Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Beneath the Mahua Tree

2008 has been very good, because at last I am beginning to do some of the traveling I have wanted to do for so long. So while New Year was ushered in amid the scent of coffee at Coorg, this past week while on a trip to Delhi for work, Aneeth, Chinar and I set off to Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh for a day. Fittingly enough, our trip was on the 8th of March (Women's day).

We left Delhi at around 10.30pm, taking a cycle rickshaw to Nizamuddin Station, that lies just behind their house. That is something I really love about Delhi, how despite the addition of Noida and Gurgan to its area, in some pockets this old fashioned and charming mode of transport remains. Of course, as the traveller it's easy for me to say this, I don't have to pull overweight, fussing people behind me to earn money, but at least these drivers are living with dignity, both for themselves and for the environment.

We got on the train, earnestly setting our alarms for 5am, since that was when we expected to arrive at Lalithpur station. We were travelling by the Gondwana Express that finally stops at Hyderabad, so missing our stop was a very real fear, for after all in between bigger stations like Jhansi and Gwalior, where does Lalithpur stand? The train would at the most stop there for 5 minutes or less. Of course one can disembark from a train in 20 seconds if need be, especially if all they are carrying is one backpack, but anyway, we did not relish the prospect of renacting any scenes from the film "Jab we met".

Through the night, people came and went. We heard that Jhansi itself had not come, which meant that Lalithpur was far away. Finally we decided to get upright at 6am, and sit, wrapped in our shawls, waiting, as the sun poured into our coach.

At around 8am, we arrived. Chinar had arranged for a car to meet us, since Chanderi itself was an hour's ride away. Not wanting to waste anytime, since our trip was only for a day, we bundled into our taxi (a huge hulking Sumo) and set off, stopping once to pick up chai and breakfast.

The ride was lovely, amid fields where Mahua trees would suddenly rise up to stand solitary and defiant. On our left, all along the road, we could see the dam in the distance. Aneeth spent sometime speculating on several disaster theories regarding that wall, all of which could have been made into a blockbuster summer movie.

It was especially nice to make this trip with them. Chanderi is a town of weavers, and so visiting it with two textile designers gave me a unique perspective on it. In addition, Chinar had also lived in Chanderi for almost 8 months, completing her diploma project there.

We arrived, and checked into our hotel to wash and leave our shawls and bags behind. Its name was "Hotel Tana Bana", and its name and decor really belied its true nature. At that very moment there were individual designers, representatives from the company Fab India all staying there, while they conducted business in the town itself, which was a 10 minute walk away.

Above is the hotel's switch board, and though there is an electricity cut twice a day, just the shape and the design of this board itself is potent enough to tell you what the hotel is like. I would have to say that given a choice, I would like to try and stay in the village as Chinar had. Set just outside the town, and seemingly offering certain "creature comforts", the hotel still made me feel a bit awkward. It seemed to draw a line between us and them, the weavers that lived just over the hill.

Hitching a ride from a friend, we reached the main street of Chanderi. At that point,to tell you the truth, I was a little disappointed. I just saw a main road, with buildings that could have been out of Ahmedabad or even Delhi. It had no character as such, and was just uniform. Of course, I was to later find that this road was just a facade, behind it lay the 'real' town, with the homes of the weavers itself.

From what I now understand, the town gives its name to a special type of silk produced there. Like Mashroo from Gujarat, Chanderi silk is also a combination of silk and cotton (one is in the warp and the other in the weft.) Unlike Mashroo, where silk can be only be felt on one side with cotton on the other ( which was borne out of the fact that the Muslim Shahs of Gujarat could not wear any material derived from an animal on their skin), in Chanderi, cotton and silk are combined seamlessly. In fact, when held upto the sun, the material gives a beautiful shimmering effect, looking like water almost.

After our first stop-over at the Bunkar Vikas Sanstha, the organisation that Chinar worked with during her Diploma project, the three of us set off with a weaver who was working on a design of theirs. It was then that we walked into the old town of Chanderi.

The little alleys and painted walls were more than picturesque, as they twisted and rounded on themselves. Our guide was walking ahead with Aneeth, and each time I stopped to take a picture, Chinar and I found ourselves hurrying ahead to make sure we wouldn't lose sight of him. She had told me about the town earlier, talking about the sound of the wooden shuttle clacking back and forth. Follow the sound and you will find a weaver and his loom, she said. As I write this here, the fact sounds obvious and logical. But as you walk through that town, around corners and into bylanes, that sound drifts out to you on the wind, drawing close only to pull away. It is like the call of a siren, and it seemed that only our guide understood what it had to say.

We reached his house, a little compound set off from the others by an outer wall. Inside were around 4 houses, a joint family living and working together. In fact, the week before we arrived the whole town had celebrated 14 days of nikaahs and marriage ceremonies. Most of the youngsters had married into other families within the own itself. They didn't want to leave Chanderi.The house we were visiting was no different. At its entrance was painted a message to a newly wed couple of the family inside.

The architecture was beautiful with everything washed in white. The staircase leading up to the first floor emerged from the building itself, part of it and not added to it. We walked up, into a room where three looms stood, almost seeming to grow out of the roof itself through vines of silk thread in various colours.

We spent a long time there. I would say for myself, that I was glad to only be able to watch and not understand the technical aspects of the work itself. The movement of the shuttle and the sound itself were more than enough for me. The weaving work is so very fine, requiring immense patience, effort and care. The repetition of the design and the movement are hypnotic to all of one's senses. As I sat there, I felt and heard time slipping away.

In the silence, I found I had many questions to ask of myself, borne out of my firsthand view of their life and work. Can we apply our standards to their lives? Should we? The fact remains that they are now getting paid almost twice of what they used to receive, because of organisations like the Bunkar Vikas Sanstha. But what kind of life is it where a weaver gets Rs. 50 or so per metre of cloth that he weaves? In the world today where we are rediscovering the 'hand-made' are we forgetting that it is their hands that actually make ?

As designers/artists we continually question how sometimes our idea can be valued much more than that which helps it became a reality. I am not saying that the idea itself is not important, but the question I am asking is how much more important. In the west, such 'hand-work' is either dead or extremely exclusive. We must not head that way. The day when Chanderi silk is worn only by the rich who can afford to buy it at exclusive boutiques, is the day when the craft dies. So where do we draw the line?

I don't know.

That night, as we sat eating dinner on Bacchubhai's terrace, I looked up and found some portion of my answer. You see, the skies above Chanderi are dusted with silver stardust. Against the inky black night, they glow so brightly that they seem close enough to be touched. I close my eyes and breathe in deeply. There is silence all around. It is 8pm, and the town is at peace.

It is 8pm and I can hear myself exhale and breathe.


Anonymous said...

hi beautiful girl...it was so great reading this. i always love hearing about how people feel when they travel, and its stunning to me how deeply you engage every experience, and the thoughtfulness with which you encounter people. the pictures are wonderful.

who is chinar? is this a friend from nid who is working on textiles? how and when did you make this trip?

i am coming home on june 11. maybe, if you have some time, we can go somewhere together for a few days?


Piggy Little said...

i love your work....came here from bhumi's blog.....