Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Harvesting Shenanigans

A rice-sifter at work

Every day, I pass through the same route, the same fields and villages, on my drive from Verem to Siolim. For the last six months, this route has been de rigeur because of the renovation work that’s in progress in my Siolim apartment.  It had been happening and stressful, then abandoned by a careless contractor,  re-started after a two month hiatus and much effort, and now I am toiling hard to get it completed. It’s been a testing phase. But, despite the anxiety of it all, over the change of seasons during the months from April to October, I’ve seen subtle variants in the landscape and activity en route; particularly in the villages of Pilerne and Saligoan.
Fields flank both sides of the Pilerne Road,
 from Mansher to Pilerne
Goa in May is surprisingly arid and dusty-dry. All the lush green that one associates with its landscape is a grimy shadow of its post-monsoon panorama.  Driving through winding roads that circle the gently undulating landscape, I’ve seen dry fields being ploughed in readiness for the rain. Watching, an otherwise laidback populace suddenly swing into action as soon as the pitter patter started, and  village men and women began sowing seeds for the paddy crop. Many fields don’t get worked upon because farming is labour intensive. And, according to locally rumoured calculations, only ten percent of land, in most of the villages of Goa, is cultivated. I’m told that the younger generation of landowners find it tedious to farm and hired labour is expensive. Rice is staple diet for the Goans but, those who opt out of farming find it easier, and cheaper, to purchase their requirement from the market. And their fields have lain barren year after year, three to four years in succession. Some locals say that the stretch from Verem to Pilerne got flooded when the Nerul creek flood gates got broken, some four or five years ago and no farming has been done since. Reportedly, it took the panchayat years to repair the system gates,  and once out of the habit of farming, these folks never mustered the energy to resume. Whatever the reasons, out of every four fields with billowing paddy green there are four more that have billowing weeds that look a lot like paddy to the uninitiated, like me.
Some fields are paddy and some are not!
For those die-hards who continue a dwindling tradition of farming, it’s a dedicated job.  In the middle of scorching afternoons, I’ve seen upturned plastic crates used as stools.  Placed in the middle of the large tracts of low-lying fields with not a tree for shade,  a lone, seated man or woman would keep vigil, shooing away birds and cows. Around this time, scrawny scarecrows also began to dot the landscape.  Made with the  traditional cross of sticks, these stick-figures were meagrely dressed with flapping plastic bags in pink, white and blue. On one such scarecrow, a discarded electricity meter was used to represent its face. And, it did look foreboding from the distance.
View of the fields off the Pilerne Road,
between Verem/Mansher and Pilerne
Towards the tail-end of the Monsoon Rains
For a city-bred lass like me, these things are novel and interesting to note. I’ve never had occasion to watch any kind of agricultural process and have only heard from domestic help about the rigours of kheti-baari. For me, being in the midst of this sowing and harvesting, of rice, was a first.  And even though it wasn’t always possible to stop, while driving, to satiate my curiosity. I couldn’t prevent myself from asking people I met during the course of my day, the many questions that would go through my head, as I passed the activity in the fields.
View of the fields off the Pilerne Road, between Verem and Pilerne
On the few occasions that I’ve stopped to chat with the farmers, I’ve learned a few things that local gossip couldn’t tell me. I’ve also seen dead snakes the exact colour of the glistening leaf-green paddy crop, crawl out of the fields onto the tarred road, crushed under the wheels of a truck or bus. I’d wonder how these farmers negotiated such hazards, to be told all kinds of scary tales, deepening my dread of the reptile family.
Freshly Threshed Rice Fields off the Saligaon Road, on my left as I drive through to Nagoa
May turned to October. Dussehra and Diwali have been celebrated as has Ganesh Chaturthi and Narakasura Chaturdashi. Visitors and holiday-makers throng the streets of Goa. Traffic is nearly as impossible as in  Delhi and the number of bikes is maddening. But, precisely because of the crush, in these past few weeks, the large tracts of open fields are especially soothing. In paying particular attention to them, I’ve also observed the harvesting in progress.
As comical as the human scarecrows were, at the start of the farming season, with their clapping hands and other shenanigans to distract bird, dog and cow from devouring the newly sown seeds, I’ve also noted similarly weird antics while the grain is being harvested. Just as one enters the tail-end of Saligaon leading to Nagoa, there’s a large tract of cultivated land and along this scenic route, I’ve seen some bizarre goings-on. From the point on the Pilerne Road heading towards Mapusa, where I turn off, to pass through Saligaon,  green fields lie on both sides of a generously curving road that allows me to see them from a distance and all the way through till I pass by, driving into the built-up, residential area of the village. 
One, hot, October afternoon,  I saw an ample-bodied, middle-aged woman, with short cropped hair,  wearing a calf-length, printed dress (looked like mill-printed polyester) clapping her hands and shouting out something, while intermittently waving a cloth in the air. First with one hand and then the other and alternating the two in rapid succession. This went on, right from the onset of the fields coming into my view, until I drove passed her, a good few minutes later. I have reason to believe that she did this non-stop for a good many hours and had been sitting out in the heat for much of the day, keeping vigil on the grain being threshed in the field before her.
The next day, I found her seated at another field along the same road. It could have been another person because I didn’t note the facial features earlier. But, from the body structure and attire, it seemed to be the same woman. This time, she sat on an upturned crate, at the edge of the field, on the verge of the roadside, while a handful of men stood mid-field of a small plot of land, threshing the crop, manually. She held a black umbrella over her head. It was an overcast day, but it hadn’t rained, so I was wondering about the umbrella, when she started opening and closing it. Every time she opened it, she’d raise up the umbrella and in closing it, bring it down - just above her head, and then open it and raise it again, in quick repetition of the same up-down movement. It was a most unusual sight and a quirky dance of sorts, for there was definitely a synchronised rhythm in these otherwise awkward movements. Sometimes, she’d just bob the open umbrella up and down.  And do the same with it closed. These movement were accompanied by a bevy of sounds - shouted out loud, enough to be heard but were unintelligible. She could have been addressing workers in the fields, but I cannot be sure. Most likely, she was shooing away the pesky birds, hovering above, hungry for a peck of freshly harvested grain.; telling them that they couldn’t have any.
