Saturday, 19 September 2015

Tea and Tales from Tawang

Sela Pass
The cup of tea on the table in front of me is quite repulsive, to say the least. The container is squat, made of greyish, flimsy (possibly toxic) plastic that wobbles when held in the hand, threatening to spill out its contents. The tea, thick, dark brown and glutinous, is forming a crinkly skin on the top. It’s 7 am and I’ve just bought this brew at the Guwahati airport.

I’m seated on a large brown faux leather sofa in the VIP lounge. On another sofa, across me, Mr Nitin Gadkari, BJP ideologue and current minister for roads, is reading aloud a joke about the Congress on his cell phone and giggling happily along with his retinue. He is waiting for a helicopter to take him to district Zero in Arunachal Pradesh. I too am waiting for a chopper to get me to Tawang. 
A Stream by the Road
I drink the tea. It is hot, sweet and thick, as is all tea you might get at an airport – and nothing like the milk-less light Lipton Green Label I’m used to. I feel it travelling down my food pipe in a mass and hit the stomach. Instead of jerking me awake, as I had hoped (I’ve been up since 2 am to travel), it has a strangely soporific affect – and I fall immediately and deeply asleep. The next thing I know, I am being shaken awake: “Madam, the helicopter is ready, it’s 10 o’clock.” This is a commercial flight run by the state government and I go through the security check again and soon find myself on the tarmac, near the helicopter. Mr Gadkari and his group fly by overhead in a couple of Army copters. 
The Road to Twang, from the helicopter

The only other passenger in our chopper is a Washington Post journalist who is worried about altitude sickness in Tawang – the town is located 10,000 feet above sea level. Since I had not thought about this, I too begin to worry but not for long. Our helicopter takes off and soon we are engrossed in the visual delights outside our windows. We are travelling over hills clad in thick virgin forest, the green broken only by the pale thin ribbon of a road winding up and down endlessly. The road trip from Guwahati to Tawang takes about sixteen hours and the chopper ride a little over an hour. However, the latter is dependent on weather conditions and quite erratic.
White Tara at Lumla

We soon arrive at Lumla, and hover almost eye level with a huge, beautiful statue of White Tara, seated atop a hill. At the helipad, my host, the district commissioner of Tawang, has sent a Jeep and driver to meet me and soon we are on our way to Tawang Township. The air is crisp and cold, the temperature hovering around 12 degrees centigrade. The journey is an hour-and-a-half long over very bad road. Small waterfalls and streams trickling down the hillside, fields of brilliant yellow flowers, an occasional flowering rhododendron tree, a yak grazing in a meadow, prayer flags fluttering gaily from poles and rooftops, and people busy with their daily lives in the small village we pass are some sights that keep me visually engrossed and cushioned from bumps. 
Monpa women dancing
Tawang district is also known as the Land of the Monpa. The Monpa are an ancient tribe that migrated to Tawang and adjacent West Kameng district from Tibet and Bhutan over time. They are followers of Buddhism; in fact, the only Dalai Lama – the sixth – to be born in India took birth in Tawang in 1683. There are many myths and stories about his life as a child, his journey to Tibet and his eventual mysterious disappearance. In the mists of time, Tibet held sovereignty over Tawang and later China became involved. The McMohan line demarcated Tawang as Indian Territory in 1914, but China still lays claim to the area. In fact, Chinese troops over-ran the place in the 1962 Indo-Chinese war and later retreated when peace was signed. The bravery of the Indian soldiers in this war is commemorated through the War Memorial in Tawang and the Jaswantgarh War Memorial close by.
White Rhododendron

Tawang’s other claims to fame are the Tawang Monastery, said to be the largest in Asia, and the fact that when the current (14th) Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1953, he entered India through Tawang. I can see the sprawling Tawang Monastery’s buildings with their whiter than white walls and vibrant yellow roofs from the Circuit House where I am staying. The structure dominates the town which is built on the spines of a couple of green hills – and the entire vista is really as pretty as a picture.

Having arrived at the Circuit House, I proceed to ask Yadavji, the 
Monpa men with Yak dance costume
general factotum, for ‘separate’ tea which means that the hot water and tea leaves arrive in a tea pot accompanied by milk and sugar in separate containers as opposed to the thick curry-like masala chai which is a near universal favourite. The tea arrives on a tin tray with the three containers on it. But…. the teapot contains the hated masala chai, with additional sugar and milk in case I felt like making it sweeter or milkier! I swallow my disappointment and the tea, and head out to see the sights of Tawang.

