the height of the mask is about 29"; from side to side at its greatest width the mask is 36". Hanging from beneath the headdress along the sides of the face are coils of black hair about 24" long. The mask is tied to the head of the dancer by several thick strings. After purchasing the mask at Mrs. Palchoudhuri's gathering in the afternoon, (it was to be shipped to our home), I attended a Chou dance performance that evening. The performance was held outside. We sat in chairs on the lawn before a low stage somewhat surrounded by shrubbery from which the dancers appeared, to jump on the stage. To increase their appearance of height, the dancers leapt up and then landed on their knees! To my great surprise and joy my mask was used in the performance. I have two other papie'r mache' masks, both small and intended for decoration only. One is a Hanuman head, 9 1/4" x 6" x 4 3/4", the other is probably Narasimha the man-lion, (Vishnu's 4th incarnation) of approximately the same size. Both are beautifully painted using opaque waterbased paints. They were new when purchased in Puri, Orissa.
On the other hand I have three old carved wooden masks that were meant to be used as masks. They are completely different from each other and come from different parts of India. The first one is a sage type carved with high cheek bones, deeply set eyes, prominent nose and ears, and open mouth with teeth. It has holes in the eyes, nose and mouth and also displays decorative knife cuts. It is 8 1/2" x 8 7/8" x 4 3/4" deep. The paint is almost entirely gone, so now it appears as simply wood carving. I bought it in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, where we went to view the 10th and 11th Century C.E. temples.
Another antique mask was sold to me as a Hanuman, but I now wonder if is represents a form of Vishnu (Krishna?) because of its deep blue color. Though it appears large enough for an adult, the interior is too small and the eye holes are narrowly set. The wood face is painted a strong blue, with painted black hair and moustache, bulging white eyes and white teeth. Actually the mask is in a deteriorated condition and some of the blue paint is chipped off. Nevertheless, its blue color is what attracted me. It was purchased from an antique shop on Synagogue Street, in Jew Town, Mattancherry, Kerala.
The third mask is a very fine Dharmapala mask from Sikkim, 13 3/4" x 9 1/4" x 3 1/2". Dharmapala means defender of the Buddhist faith, and is part of the greater Tibetan tradition. The wood is painted with enamel paints in very strong colors: predominately a deep yellow with green, red, white and black details. The Dharmapala is the traditional one with a crown of five skulls, bulging eyes with flaring eyebrows, prominent nose and cheeks, snarling mouth with teeth and very long ear lobes. Carved flames are around the corners of the mouth. Unlike the previous two masks this one is in excellent condition and came from a dealer in Kolkata.
The final mask-like piece I want to mention is an example of popular art found in shops along temple streets in South India. It is a round Ogre face painted in bright enamel paint on a piece of metal cut from the bottom of a container 14 3/4" in diameter; it is called "Drishti Bhomai"- A Doll that wards off evil eyes or evil spirit.
Just as many of India's painters use religious iconography or episodes from legend and mythology in their work, the master carvers in India, both in wood and stone, still produce large art pieces for temples. Not only large sculpted figures in the round, but also carved panels/friezes, doors and door mantles. We visited several studio workshops where outstanding work was being done. Of particular interest was the wood carving done in the village of Tammampatti in South India which specialized in temple commissions; we were able to see the beautifully drawn plans used for the carving which were works of art in themselves. It was here that I bought a carved wood chain 105" long; it was carved from a single length of wood! It hangs over a hallway entrance in our home. I also bought a small beautifully carved teak Ganesha, 4 1/4" x 2" x 1 3/4". Both pieces represent very skilled craftsmanship.
From the town of Sri Kalahasthi, Andhra Pradesh, I bought several small teak animal figures and a very nice Hanuman piece 10 1/2" x 4 1/2" x 2" deep. Both carvers in wood and stone delight in piercing the bodies of small animal figures with many holes, hollowing the body but leaving a baby version inside.
In the temple town of Mamallapuram there is a school of stone sculpture, with many of the shops selling student pieces which are very good, by the way. In addition to the usual small carvings of animals and religious/mythological figures, I found secular items such as stone chip-carved coaster sets.
One of my favorite pieces of stone carving comes from Chetna Village in Orissa, however. I remember standing in the area outside the studio of the sculptor and seeing examples of his work "all over the place". His carving was very finely done. My soapstone piece is of four deities, two of them with oars, in a bird shaped boat on the water. (Vishnu and Lakshmi on Garuda?) It is small, 3" x 6 1/4" x 1 3/8" deep.
Thinking of the carvers in both wood and stone and, indeed, of so many of the craftspersons in India, I must remark on how they do their work sitting on the floor. Their backs must be killing them! We are so used to studio work spaces furnished with sculpture stands, table benches, armatures, etc., that we are surprised to see people working in bare rooms with only raw material and their tools.
Found hanging in a shop along a temple street in South India is one of my favorite examples of folk art. Made of painted and lacquered clay and wood, this assemblage of a curiously shaped baby inside a rickety cradle 10" x 7 3/4" is meant to hang from a tree on the temple grounds as a couples' prayer for the birth of a child. There were many of these babes-in-cradles crowding the branches of the temple tree, while beneath the tree sat a few of the hopeful couples. Malathi chatted with one couple, emphasizing that they must not wish only for a boy but must welcome a girl child also. It was a strangely moving scene.
One place, Hirapur Village, Orissa, was so remote we had to leave the bus on the road and hike in for a considerable distance. We wanted to see their bell metal work and to see them producing it. Conditions were primitive, to say the least. Their studios were the outdoor forges, and what I remember was the heat and the mens' sweaty and blackened bodies. Think Vulcan. Yet from these artisans, from this heat, ash and soot came bronze pieces which when polished, such as a pair of drinking glasses, were very fine. Their work was relatively small. They were certainly not in the same league as the major lost wax bronze casting artisans we visited in Tamil Nadu, but their works were in their own way more magical. Comparing their rather coarse hand bells with those of the South Indian village of Nachiar Koil one can see the difference between a handcraft village and a village working on an industrial model.
The working conditions of the metal workers in Hirapur Village were, of course, very hard. But so were the working conditions of the craft artisans of lost wax bronze foundries who were digging pits in the sand to support the casts to pour the molten bronze. But what might seem appropriate for the metal casting processes seems less so with other metal work such as silversmithing, bidri work and the making of the unusual polished metal mirrors of Aranmula in South India. Both these last techniques produce work of such refinement that one would expect the workshops to be clean and airy. As usual, however, we saw the metal polishers working in fairly primitive conditions.
In the case of the silversmith whom we visited in Chennai, his studio was tiny and dark, and again a worker was sitting on the floor doing the repose´ hammering and polishing. My beautiful silver basket seems therefore a miracle! It is patterned inside and out, rests on 3 legs, has a handle and is 4" x 17" in circumference. Actually another miracle concerning the silver basket is that the price agreed upon when the piece was still unfinished actually dropped when it was completed! Apparently the amount of silver needed was less than first estimated a very honest craftsman indeed.
Places visited in Rajasthan : Jodhpur & Salawar (around 20 kms in the suburb of Jodhpur)
Places visited in West Bengal : Mrs. Palchoudari's home in Kolkata.
Places visited in Orissa : Puri, Hirapur Village
Places visited in Tamil Nadu : Chennai, Thamanpatti , Mammallapuram & Naccchiar Koil
Places visited in Kerala : Aranmula in the District of Pathanan Thitta for Aranmula Metal Mirroe
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