During an earlier conversation, in July,  with Pratibha and Pandurang, a farming couple whose fields lie off the Pilerne Road near Moicawaddo, close to where I live in Verem, I’d learned that neighbouring farmers take turns to keep the pestilence away from each other’s land during the day and hire someone to keep vigil at night. I couldn’t help but wonder, if this lady with the umbrella was a land-owner keeping tabs on her numerous fields or if she’d been hired to do so. Because, whatever I’d seen her do was tedious. Inventive in her routine and strategy to keep prey at bay, it signalled endeavour of vested interest, precisely because of that,  but, seeing her in different fields on different says raised some doubt.
All these months, I’d been content to mostly observe the farming activities. Driving past busy, narrow roads doesn’t offer much scope for photography and neither was I in the right frame of mind. The odd conversations about farming had been with locals that I’ve met in the course of living, or the odd farmer I encountered during an evening walk. I kept telling myself that there would be plenty of time to document and get material for a story. I was always preoccupied with things to do at my apartment so there didn’t seem scope for much more than the passing glance, albeit drinking it all in with a sense of wonderment.
For days, prior to Diwali, I’d seen women lifting the threshed rice above their heads and shaking off the chaff, letting it fly off with the wind as they poured the sifted rice into large kattas. Lined up on the roadside these ample bags - both plastic and jute, bulged outwards, stately and statuesque with the grain. It was rural novelty at its best.
Work in my apartment was now happening at an easier pace. The pressure to complete this was still there, but nothing quite as strenuous as the past two months had been. Coerced by circumstance I’d taken on the role of a contractor to finish the abandoned work on my flat. I’d been going crazy with the job - so alien to anything I’d ever done in close to six decades of living. There had been almost no time to reflect on life unfolding, beyond some crochet which allowed confused thoughts to tumble out and create just enough space for another chaotic day. Fascinated as I was, I’d still be tired and too listless to make the effort to stop the car, get down and take photos. The thought of carpenters waiting for me, the constant demands for money and long list of things to be done would bog me down.  Every time I passed and noted something interesting and didn’t feel like stopping, I would tell myself that next year, I’d do a full documentation with thorough research.
But then one day, I thought that next year it will not be the same thing. I couldn’t lose the moments that fascinated me today, waiting for a good time to make note of them. Driving past, one Saturday afternoon, when there wasn’t such a crush of things to tend to, I decided that work or no work, it was too picturesque, for me to pass up this moment and wait another year to document. There were, mercifully, few cars on that stretch. Inspired to stop, by the visual of a weather-beaten woman winnowing, I parked my white i20 on the side and walked up to watch her lift the rice up in her wicker basket and sift it down, letting the wind waft away the chaff. I paused to record and listen to the soft rustle, a warm and comforting nuance, of rice grains falling: caressed by the soft hush of them kissing each other as they piled up on the ground. This was augmented with something the winnower seemed to be telling me but regrettably I haven’t yet learned any Konkani, so missed out on what she said.
I took my photos and drove on, stopping to chat with a Saligoan landowner who was selling his grain. I rolled down my window. He thought I wanted to buy some, so informs me that he has enlisted for government support, and was selling the rice at ₹21 per Kg, where otherwise the price would be ₹25 per Kg. I asked if all the rice was for sale or if he kept some too, when he said both and that by boiling the rice, it keeps well for a year.  A useful bit of information, for it was something I didn’t know. The patch of land, I found him standing by, didn’t seem to have much grain. I asked how much rice lay before us,  to be told it was about five quintals. I wondered if  that would  be enough for personal consumption and for sale, when sensing my question, he gestured to the land around, informing that he had many more fields.
And that is what made me realise that probably the lady of the umbrella dance also owned numerous plots of land. Since I had found her sitting in and around fields on the same stretch of fields, she could also have been his mother. I didn’t ask, but felt that I  shouldn’t have entertained those earlier doubts, because who’d imagine hired help going through such effort and such totally bizarre attempts at shooing off prey. The crazy stuff is what we rise to, when we care enough, isn’t it?
As I was wrapping up this story, the housekeeping staff walked in to clean my apartment with Saraswati leading the way. She is a young graduate, newly married, from neighbouring Karnataka and if she happens to find me in the apartment, she quizzes me about what I am doing - always curious and in awe of my creative endeavours. This time around, she insisted on knowing the story I was writing. As I narrated the dress-clad woman’s antics, telling her how I wondered if she owned the land or was hired to do these tricks, when she said with the unstoppable authority of youth : “ Maedum, paeesa dene pe bhi nahin hone ko hota, kitna sharm aata na?, voh Catholic Aunty ka khud ka land hoga, bilkul hoga, koi shak nahin!”
Well, that certainly put it unarguably into the same perspective I had arrived at. The crazy stuff is what we do when we are involved with and have a vested interest in the resultant outcome, anyone else would feel too embarrassed to do the same things. The ploughing and harvesting of seeds that we sow through life, are rife with many awkward moments that we’d probably be too embarrassed to own up to and face ourselves for, on hindsight. As would the woman, if I had taken a video, of her at work, and shown  it to her. Would she.....,I know that in her shoes, I would.  And probably never work with such uninhibited ardour and abandon again!