There’s a fair amount to see within the small radius in and around town. 
Tawang Monastery

Tawang Monastery
The first stop, of course, is Tawang Monastery. We enter the ancient building into a courtyard that plays host to the annual Torgya monastic festival every winter. Up front is the assembly hall that is home to the 25-foot beautiful gilded statue of the Buddha. The room is festooned with banners, the floor has prayer mats on it and the walls are richly decorated with intricate murals and thangkas. Other buildings around the courtyard include a museum, an impressive library, storage for provisions and a cook house. Beyond are buildings that are home to the male monks and novices; every Monpa households sends one son here at a young age to learn the scriptures. 

Tawang Monastery
We then wind our way downhill to the modest Urgelling Monastery. It has some antique thangkas of the sixth Dalai Lama, prayer wheels, lamps for lighting, and other accoutrements of faith. On the first floor, in the hall, we find a priest and his family. I light the lamp at the altar and am invited to share tea with them. The Monpa butter tea or sueja is salty and made from jari or crude tea leaves that are churned together with a little milk, butter and salt in a long cylindrical churn made of bamboo or jan dhong. The sueja is served warm. The taste, though unlike the tea we’re used to, is pleasant and soothing; a certain sense of contentment falls upon me, brought on by the place and the tea.

Mentally shaking myself, I take my leave and we make our way further down to yet another monastery, Khinmey. This is a beautiful structure that has been renovated recently at the behest of the current dynamic Rinpoche. Inside, apart from the statues of deities and saints, the walls are covered with tantric (fairly erotic) paintings showing life in all its stages, especially the fate that awaits the wicked and the sinful.

Khinmey Monastery

By now it’s late in the evening and the temperature has dipped further. I decide to head back and turn in for the evening. Along the streets, especially in the market, the local people are busy transacting daily business. The Monpa are a good looking people. The young men and women sport the latest haircuts and clothing:  jeans, boots, jackets and scarves. I think that if you were to transfer them to, say, Bangkok or KL, they’d be quite at home. Not many wear the traditional gear - which uses a stunning combination of brick red and cobalt blue – everyday; it is usually reserved for festive occasions. 
Pond by the roadside

The driver informs me that yaks can sense the weather change and know it’s going to snow higher up so they rush downhill.

Yaks running downhill

The yaks are right. Weather rapidly deteriorates and it is raining in earnest by the time we hit Tawang. There’s a cultural festival on – the reason for my visit to Tawang -- and I leave my driver at the parking lot and walk down to the grounds where the festivities are organised. Luckily, it’s stopped raining but the ground is full of slush.
PT Tso Lake

Regardless, the place is bursting with activity. People from different tribes across Arunachal in their traditional, colourful costumes and beads, wearing exotic headgear and masks; men roaming around in the yak dance costumes or dance masks; musicians tuning their instruments; young and old monks; and the town people excitedly talking – it’s a scene that fills the senses. I cannot but help marvel at India and her diversity.  The governor of the state arrives and we witness local dances performed by five or six different tribes. My cup quite spills over with excitement and happiness.The yaks are right. Weather rapidly deteriorates and it is raining in.

PT Tso Lake
The only fly in the cup is the telecommunication in Tawang; it belongs to the dark ages. The Airtel service comes on for a few seconds then vanishes for hours. I can’t make contact with the driver, so I eventually hitch a ride with two young monks in a bright red Maruti 800 back to the Circuit House. 
Twang Monastery from the Circuit House
Much as I don’t want to, I have to think about getting to Delhi. Since there is no chance of the helicopter taking off in this weather, I prepare to embark on the sixteen-hour journey to Guwahati. Next morning, my host sees me off in a taxi at around 11 am. Leaving town, we descend and then ascent up to the snow covered Sela Lake and Pass at 13,500 feet altitude. Again I get that sense of the majesty of nature and our smallness in its face.
Yak Dancers
We drive steadily through virgin jungle along the road that I had seen from the helicopter. There is hardly any traffic and the road is seriously bad in several patches. I get the opportunity to feast my eyes of lush green, unspoilt forests that we are passing interspersed by valleys of incredible beauty. We reach Bhalukpong in Assam by 7.30 in the evening and start again at 6 am next morning, reaching Guwahati airport by about 11, well in time for my 1.40 pm flight back to Delhi.
A young Lama
Ever the optimist about tea, this time I go to the slightly upmarket restaurant at the airport so that I can try some excellent Assam tea. The ‘separate’ tea arrives. But a bag of Taj Mahal masala tea dangles in hot water in the pot. The waiter assures me that this is the only Assam tea he knows of. I give up! And console myself that home just a few hours away. The first thing I’ll do on reaching will be to make myself a cup of tea the way I like it.