Monday, 3 April 2017

Nature Versus Nature

Vrooom vrooom! A motor bike revs up as it drives up the Pilerne road. It's powerful thrusts breaking the silence of the morning, otherwise punctuated with a neighbouring roosters daily cry: kukroku, kuu, kukrukoo! The Verem-Pilerne road is a busy one as it comes from Panjim and continues onwards to the town of Mapusa and almost all day I can hear sounds of various engines motoring up and down the narrow, coconut palm-lined, tarred road.
Each morning, I sit on the balcony of my apartment, sipping a cup of chai and just being with myself. The traffic up and down with the swishing of tyres and occasional shouts to gain the attention of a passing friend doesn’t bother me. It's sort of reassuring because through this, despite being alone, I get a sense of having people around me.
From the first floor verandah, La Mer, overlooking the Verem- Pilerne Road
The bamboo is nudging its fresh green leaves in through the black wrought iron railings of the verandah. But, as yet, I can’t touch it, unless I stand up, lean across the railing and bend down a bit. And I haven't wanted to do that. It's just peaceful to have her unquestioning presence, a familiar sight each morning. I can hear the tweets and melodious chuckles of birds from within the bushes beyond the bamboo. Graceful Areca palms sway beside the bamboo and line the pathways, all around the La Mer apartment complex, where I've taken up residence for a few months.
In a neighbouring, vacant plot, tall Saal trees stand guard. The light colour of their statuesque trunks, which draw an almost-straight, vertical line into the sky, is echoed by the fading hues of the mesh of the iron fence that separates us. It was probably never painted and as the colour of iron faded through the rigour of seasonal rain and sunshine, the Saal grew taller; it's bark thickening to the timber merchants' satisfaction. Apparently, it takes many, many years for these trees to become wood that’s marketable.
I like these trees with their over-hanging branches and large, very large, over-sized leaves that are turning from green to brown and often fall onto me as I swim in the pool or walk around. Like abandoned or lost feathers they waft down weighted by their size - swiftly and softly - unless I happen to be in their path of descent. And then, after an almost inaudible crackle of leaf breaking off from its stem or branch, I feel a gentle thump or the graze of a dried leaf brushing past exposed limbs as it descends, uncaring of who or what stands in its path.
When I'm swimming close to sunset and in the fading light, it can be quite scary. I've often wondered and shuddered at which coarse creature has chosen to kiss my arm or hand that’s risen out of the water and is reaching back into the pool to push the water backwards, helping move my body forward in a free-style stroke. By now I should know it's the free-falling, over-sized, wizened and brittle Saal leaves but, in that moment of rough caress, I'm always petrified. I lose my swimming stride and it takes a good few moments for me to allay the fear of encountering either a snake or frog or praying mantis - creatures that have been spied around these parts - before I resume my swim.
Thankfully, I haven't seen any snakes but frogs have crossed my path and one even came visiting while the girls were busy cleaning my rooms. It jumped, they jumped and I did an unbelievably long jump screaming loudly as I did. Spontaneous and prompted by fear, I've never managed such a leap since, not even in jest, while narrating the incident and trying to demonstrate the gigantic yelp and the leap it inspired. And praying mantises are everywhere, silently praying as they seat themselves on the sun beds or look curiously at me through glass panes. As I peer to get a closer look, their brown eyes and heart-shaped green heads turn in curiosity. Sometimes it seems that we are having a conversation, that they understand and respond to what I'm doing and saying. But maybe not. For all I know, I am an oversized alien in their view of things. So, these creatures are not imagined, they're very much around me and I don't handle our encounters with ease, not unless I am behind glass doors. A lass that's city born and bred, much as I love nature, I'm squeamish about other creatures. Well, in truth, some of our own species are also not excluded from this kind of uneasiness.
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The tree right in front of me has grown so tall that at first-floor height, where I sit, there are no leaves – well, almost none. But that is what draws my attention, in the midst of this morning's traffic on the Pilerne Road. The lowest branches fan out in a kind of elegant dance-mudra on three sides, and these branches and sub-branches have just about three brown leaves hanging on them but barely - they're on the verge of dropping to the ground. Crinkled like a woman who has lived her life, exhausted each breath granted her, awaiting the final call of the universe; to take that leap of faith into the unknown and embrace a life below the branches of the tree that lofted her high into the blue of sky. The wind tugs East and then West, but the resilient stems don't let go. It's not time yet. There is also the odd leaf which has fallen off a higher branch and lodged itself into an inverted armpit, where an arm-like branch extends outwards from the tree trunk. Held between limbs that stall its descent into the earth, these leaves look as if they're still attached to the branch. Until a forceful gust of Vayu jolts one of them out and it rustles and crackles before taking its final bow amid the low-lying burgundy, purple and green plants in the garden below.
Just then, as my glance is occupied by the falling leaf, a large, blue-black bird, with curiously contrasted, reddish-brown wings, flies into view. My mobile phone rings, and it flies away before I can look long enough to study its visage. But this much I did see: it had a sturdy red beak.
Despite the bikes, buses and cars (some are rather noisy too) but undisturbed, nonetheless, I enjoy the silent companionship of the bamboo, palms and many other plants in the garden below me. It's become a breakfast ritual I now look forward to. The passing noise of people going about their business doesn't disturb me, it never has. It's the sound of people trying too hard to enjoy themselves, playing loud music as they pose for selfies, which grates. And it's not just here in Goa but in Delhi and Gurgaon too, road traffic or trains never shattered the silence of contemplation but unnaturally loud people noises always did.
This morning two young girls, dressed to the nines in their minuscule shorts, Ts and over-sized sunglasses, were playing some loud, music on their phones. They didn't seem to be listening to the lyrics or beat and neither were they listening to and in consonance with the plants they were posing among for their selfies. The incongruous, unwelcome sounds invaded my otherwise silent space. I cringed. I hate it when people bring loud music into such a tranquil environment. If you are here to bask in the beauty of nature, wouldn't it be more appropriate to listen to the rustle in the trees and let your silence invite the butterflies to come greet you? I called out “hello, hi, excuse-me!” to no avail. Barely a few yards away from me, they were deaf to my voice, drowned out by the loudness they played.
I'm peeved but tell myself they're just passing through, like the traffic on Pilerne Road. I decide to take out my Bluetooth speaker and put on some soothing earth sounds. Taking a few deep breaths, I ignore the girls and continue studying the leaves on the Saal trees, which fascinate me.
There's still some tea in the thermos. I pour the brew of Earl Grey tea into my mug and observe the insect-eaten holes in the leaves and the lace-like gathering of tiny, ever so small and delicate, feather-like extensions that grow at the tip of each branch. Where many such branches come close enough, this gossamer spider web-like growth gently meshes with its counterpart on another high branch and it looks as if nature is crocheting the whole sky with lightly beige coloured, fine lace, under-laid by a luminous fabric of ever-changing blue.
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Thursday, 2 March 2017

Exploring My Textile Obsession with Eri Silk of Meghalaya, Guest Post by Anna-Louise Meynell

5 generations of women and girls from a weaving family

Working with textiles, as I have done for the past fifteen years, is often a passport to genuine experiences and interactions with rural artisans. Each time I visit an artisan village on ‘work’ I leave feeling truly blessed to be able to overcome language barriers, by communicating through the language of textiles – its warp and weft – a mutual understanding of the craft of weaving.

Working with the weavers

I was trained as a weaver in Scotland, where I also grew up. I moved to Bangalore in 2005, and my relationship with Indian textiles and traditional artisans grew with each year I spent there. With such a rich textile heritage, it is easy to develop many textile obsessions, but there is one fabric that captured my attention from the moment I came across it. Eri silk. The soft handle, the rustic and slubby texture of the yarn, the matt sheen of this unusual silk, the weight and drape of the cloth and the subtle shades of natural dyes drew me in and found a place in my mind. I was fascinated by the fabric and the place where it was produced - North East India.

Family collection of traditional Khasi pieces

When people talk of textiles of North East India, it is rarely textiles of Meghalaya that will be first brought into the conversation. Bold tribal textiles of Nagaland, Eri and Muga silk with figurative motifs of tribal Assam are well established on the textile map. Some may know of the fine and compact Phanek embroidery and the Wangkhei Phee textiles of Manipur (using the same technique of jamdani from West Bengal and Bangladesh), while textiles from Meghalaya are barely given a mention. What a treat for me then, to be invited into the villages on a textile consultancy with NESFAS, a Shillong-based NGO, to assess the potential and production constraints of the Eri silk weavers, spinners and dyers and work with them to expand their markets. I found that while Meghalaya is a state more or less off the well-trodden textile trails of India it has a rich, sincere and humble textile history.

From Mustoh to the plains of Bangladesh,

As a Scottish weaver I have received a very warm welcome in Meghalaya. Each person I meet reminds me that Meghalaya was affectionately named ‘Scotland of the East’ by the British. I (try to) respond with equal enthusiasm every time as I talk of the similarities with Scotland; the rolling hills, the deep gorges, pine forests and clean fresh rivers. To talk of Meghalaya or equally of Scotland and not to mention the rain is impossible. Rain shapes a land, gives life, fertility and endless shades of the colour green. I have always found an affinity with people who come from rainy places and Meghalaya is no exception - though the rain here is on a completely different scale to my homeland. Officially known as ‘the rainiest place on the planet’ the people have come to accept and understand how to live with the rain, enjoying the dynamic seasons, never leaving the house without an umbrella. One particularly poignant moment for me was in Mustoh, a village in the hills bordering Bangladesh. Looking down on the flooding Bangladeshi plains while being pummelled with torrential rain (over several days) gave me real experience of the forces of nature that impact the lives of so many people.

Eri silk fibre and thread

But back to the weavers, and the indigenous craft culture of Meghalaya. While Eri silk is best known for its production in Assam, it also has a long history with the people of Meghalaya. The main hub of Eri silk weaving in Meghalaya is the Ri Bhoi District, an area on the border of Assam, halfway between Guwahati and Shillong. It is a lush, fertile area where literally anything will take root and flourish. The self-sufficient and naturally sustainable communities of Ri Bhoj are primarily agriculture based, their main produce being innumerable varieties of rice, ginger, turmeric, and a range of delicious seasonal vegetables such as pumpkin, spinach, radish, squash, brinjal, tree tomato, beans and many more. In most villages farming responsibilities come first, with the whole village working on planting and harvesting of rice. Traditionally weaving activities are integrated into village life in the moments when agriculture is less demanding. When women get together in the community it is not rare to see them spinning eri silk with the takli or drop spindle, as they share anecdotes from their family life. Understanding the relationship between Eri silk production and the rhythm of the agricultural seasons is the first step towards understanding the weaving communities in the Ri Bhoi District.

Studying the Khad Ar Lyngdoh designs

Village life in the Ri Bhoi District

Eri silk in Meghalaya has always been cultivated domestically, and still is today.  The silk worms feed on the leaves of a number of plants, most commonly the castor plant, and grow fat and green in the shelter of the rearing house - generally a purpose built bamboo shed in the compound of the home. For those of you reading this blog post who do not know about Eri silk, it is also known as ‘ahimsa silk’, ‘peace silk’ or ‘non-violent silk’ due to the non-violent method of extracting the silk from the cocoon. The cocoon is spun of short fibres, making it impossible to reel the silk from the cocoon. The majority of the world’s silk is reeled, whereby the cocoon is boiled with the worm still inside to loosen the silk filament before reeling. The Eri silk worm however is either taken out by breaking open the cocoon, or the worm is allowed to eat its way out through the cocoon to emerge as a moth and continue the cycle. As Eri silk is hand-spun, it is of no matter that the cocoon has been broken open, thus saving the worm of being boiled alive. The amusing irony that I have observed with this reference for Eri silk (‘ahimsa silk’), is that once out of the cocoon the majority of the worms will be served up for dinner or turned into pickle! Ultimately the worm is not harmed in production of the silk, but being a great source of protein, it is not wasted. You can often see large bamboo trays of these worms being sold in the market, and in fact they can fetch as high a price as the silk cocoon itself.