Urgelling Monastery   

Ananda Swaroop is a itinerant traveller. An editor by profession, she edits corporate publications and is also the editor of garam masala chai. A watercolour enthusiast and practitioner, she works with the realist genre. Ananda lives and works in New Delhi, India.

Monday, 13 July 2015

How Do You Like Your Tea?


I haven’t been enjoying my morning cuppa for a while and it’s been bothersome because I like the idea of drinking tea in the morning. Coffee is too strong and something I indulge in only when I am really tired and need to keep going. Don’t get me wrong, I love the taste and aroma of coffee but it just wires me up too much. But while tea does add a dash of caffeine to my lazy morning start, it’s not a jolt; it enables a steady, watchful pace into the day.

I have been experimenting with all kinds of teas, mixing up unlikely leaves to get something, a new taste, infuse some flavour into a jaded palette. And, over the last couple of days, I have realised that I just want a sweeter brew. I want it milky and sweet and this is something new for me. For years now, I have kept both the sugar [well, I take sugar-free instead] and milk to an absolute minimum, to relish the flavour of the leaf – the essence of the tea –rather than bury it with the add-ons.

May be it’s just a phase. Maybe it’s the heat or maybe I am just feeling a bit lost in the mire of doing. I don’t really know at this point what is causing this change from the subtle to the robust taste of things, but it is something I have noticed and am curious about.

It’s taking me back into the watchful mode, making me look at my days, my feelings and thoughts in an active way which, with all that doing, all that work, that doesn’t really do much other than exhaust me and leave little room for reflection, has been enervating indeed. I love looking at life unfold. I like to see how miracles occur in the day, how my thoughts create or how things unfolding around me create my day – its events – not necessarily stuff that delights, but bringing forth anger and irritation and more. I have realised that it isn’t so much about being busy as it is about not being able to deal with the stuff inside, the emotional ups and downs through engaging with people and not getting the desired response, or having to deal with their energy levels which could well be at odds with mine. And over the past couple of weeks of some quieter moments, I have realised it mostly comes about because of judging the way that I feel.

I was coming out of the pool the other day and a young man of thirty-something, who had been playing with his wife and kids as I swam my 50 lengths in under 40 minutes [it’s a small pool so no more than 825 metres], commented on my stamina. He was a virtual stranger and I was taken aback and, in my awkwardness, didn’t exactly take the compliment with enough grace. And that made me start the old babble inside the head. I stopped myself saying, it was okay to have been awkward, I was taken by surprise and focused upon getting out and getting back to work, I hadn’t expected it. And it was unusual one, don’t you think? 

A few moments later, I did something else that made me feel guilty – even as I was asking something of someone, knowing full well why I was doing it. And it made me realise just how much one does tend to judge oneself for things.  Where does this judgement come from? Who has decided what is the right way and the wrong way to do things and live life?

I have just spent a whole twenty days tuning into the Hay House online summit and heard over thirty-five speakers over three weeks. It was very inspiring. I learned many things and certain things that I had experienced were given definitions and more in the same vein. But what I noted especially about the whole summit was that everyone spoke about different things. Some were scientists who had learned about the spiritual dimension through their work and some were just people who had been abused as children and found a way out. Others were people who had evolved deep philosophies for their own life which they shared as courses and books and stuff. What interested me most were the stories that everyone had to tell, where the most miserable of circumstances and enormous pain was not something that they allowed themselves to be stuck in, but through which they have found their own philosophy and techniques to live a better and happier life.  Often the ideas of one could seem to be in conflict with other speakers, but this is what made it a great lesson in non-judgement. It was so apparent listening to diverse voices from all parts of the world, from various disciplines of learning that anything and everything leads to a deeper understanding of the spirit of being. And that there really is no other path for everyone other than what your life has charted. It’s about the proverbial Mahabharata of our personal lives, not something that is understood or arrived at by renouncing the world. What we need to renounce is judgement that says this is right and this is wrong.

I was sharing this with a friend, who then asked but what would you say for a man who has just killed someone in road rage? We had been discussing a mutual friend’s sudden illness when the conversation turned to this as I was trying to explain the mind-body connection. I was telling her how illness is essentially caused by suppressing our feelings and not expressing them, for various reasons. She said would you condone the killer, would you say that it was not wrong? I didn’t have to think this one through because for me it was the same thing – the sick person and the one who carried so much rage inside of him were coming from similar spaces of suppressing their feelings, of not finding the courage to express. In effect, probably judging themselves for feeling whatever it was because someone, somewhere, had dinned it into their heads to either get over it and let go, or such like. Something we often do, when we cannot listen to another’s pain.