Eri silk worm

Cocoons are washed, hand-spun and the yarn is dyed with natural dyes. Traditionally the colours used in Meghalaya were stick lac red, turmeric yellow and black from iron ore. Today, with training and support from government and NGO’s, the artisans have greatly increased their repertoire of colours, experimenting with all kinds of leaves, flowers, roots and fruits in and around the forests. Amongst many other plants, they are now experimenting with hibiscus (china rose), ananto fruit, marigold flowers, guava leaves and teak leaves. The colours they create depend on the season, the availability of these wild natural resources and even how old the plant is.

Eri silk worms
Eri silk from Meghalaya is a tangible reflection of the rural communities it is produced in. The quality of the silk depends on the quality of the leaves the worm feeds on, the texture of the thread is dictated by the hand of the spinner, the natural dyes come from the wild produce of the land, and finally the weaver working with a floor loom made of local bamboo brings her own creativity to the design and construction of the cloth.

Preparing the warp for the traditional Khasi check shawl

My current work in Meghalaya is research for my doctoral studies, through the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, University of the Arts London. I have been undertaking an ethnographic documentation of the socio-cultural context of Eri silk production in the Ri Bhoi District, and a technical analysis of the weaving process, recording their skills as new technology is introduced to their current practices. I have spent much time staying with the weavers, observing their rhythm of working, delving into their tribal history, and studying the textiles in their family collections.

Eri silk woven on the floor loom. Turmeric dyed warp and twisted turmeric and lac red weft

I am happy to say that there is a deep and meaningful history of Eri silk textiles in Meghalaya, closely linked to the social history of the communities. I have found sophisticated supplementary weft designs that were woven on simple floor looms. These textiles were once used by traditional dancers as a waistband with long sashes. With the widespread conversion to Christianity many of the traditional celebrations died out, and with it the need for dancers, or indeed their stunning waistbands! These skills are not lost however, and I have found contemporary versions in acrylic or cotton being woven in some villages. On the trail of the supplementary weft technique I have come across interesting indications of tribal assimilation reflected in the textiles. The Assamese and the Karbi textiles are woven with highly figurative motifs of flowers or mythical animals, which are also found in the Ri Bhoi district.  The Khasi Bhoi people have very clear geometric patterns, yet use the same technique of supplementary weft. Khasis elsewhere in Meghalaya do not use this technique, nor do they have the intricate ‘dancers waistband’ in their traditional dress, indicating that the close interaction between the Karbi and the Khasi people of the Ri Bhoi District may have led to exchange of ideas and techniques in textiles. When one delves into the tribal history of the area it becomes clear that this is really a rich land of many layers.

Natural dyes

Mist and rain in Mustoh
In some villages there is a noticeable shift in the approach to weaving. In Umden, the ‘model village’ of eri silk production, weaving has become a thriving commercial business. Weavers work full time and some do not work in the field at all. Many are structuring their workshops to be able to accommodate larger orders. The frame loom, and fly shuttle loom is now widely used, millspun yarn is available which they use in the warp, and you can see far more experimentation in design moving away from the traditional textiles. 
Traditional dress of the Khad Ar Lyngdoh communities,
Khasi Bhoi ethnic group
None of this research is possible without building relationships with the weavers over several cups of tea, followed by endless chewing of kwai  (a large chunk of beetlenut, beetle leaf and lime) to give you that special village high! On occasions going into certain villages, my Khasi assistant and I have been warned not to drink any tea or eat food, if offered, due to the practice of black magic in the village. It is said the excrement of the silkworm, when crushed and sprinkled on food as black magic would bring bad luck, ill health and possibly lead to the death of the person who consumed it. Today they do not use the powder, though black magic powers are still respected or feared. One family we visited in Umkon, (the Ri Bhoi District) did not offer us any tea at all, which is very unusual in Meghalaya. Knowing that they have a reputation of practicing black magic, they do not offer guests tea to avoid an awkward situation. This was followed by a visit to another family in the same village, who told us tales of their grandfather transforming into a tiger, while we drank tea and ate pomelo fruit mixed with salt and black sesame and carambola from their garden. Our hosts’ grandfather was one of the few villagers who did not convert to Christianity in colonial times, a fierce defender of the indigenous Khasi religion. The tiger often appears in Khasi folklore and such stories are common even today. Though I cannot understand Khasi, watching her narrate the stories of her grandfather with such animation I could almost sense the tiger in her. Kong Kumari who had accompanied us to the village insisted we consume a tangy tasting powder as soon as we left, as a precautionary antidote to black magic. We took it on her insistence but as Vianney, my assistant, rightly said: “the food was given with such love, straight from the heart, it can only be received with warmth and gratitude.”

Floor loom weaving
My own interest in textiles has led me into deep discussions on tribal culture, the matrilineal system of the Khasis and role of women in Meghalaya, community systems of authority, the relationship with colonial settlers, the mass conversions to Christianity, the list goes on. What began as a search for indigenous textiles has opened-up doors to explore a rich cultural tapestry, building lasting friendships with people from such different backgrounds.

120 year old dancers waistband from the Khasi Bhoi communities,
Eri silk, exquisite supplementary weft designs

Anna-Louise Meynell is a designer of woven textiles from Scotland who has been living and working in Asia for 12 years. Her consultancy work in handwoven textiles takes her to inspiring communities in India, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. With so much travel and textiles in her life she describes herself as a ‘nomadic weaver’!