I also noted that some of the summit speakers impacted my mind more than others. I tried various techniques, choosing a few that fitted in well with the way that I liked to meditate and heal the chakras, etc. But, above all, what I enjoyed listening to was the way everyone had positive things to say about experiences that could debilitate the best of us into not feeling good enough, into not wanting to get up and face the day, into despair and depression. Non-judgement didn’t come from sitting and saying why did I say this or that, or why did I think this or that and feeling bad about it.  It came from an acceptance that what they felt and experienced was what they knew and that their experiences taught them. Once we become aware, things do change. Life was their teacher and this inference was uplifting. 

My need for a more robust flavour in life, for sweeter and milkier tea rather than the subtle was just something that I needed to allow to come into being, for it to reveal the change in the mental patterns and resultant body chemistry. Maybe I was more willing to experience life in a more robust way. Or, maybe I needed a more robust flavour to bring me back into the fray....whatever it was, who’s judging, right?

Thursday, 4 June 2015

A Potter’s Parable

When I was asked to write about my day trip to Bhopal, I was grouchy as always about more work. I suppose my quasi-Bengali genes were acting up with their inherent laziness, although they also impart a creative bent. I was to learn in more than one way that every story has two sides indeed. With the first nip of winter and crust of clay, my whole view of ceramic art, its crafting technicality and the toil it entails  were about to change. It was to change my own way of thinking and working too.

The year began at Art Ichol in Madhya Pradesh, where I have been working as Ambica Beri’s managerial assistant, with our first symposium of 2015 which was an international rendezvous of ceramists and visual artists from various countries. We hosted Sandra Black from Australia, Cynthia Seigel from USA, Isabelle Roux from France, Eugenia Loginova and Anatolii Borodkin from Latvia and Anjani Khanna from Mumbai. Aditi Saraogi from Kolkata curated the residency. 

Shyamla Hills Bhopal

Barely had everyone settled in, than they began to explore the ceramic centre and even get to work immediately. They all threw themselves at the potter’s wheel while discussing the kind of clay it was and a lot of stuff that I was clueless about. During the course of their stay and the symposium, I was to learn a lot. Their hard work was inspiring; in fact, it seemed like fun too! A whole new world of clay opened up for me as I watched them work. The symposium itself took place at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal and was a big success. Once everyone had made presentations of their work and process, we  had the rest of the day off to ‘potter’ about the antediluvian city. There are many unguarded secrets to Bhopal, a city steeped in ancient cultural legacy, mixed faiths and serene lakes. I hope that, given the opportunity, every reader finds time to discover their own Bhojpal. 


Whether it’s the windsurfers, open air-amphitheatre of Bharat Bhavan overlooking an almost Mediterranean vista or the canoeing competitions, Bhopal offers an unusual cityscape. The details are for you to find out. What I’d love to share with you is a beautiful folk tale about Kumbhars or potters. This tale is relevant to my trip to Bhopal, as not only was I accompanying several world-renowned ceramists during their residency in Maihar, I also knew next to little about ceramics, much less about our indigenous history regarding this craft.
Our art co-ordinator (a very able ceramist himself and Deputy Director of Bharat Bhavan) Mr. Devilal Patidar took us to the Museum of Man and the Tribal Museum. I must mention here that I was overwhelmed by both places. They are a great tribute to our country’s innumerable tribes and crafts. It made me proud of my country and its creative dexterity.

The Museum of Man is truly a comprehensive visual and tangible
anthropological catalogue spread over two hundred acres of open land in the Shamla hills. It is solely dedicated to the various ethnicities and tribes of our country and the only museum in the world to have on-site prehistoric caves and paintings in reference to the Bhimbetka belt. Mrs. Shampa Shah (again a proficient ceramist) was our guide in the museum. Without her we would have been clueless. She has spent the last twenty years of her life in the study and formation of the Museum of Man. It was from her that we learnt of the interesting story I’m about to narrate.
Bhimbetka Cave Painting

It was depicted in clay on the walls of an installation. This installation was a display of various clay pots and plates, each intricately designed with tribal motifs. All our resident ceramists present were impressed by the craftsmanship. The designs had names such as ‘hair-pin’ owing to the inherent nature and story related to the patterns. The display installation itself had reliefs narrating the story and was made from a leepi of cowdung, rice husk and maati or mud. This was coated with chuna or lime and decorated with lovely little round mirrors.
relief-stories on the walls