Anna-Louise has been working in Meghalaya since 2014, and is currently based in Shillong, doing research on the traditional Eri silk textiles of Meghalaya. The North East of India has captured Anna-Louise’s heart, mind and textile imagination and she may well be there some time longer!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Aaro Aakash…….A Memologue of Leisure - Guest Post - Sunetra Lahiri

Dokka, the cottage for two where we stayed
I met Uday Hazra at a photography exhibition where he was one of the exhibitors. Till date I do not know exactly what he does for a living except that he is a writer, graphic artist, and photographer, has a philanthropic bent of mind and owns ‘Aaro Aakash’ which is neither a hotel nor a resort but rather a property having one big and one small cottage that he kindly allows his friends and relatives to stay in. Adjacent and older than ‘Aaro Aakash’ is ‘Anek Aakash’ but that property is for his personal use. He has been asking me to visit 'Aaro Aakash' before it becomes another concrete jungle and the sky becomes just a figment of imagination….. So this February before the summer heat became too much we, myself and my friend Lily, decided we would take up his offer.

We board an early morning train from Sealdah for Bolpur, Shantiniketan. It’s a grey day, cool; we refresh ourselves with paper cups of hot lemon tea from a passing vendor on the train.  It takes about three hours to reach our destination.

'Aaro Aakash'….10kilometre from Bolpur station is in a village – Kamarpara. The property is looked after by Basuda, the manager and Lalda, the cook and odd job man. They both live in the same village within shouting distance of the property. Basuda drives the brand new white Maruti 'Omni' and picks us up from Bolpur Station. When we reach 'Aaro Aakash' we find it picture perfect - rustic, organic, basic; the charm lies in its simplicity. Dokka, the cottage for two, lies at the end of the property separated from a bigger cottage beside a pond and amidst abundant greenery. Dokka has an open front porch. It has a swing, an old armchair and a charpoy. I stake claim to the charpoy much to my friend’s amusement. Lying on the charpoy watching a sun bleached February sky as sharp little neem leaves float down soundlessly to the ground is cathartic. The breeze, still cool with barely a hint of the coming summer, making gentle music as it passes through the trees. It is a moment of unmitigated bliss.

Ekka - the first cottage in Aaro Aakash

I look at my companion – who has quite recently finished her PhD in Philosophy. For four years while she was writing her thesis we did not travel much because of her commitments. We are kindred souls and need to dive deep into quiet to rejuvenate. This trip was her birthday gift to me. Sitting on the swing engrossed in a book she had carried all the way from home, content, peaceful and silent, she is the perfect travel companion – unobtrusive and non-invasive. It has always been like this…..the treasured company of someone in perfect tandem with your rhythm.
The door separating Ekka from Dokka

Lalda comes ambling down the narrow path…. Lunch is ready. Food is simple, fresh and hot, served with love on huge steel plates with matching glasses on reed mats laid on the raised table in a little thatched hut with mud walls. Rice is heaped on our plates. There are dishes of dal, vegetable curry, fried eggplant, and fresh water fish curry. We protest because we cannot eat so much. Lalda is disappointed to find how little we eat; he says the water is good, it will make us hungry and we should eat more. We smile, trustingly drink the water and soon are too full to think about evening tea.

There is nothing much to do and that suits us fine. We lie down on the porch furniture like languid overfed lizards of which there are too many and varied to notice. When I return and tell him about the burgeoning lizard population, Uday-da, who is rather passionate about the environment, ecology and all things that have life, says, “it’s their home too.” 
An abandoned abode on way to Lakhi Sayar
Towards evening, before the twilight slips into deep dusk we venture out to explore Lakkhi Sayar - a large water body. Much before coming here we have avidly followed Uday-da’s Facebook page which was full of photographs of the village, 'Aaro Aakash' and Lakkhi Sayar. It’s just round a bend in the road hidden by a little ridge about 500 yards from the gate. We climb easily, nimbly like the black goats grazing about. It’s a beautiful sight….a solitary boat at the edge of the bank, the sun reflected in broken ripples, birds wheeling and settling among dark trees on the far bank while darkness descended slowly. Like true amateurs, we try our best to capture the mood but must be content with the image etched on our mind. Along the winding path back to 'Aaro Aakash', we meet some village women returning from a day’s work in the field - colourfully attired, their sweat soaked vital faces glowing in the rays of the setting sun. 
The lone boatman  of Lakhi Sayar - the waterbody near Aaro Aakash

We return back and Lalda serves tea with biscuits. We refuse his offer of “telebhaja with muri” (deep fried pakoras with puffed rice). Lily sits on a weather beaten wooden bench in front of the other cottage sipping her piping hot beverage while I amble about busily taking pictures of the surrounding. The previous guests had left that morning so we were the only people on the property.

We spend the evening on the porch surrounded by Mortein coils. The place is mosquito heaven, surrounded by trees and water bodies. My friend reads articles and stories she has collected for just such an occasion. She is a good story teller, her voice smooth with the correct intonation. It’s a moment of … nirmal anand….. We are quite unaware of time till Lalda comes hurrying down the path carrying a hurricane lamp and announces that dinner is ready. The hurricane lamp brings back memories of a bygone time in Calcutta when whole portions of the city would be shrouded in darkness due to load shedding, lighted only by these glass lamps. They would get sooty every night and cleaning them out every day was a ritual. Somehow exams and homework and my childhood evenings will always be linked with these lamps – the smoky smell of kerosene and the acridity of singed hair when we leaned too close to the glass, our eyes full of sleep from the torpid heat and humidity.

After dinner we wander back to our porch and feel that it’s too early to turn in. But there’s not much else we can do. We call home and report that all’s well, finish our nightly rituals in silence, climb inside the mosquito net that Lalda has so thoughtfully hung for us over the bed, a low wooden chouki without headrest pushed against the wall near the window which looks out on the porch. We try to sleep but end up chatting instead, our body clock attuned to a more urban routine. We talk late into the night. What did we talk about? I cannot remember. Inconsequential nothings, I guess.