The story goes thus: the eunuchs of India were once being persecuted by the king’s people. While fleeing, they came by a potter’s barn and decided to hide within the clay pots of his fire kiln. The potter warned them that they would burn to ashes if they hid there. The eunuchs however were adamant and felt it would be a better fate to be cremated alive rather than face such insult. Being so tired from his work, the potter then happened to fall asleep while the kiln was on. The eunuchs were inside, well concealed but in danger of being set ablaze. The potter meanwhile, in his dreams, was being told to wake up for his pots had turned to gold. The exhausted potter didn’t wake up. Again he dreamed of being told to awaken for his pots had scorched and turned to silver. But the potter tired from making the big pots that unbeknown to him now concealed refugees simply could not muster strength to rouse from slumber. Finally, the potter dreamed that his pots weren’t being baked well enough and he awoke with a start worried his work would be ruined. But, in fact, some of his pots truly hadn’t been fired. Miraculously, these were the pots that hid the eunuchs; their lives were spared. Had the potter not been so devoted to his work, the eunuchs would surely have been incinerated. Thus the story goes that every potter invariably finds that some of his pots haven’t baked well enough. And the kind of vigil the visiting ceramic artists were to enact upon our return to Maihar made this story come so alive for me, as I sat with them participating in all that they did to propitiate the kiln gods, and the exhausted anticipation when the firing was done.

The fable also relates how humble yet hardworking the potter is. This I can vouch for, as during the residency with these ceramists, I noticed that they were so involved with their art that they’d even forget to eat. I was very inspired by all that I heard and saw at the Museum of Man and by Shampa too. Not to mention Mr. Patidar who apparently has a knack for finding rural and tribal artisans and making artists out of them - a man who discovers raw diamonds and in effect refines them. We also had the opportunity to meet a few of the potters who had worked at the Museum of Man for years. Shampa specifically mentioned how dedicated yet modest they were.
Outdoor tribal reliefs and carvings - Tribal Museum

The Tribal Museum too was a visual delight, impressive beyond any words. The contemporary and minimalist external structure had been ingeniously masked from the inside with traditional and ethnic real-life installations. It carefully documented the sociological events, artefacts, rituals of the indigenous peoples of Madhya Pradesh. No attention to detail had been spared. After our tour, while having the best masala chai at the Tribal Museum, we met yet another Tribal artist. With her splendidly tattooed face , Bhuri Bai was delicate, intricate and beauteous like her work. 
Bhuri Bai Painting an Installation
Once back in Maihar, everyone’s work had been removed from the bisque and glazing began. This was fun and new for all as the potters was working with new clay, new colours and no one knew what to expect. And after the history lesson in Bhopal, I was now going to see contemporary potters at their dedicated best. Glazing all done, the wood kiln was loaded up for the final firing. In keeping with tradition at the ceramics studio in Maihar, we had a little puja in front of the kiln and shared prasad. Anjani had made an exotic and weird owl of clay for a Kiln-God and Milan (studio assistant at Art Ichol) had made a little clay Ganesha to make offerings to. Anatolii did a wonderful drawing of Genia and Aditi sitting by the kiln with all the details like the Gods we made, the puja and the swastika on the kiln. Round the clock we kept watch of the kiln, stoking the fire, working hard, maintaining a log book and poking the wood in. Checking every now and then if all was in order, roasting potatoes in waste coals, buttering them and gobbling them up. We took turns for meals and some even delayed dinner to midnight. Exhausted after an eighteen-hour vigil, everyone was eager for the Kiln-Gods to reveal their secrets. Many artists were soot ridden and some even burnt here and there. But they were dedicated as ever until they collapsed into bed.

Though the whole trip had been a triumph, no victory was greater than the opening of the kiln. It was truly a moment, finding that almost all works had turned out perfectly and there was barely any damage. These potters successfully transformed clay through fire, making art in a small town in Central India and I had been a witness to it as if watching the birthing of clay gods.

I would have never penned this story if Gopika hadn’t pushed me to. It would have remained a whisper soon to be forgotten. Yet how relevant it was, given my scenario, and how wondrous! And as I wrote this story on an overnight train, first thing in the morning before reaching my destination, I discovered for the first time in my lazy 29 years how delightful it was to work early morning with a fresh mind. I’m glad I came, I’m glad I saw and I’m glad I unearthed the parable of clay.