I wake up early, take out my camera and go out onto the porch. It’s eerily silent. The sun is a mystery – it’s there but I cannot see it. Fog lies thick and deep among the trees.  I sit down on the armchair and try to be one with the silence. After a while I take a walk, feeling the cool gritty soil underfoot. There is dew on the straggly grass that glistens like pearl. Faraway through the cotton-wool silence I hear the tinkling of cow bells. I do not know what hour it is, only becoming aware of time when   I see Lalda emerging through the fog, as if by magic, from some other dimension, carrying tea in a thick glass, asking when we would require hot water for our baths.
Subarnarekha - the bookstore everybody goes to

After breakfast Basuda drives us to Shantiniketan. We have been here before so we do not waste time doing the usual touristy things. We visit 'Subarnarekha', the bookstore near Viswa Bharati University, where one can find anything from the downright crowd pleasers to the esoteric to vintage to rare moth eaten books and out-of-print journals. It’s not very organised. Books weigh down overburdened shelves and are also stacked   on the floor standing in precarious piles and in every nook and corner. It is difficult to walk about in the narrow spaces. There are a few people in the shop and it is an intricate ballet negotiating the narrow spaces between books without knocking each other over. I let my friend spend a happy hour in the proximity of books without trying to venture in much myself for I’m clumsy and quite capable of causing an accidental book avalanche. The owners are laid back, “sukhi” people, who do not seem very interested in selling anything. In fact we waited a good while before the shop was opened, a little after 11 am. But the shop survives, I guess, because of the passion of a select clientele – those people who have such love for books that they are willing to rummage through dust and countless volumes stocked ad hoc, hoping to find one gem to add to their ever increasing library. 'Subarnarekha' is something of an institution. It’s been there for more than 30 years. Everyone’s been here from prominent Bengali writers, academicians and students – it’s a popular haunt of the intelligentsia.

We look at roadside shops selling myriad things from jewellery to clothes to saris to trinkets, leather bags, accessories and souvenirs but nothing catches our eye. We head to Alcha, the store in Ratan Pally whose owner Keya Sarkar is a friend. Alcha has a good collection of bags, saris and scarves, all locally sourced and manufactured. There is also a restaurant of the same name nearby, run by Keya’s husband Satish who makes lovely Spanish omelettes, slated to reopen soon with a revamped menu.

Fourteen years ago, I and Lily had been to Shantiniketan. We were young and broke. We had been to all the usual places in a cycle rickshaw which is now being slowly replaced by Totos, the Indian version of the Tuktuk. We head for Konkalitala because my friend Lily is a temple hound. I look around trying to find the familiar road that wound through the pristine countryside, stretched to the horizon on both sides. We had been there in monsoon and there had been an eerie calm before the storm, the sunlight falling through golden edged clouds making everything glitter. Now the road and the surrounding area around the temple have changed dramatically. Development has come to Shantiniketan. The horizon is no longer visible. All we see are ugly structures on either side. It’s no longer picturesque or pristine but we go nevertheless. After my friend offers puja to Goddess Kali, we get back to Shantiniketan, hungry.
We find a place to eat. We are sceptical about the food, being quite put off by the strange d├ęcor and not very clean washrooms. With much reluctance, we order Chinese. The place is understaffed and the few waiters are busy running about. Almost all tables are taken. We infer that it must be a popular joint. When our orders arrive, we find food is surprisingly good and non-greasy. We take our time over lunch and linger a while, finishing our fresh lime sodas. Then it is time to return.
Village road near Aaro Aakash

Basuda drives us back to 'Aaro Aakash'. It takes about half an hour. The silence embraces us like a cloak. It’s a little hot but not very. The late afternoon is spent lazing about on the porch. We fall asleep in the gentle heat. When I wake up it is nearing twilight. We must have napped for the better part of an hour. I wake up my friend and decide that we would like to explore the other side of Kamarpara. Cameras in hand, we walked down unpaved village roads clicking photos of whatever catches our fancy... The porous laterite soil sticks to our sandals. Though there is teeming life in every house for we can hear the low hum and chatter, babies crying, radios and we can smell the smokiness of coal fire in preparation for the evening meal. The roads are deserted except for stray dogs, an occasional cat, an old woman sitting at the entrance of her hut…..a young man returning home on his bicycle….. I’m delighted to find tortuous, gnarled trees which look as if they have been there since the beginning of time. We wander farther than desired, almost two kilometres from 'Aaro Aakash' and then decide that it would be prudent to return as it would get quite dark. Without streetlights -- we were not carrying a torch-- it would be difficult to negotiate these unknown roads.

We returned soaked in sweat to hot tea and village gossip. Lalda is voluble, talking about Uday-da’s generosity and philanthropic work and all that he has done for the village people. The evening rolls into night…. It’s been just two days that we have been here but we feel that we have been here longer than that. This place is timeless…in the sense that every day is much like the previous day so if one were not very careful it would be easy to forget mundane things like time, one’s spatial existence, the virtual reality of things….We do much the same thing as the previous evening. We speak of this and that….n’importe quoi….yet it makes us happy. Both of us, in our city avatars, are busy people - she with her academics and I with designing collections.

When I met Lily she was working in a school in another state and we only got to meet during vacations. I was once an avid letter writer and our friendship began through letters. We are bound by our love of travel, books and music… She is partial to Hindustani Classical Music particularly Ustad Rashid Khan and Pt. Ajoy Chakraborty while I have a more wide ranging interest but am drawn towards instrumentals and jazz. I have a modest library of books and I have shared the best ones with her. Her own stock of books is different – related to her studies though she does read Bengali journals and magazines voraciously. Both of us have enormous respect for the written word.

When she moved back to the city, we met more often. Lily is a good listener and, in the beginning, I had much to tell her but familiarity of all these years of being together has made words superfluous. Much like the art of writing letters, the art of conversation was dying. Sitting in that quiet place we were trying to resurrect it. We were surrounded by darkness, the sound of crickets, an occasional firefly flitting about. We consciously avoided using our mobile phones and realised that it was not very difficult. I was going through a very personal upheaval and Lily’s presence was calming.