Tanya Dutt is the Communications & Outreach Manager at Art Ichol. She co-ordinates activities at the centre and is currently working on a book she hopes to publish soon. She wrote her first poem about a cat at age 10 and since then discovered her penchant for the pen.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

A Proboscis and the Politics of Fear

It looked like a mosquito. Perched on the white ceiling, this small (but quite large for a mosquito) dark, lithe winged creature, hanging upside down beside the fan, caught my eye which had been quite distracted as I did my needlework today. Winding down for the night, doing some thread work, cradling a black stone-ware cup in my hands. Finishing a cup of not-so-hot Genmaicha (Japanese green tea with toasted rice), I was aimlessly looking around the room when I spied it. And I have to confess that I was more than just a little perturbed by its looming presence in my bedroom.
It was an unusually wintry March, so I couldn't quite put the fan on and swoosh it away with the power of the three-pronged circulating blades. I wasn't feeling very well in this unpredictable weather and started bargaining with the mosquito. Well I hadn't really done a thorough investigation, but the idea of it being a mosquito that could prick me into some dreaded malaria or dengue, in this rather chaotically busy phase of my life, alarmed me. Therefore, I decided to stick with that possibility as a probable certainty and plead my case. Even so, I first called out for its identity.

It stayed very still. I pleaded with it to spare me. I had enough problems on my hands as it is, I said. My cracked toe-bone hadn't exactly hampered my movements but all that organising of things that were rushing into my life was a bit of a brain-screamer. I felt these buzzing creatures must know a thing or two about such a state of mind. I tried being friendly. You know, just a couple of casual questions and stuff, hoping that it would respond amiably.

Not a flicker I noted. But looking some eight odd feet upwards, towards the ceiling, I didn't find my eyes focussing too well. It could have twitched a leg or its proboscis and I doubt I would have seen it. The mosquito seemed a little fuzzy - the details of its form were not very clear to the naked eye. It felt almost like a picture taken out of focus that I was zooming into, on the computer. It didn't exactly pixelate as on the screen, but the fact is that a fuzzy vision wouldn't see those pixels either, would it?

Anyway, the mosquito wouldn't budge, nor reassure me that no attack was planned for tonight. Or, that I wasn't the target. So I decided to arm myself with some repellent. I felt rather intimidated by this minuscule creature hanging upside down; waiting, until I had turned out the lights and could no longer see it, to buzz into my space and lunge for my blood. Infecting me with whatever dirt it had picked up on its flight path to my bedroom.

I searched high and low. I looked in every conceivable place that I may have kept the packet. And then, I remembered that I must have kept them in the half-unpacked toilet bag, which had recently returned from its journey accompanying me to Sangrur. I hadn't needed them there or in Maihar, before that. And the sudden cold and rain in Gurgaon didn't predict mosquito season anytime soon. So a careless unpacking had left them in the bag which, thankfully, I found soon enough.

In my feverish hunt, I had eyes only for the repellent. The mosquito
had seemed resolute and unmoving so I concentrated on finding the mosquito-repellent patches. I know that not everyone's convinced that they work, but surely the reeking citronella must have some effect? When I found them, I hurriedly opened a foil-cum-plastic pack of two and clumsily fumbled in my anxiety to be forearmed in a moment of imminent and unpredictable attack. I finally tore it open and pulled out the citronella-soaked, round, green patch and waved it at the mosquito in glee. Looking up at that spot, to the left of the fan, where it had stayed an interminably long time, I found that the not-so-small mosquito had slyly abandoned its perch. Now, it was nowhere to be seen, depriving me of my moment of triumph. Typical!

On auto-pilot mode, not wanting to think about the implications of the scene that had just unfolded, I placed the bright, lime-green, inch-long-diameter, that sticky and circular thingamajig onto my white tee shirt. I was more just a bit peeved by the antics of the mosquito and more so by the design of the mosquito-repellent patch. Neither of which did much for my self-esteem.

This protective patch that was my supposed shield against mosquito attacks, if not quite the knight in shining armour, bore a rather disproportionate drawing of a silly looking female bear, with a big face on a tiny little body, snugly fitted into a tight red dress. Her lips smudged, with an overdose of matching red lipstick. And between the ears, drawn strangely above the head, was something that must have been intended to represent a floral clip. It was mostly pungent lime-green with just a thin, curly-whirly, red outline.  It was the outline that made me think it must be something floral. Her head was turned upwards, eyes as if mooning after a gob-smacking kiss that had smeared the red lipstick all over her bearish nostrils. I looked at it, took in the whole picture, crinkling my nose at the now over-powering smell of the repellent and this unlikely figure that had emerged from the pack as my protection.
But I didn't have the courage to take it off. Beneath the strains of Rachmaninov that were filing the night, it could be buzzing anywhere. And sure enough, a short while later, I spied it, right there crawling beside the fan, in almost the exact same place I had first seen it. Making me wonder at my eyesight and the way this mosquito had succeeded in playing tricks with my mind. Fear does that to you doesn’t it?

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Textile Traditions of Kutch - [Part I]I . Guest Post by Archana Shah, Founder-owner of Bandhej

The art of block-printing on cotton cloth has been practised for over 5,000 years. Excavations at the Indus Valley sites (Kutch has over 26 Harappan sites, Dholavira being one) provide evidence that block-printing on cotton cloth in geometric patterns was practised during that period. 

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, has more than a thousand pieces of resist-printed and mordant-dyed fabrics, dyed in madder and indigo from the 11th century. These were found at Al Fustat near Cairo. The designs have a basic geometric pattern similar to the prints from Kutch. 

Kutch is known for the resist printed Ajrakh prints, worn only by men, the Maldhari communities of Banni and Pachcham. The unique feature of Ajrakh is that the fabric piece is block-printed on both sides, with the block impression matching exactly, making it a reversible cloth. This requires exceptional skill. The fabric goes through some 16 stages and it can take three to four weeks to complete the process of creating an Ajrakh. 

Maldhari wearing Ajrakh
This multipurpose cloth, greatly cherished by the pastoral Maldharis of Kutch and Sindh, is wrapped around the head as a safa, worn around the waist as a lungi, or used as a shoulder cloth. When it gets old and worn out, it is commonly used as backing for patchwork quilts. Apart from the Ajrakh, the block-printers of this region printed and dyed fabrics for the women of various communities living in Kutch.

In 1977, I had an opportunity of working with an Ajrakh artisan, Khatri Mohammad Siddik. NID was offered a design project by the Gujarat State Handloom and Handicraft Corporation, which had started a chain of retail stores called Gurjari.

The brief was to design a collection of printed surfaces using the traditional printing techniques from Dhamadka, a village known for its ancient art of Ajrakh printing. I was sent to Dhamadka with Sulekha to learn from this experience. We were to stay for a fortnight with Mohammad Siddik and his family to study their printing technique, work with them and design the collection.    

Sulekha and I were the first outsiders to have ever come to this village to produce a collection of textile products for an urban market. No one from Dhamadka had ever visited an urban centre or interacted much with people from the city. Having two young unescorted city women in their midst was a source of great curiosity. The people of the village were initially apprehensive about our living with a Muslim family. Luckily, Mohammad bhai, a well-respected man, was able to pacify the local people.

At that time, the village had no electricity, so the day started at sunrise and ended at sunset. Mohammad bhai’s workshop was across the road from his home. Early morning, he would go there to start preparing the colours for the day’s production. Through the day we worked at the workshop, gaining practical knowledge about the printing process and after dinner, Mohammad bhai would tell us stories about their history, his work and life in the village. Through these storytelling sessions, we also gathered a wealth of information about the process of block-printing, the preparation of vegetable and natural dyes, and their traditional designs.

Living with Mohammad bhai’s family at Dhamadka was a great learning experience and it became the foundation for a lot of my future work, an association that continues even today.

Over the years, Mohammad bhai was invited by many museums to demonstrate his craft and received my honours. His three sons, Abdul Razak, Ismail and Jabbar, continue the tradition. They have mastered the art of natural dyeing and have taken the craft to new heights of excellence.

It is very hearting and a great honour that Mohammad bhai's son Ismail, who is not educated in the conventional sense, was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Arts by the De Montfort University, UK, for deep understanding and knowledge of his traditional craft of dyeing and printing.  


Three years later, the same university honoured Amitabh Bachan.
Bandhani, or Bandhej, derived from the Sanskrit word bandh, to tie, is a resist-dyeing process of creating a dot pattern. The tie-dye method is a simple technique, which ensures that the dye is prevented from reaching certain portions of the fabric which is tied, stitched or crumpled. This is one of the most basic of all textile arts and, for centuries, different forms of tie-dyeing have been practised in many parts of the world, including India, Japan, China, Southeast Asia and the various African countries.

The processes involved in tie-dyeing in India are basically the same today as those that have been practised since ancient times, with the exception of chemical dyes and bleaching, introduced in the late 19th century. 

Tying the Fabric - creating the dots

The most widely used element in bandhani fabrics is the simple dot or ring. Complex dot patterns are created by pinching and tying the fabric following a prescribed pattern before dyeing. Bandhanis are considered auspicious and worn by both Muslim and Hindu brides. An intricately patterned saree can take over eight to ten months to tie before dyeing, requiring great patience and skill.