Life like a many armed octopus, each arm leading outward to a whole universe of new worlds and returning back to a single source.....thoughts begin and move into an eternal, unfinished journey winding and weaving through a myriad of other worlds…...

In a world full of little moments –
Tucked in a fragrance, a feeling, a phrase......
Weaving a rich tapestry –
Of everything;
And sometimes nothing at all,
You bring me closer to my Earth.

We had forgotten what pleasure it was to have these kinds of rambling conversations amid unending silences without having the guilt that time was running out and things had to be done.

But time did run out in the virtual real world and the next day Basuda drives us back to Bolpur station where the waiting iron monster inexorably take us to the city and to our separate routine lives.

Sunetra describer herself as is eccentric; a philogalist, librocubicultarist, amateur author and artist who is brilliant in unimportant things. She trained at NIFT to become a designer while life had other plans. She is happy to be pottering about her workshop finding fault and complicating the lives of people who work for her.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Discovering the Extraordinary in an Ordinary Day


Housekeeping has become the focus of my life, for a while now. Its taken precedence over almost everything else. I did manage to make it to Couture Week and also do research and write a couple of articles. And I'm currently engrossed in discovering the story of Muslin, whenever I get time after the housekeeping chores. But work isn't happening in quite the same way as I've been used to. The mundane act of drinking tea, which inspired an enormous body of textile art, has now been overtaken by much more mundane tasks necessary for everyday living. The ordinary is demanding my attention.  I am finding creative ways to tackle this facet of being, but not without my fair share of griping and bitching, yelling and crying too. But it's got to be done, there's no-one else, so I've got to do it and relegate needle and thread to another life-time, it seems.
What I find the hardest to handle, is the staff. The thing I've discovered is that no-one listens. If you give instructions, the attention is clearly someplace else and things never get done as specified, which is soooo annoying!  It’s not really a workable solution, but I now insist they look at me while I speak and then make them repeat my instructions back to me. In doing so, whenever I remember to do it this way, I have found some reprieve. I'm reassured that I've been understood and black will be black and white, white.  I've been used to writing down what needed doing but at this point none of my staff are literate and it is getting very difficult. But, having said that, there are also some fun moments in the midst of all the frustration. 
This evening, I needed to get some packing tape. I was expecting someone to come see my work, which had recently returned from my exhibition in Kolkata. I would need the tape to repack the art-works, once I had shown them. I'm not a frequent visitor to the local market, so I wasn't sure where to go to get this. There is a Vyapar Kendra close by but it  is very strangely built and on the odd occasion that I have gone and discovered a shop that's useful, I've not been able to locate it on my next trip. And, I almost always get lost on my way out. Not wanting to go on a wild goose chase when my energy is not quite up to speed, I looked up Google for a shop I'd been to with a neighbour and knew that they stocked stationery items. There was a number to call, which I did. Thankfully, they had what I needed and kindly said they'd send someone to the outer gate once I got to Palam Vyapar Kendra. My neck and shoulder had been playing up and daily physio was helping but I was advised to cut down the swimming. I hadn't felt like swimming this evening, in any case, so I decided to cycle to PVK, as the market is commonly called. It's about a 12 - 15 minute walk, so it didn't take me any time at all cycling there.
When I called the shop, as planned, the call wasn't answered. I tried four times and eventually got a female voice who said it was the wrong number. Strange, I thought abhi toh meri baat issi number se toh hui thi. I walked into the only shop I know in this market and asked for directions for Memory Point, the stationery store. They very kindly sent someone to escort me there, which was gratifying.
I got my tape, clarified the phone conundrum, got their card for future reference and was heading out, when I spied a fruit and veg store. I didn't have my wallet with me, but there was some change left over from paying for the tape. It was enough to get 6 peaches, 1 kg Mussambi's for juice, a large beetroot to make a cold soup, some inspiringly aromatic pudina, ½  Kg pumpkin to make a delicious roast pumpkin salad with, some kundru for lunch tomorrow and drumsticks for sambhar. I just love drumsticks and the rest of the sambhar is incidental. I picked up an ample bunch, paid my bill and headed out with my bhajji shopping to my cycle which was parked outside Suraj Store where I generally buy the electronic stuff I need. I stuffed up the painted pink basket that my cycle has upfront, it was packed tight. The long drumsticks sticking out quite awkwardly.
As I hopped on the seat and began to pedal, I giggled to myself, imaging what I probably looked like to passersby. I mean it isn't exactly your everyday sight is it, to see a curly grey-haired  woman in culottes, cycling down the streets of Gurgaon, her pink cycle-basket stuffed to the brim with veggies, is it?
It was dark but even though the white culottes must have been clearly visible, sleepy Palam Vihar didn't seem to blink an eye. Or if they did, I didn't notice.
I've been feeling quite frustrated at having to give so much attention to things I hadn't done for over a decade. In order to function with some measure of equanimity, I've been telling myself : " I love housekeeping!" Repeating it over and over, allowing myself to feel a sense of pleasure doing the chores as I meditate each morning. Sometimes, like this evening, I surprise myself by doing things I haven't done for decades - and bhajji shopping is one such, where I've either ordered over the phone since the 1990's or someone's been around to do it. Today, I picked each peach myself, making sure they were just right to eat. I savoured the aroma of the mint leaves as I lifted a bunch off the shelf and realised that in telling oneself that you enjoy doing things you don't relish in the normal course of living, and you do end up doing just that! I had enjoyed the veggie shopping and loved cycling back home with my basket, full to the brim.
An ordinary became extraordinary, not just because I've not done bhajji shopping for a while and thus savoured it. But for being reminded just how one can work successfully towards mastering the mind in small but significant ways. It was this which made an otherwise uneventful, ordinary day, into a memorable one.