During my trip to Mandavi in 1976, while walking through the old market area, I first discovered the fascinating bandhani technique. It was at a narrow, crowded lane, full of shoppers from various local communities, each wearing a different bandhani odhana, a head covering. As we made our way along the road, we chanced upon an elderly man tying knots on a white fabric as he sat waiting for customers outside his shop. 
This seemed rather unusual and we paused to see what he was doing. Khatri Alimamad Hasan Nironawala welcomed us to his small shop and showed us many odhanis and chundadis used by the local communities.   

As we were curious, he explained the process of making bandhani fabric and added that, though the women of all communities wore chundadis in the same combination of red and black, the designs and the colour distribution was unique to each community.


From the odhani worn by a woman, one could identify her community, while the colour and style of her clothing revealed much more, such as her marital status and age. Noticing our keen interest, Alimamad bhai invited us to visit his house where his son, Ismail, demonstrated the process of creating bandhanis. 

We were amazed to see how very basic tools were used to produce the most precious bandhani fabrics. The tying of the knots is done using a pointed thimble and the tip is used to push the fabric, which is pinched and tied. The cotton thread is passed through a fine glass tube, in order to prevent the thread from getting entangled.

In the Khatri community, a young girl contributes to the family income from the time she is nine or ten by tying the bandhani dots. In most cases, the family does not use her earnings, but puts it aside for her wedding expenses. The birth of a girl or boy child is equally celebrated by the Khatri community. It was heartening to hear a Khatri, Haroon bhai, say, ‘Amari chhokri koi divas bhare na pade.’ (Our daughters are never a burden.)

More than 25,000 people in Kutch today earn from bandhani. Seeing the potential for earning a livelihood while working within the comfort of one’s home, women of other communities have also started learning these skills.

With the traders demanding cheaper and cheaper goods, the quality of bandhani production has, unfortunately, deteriorated. There are a few hundred artisans who continue doing very fine work. With an urban patron willing to pay high prices for exceptional quality, there is hope that the craft will survive.


I was so inspired by all that I saw in Kutch and particularly the bandhani technique, that in the early 1980s, when I started my company to design and manufacture handcrafted clothing, I named it Bandhej – which celebrates my ties and bonds with this region. I incorporated some of the clothing styles that I had seen in Kutch into my designs, which continue to be popular.

Collaborating with craftspeople has been one of the most fruitful experiences of my life and I have learnt as much about human relationships as about craft processes and techniques. It has become the base for my design vocabulary and has had an immense impact on my visual language and design practice.

Meghwal-woman with godadi

Over the years I have strove hard to work with artisans towards improving their crafts, building upon their skills and knowledge by suggesting contemporary design directions and providing a market for their produce. In the process, Bandhej has played a modest role in rejuvenating many dying traditional crafts. I personally take it as a challenge to innovate and find new design directions for the same craft, season after season, year after year and we continue to work with artisans we once start interacting with, an association that in many cased has continued for over 30 years. Our efforts have had a rolling effect. Seeing the economic viability, many young artisans are encouraged to continue working with their tradition skills.

Apart from the beauty, craft offers a sustainable livelihood to many, next only to agriculture. A little intervention, support and exposure can revive crafts while offering a meaningful and dignified livelihood to many million. Over the years when great craftsmanship prospered, there was a patronage to support such production. Local communities used the artefacts produced by local artisans. The royalty and wealthy clients commissioned the production of high quality textiles. There was an appreciation and a market to support craftsmanship. With the disappearance of these traditional patrons, for the crafts to flourish today, the artisan needs new consumers.

Bhujodi - weaving
In the past, the artisan was in close contact with the users and understood their needs and requirements. The fashion conscious urban market regularly needs something new, a concept alien to the traditional craftsman. There is an abundance of skill but applications have changed and the artisan is at a loss as what to produce. In this situation, it is heartening to know that a few craftsmen continue their old tradition. Participating in exhibitions at urban centres has given the young artisans an exposure to new urban markets. Many continue to work within the parameter of their traditional skill, developing new products without diluting their inherent technique and identity.

The European Union has a new slogan: The future is handmade. To make this a reality, and for craft skills to survive and blossom, apart from a massive commitment from the  government to support such initiatives, it would require innovative and sustained design and marketing intervention by professionals who understand the needs of this new, ever-changing market while respecting the skills and labour of the artisans. India has a wealth of rich craft skills but it needs a new direction, a new application and a new patron.

Bhujodi - weaving

Archana Shah is a graduate of NID. Inspired by all that she saw in Kutch and particularly the bandhani technique, in the early 1980s, when she started her company to design and manufacture handcrafted clothing, she named it Bandhej – thus celebrating her ties and bonds with the Kutch region. 

She has also written a visually sumptuous book on Kutch titled ‘Shifting Sands’ published by Bandhej. To buy the book at a special discount, contact: