Travels in Textiles


Saturday, 27 February 2010

Some pictures of jewellery I've making out of cut offs of Indian printed fabrics, collected buttons, beads and other stuff.

I'll be selling these at the Dignity Craft Fair in Didsbury, Manchester on Saturday 13th March as well as in my Folksy shop online.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Some videos I shot during my trips to India.

This one shows a Rabari wedding I attended. The Rabaris are a cattle herding community of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India and Sindh in Pakistan. The men own and herd cattle while many of the women are embroidery artisans. They learn the art from a young age and spend the years leading to marriage producing items for their dowry. These include clothes she and her future husband will wear, gifts for the in laws and decorations for her new home. You can see in this film how decorative and intense the embroidery is.

Marriage is a huge and profound moment in the lives of the rural communities . They bring together men often separated by work and provide opportunity for women to bond.

This film shows a unique celebration of thirty five marriages happening all at the same time in the town of Bhuj in Kachchh, Gujarat. This is an unusual occurrence, but it happened that there were so many engagements happening over a period of time that they decided to celebrate them all together in one huge ceremony.

The weddings are celebrated on Lord Krishna's birthday, and as well as being a celebration are a series of symbolic gestures of which the embroidered cloth plays an important role.

On the 26th January 1950, India declared itself as a Republic and has since been annually celebrated as a holiday. This video was taken on 26th January 2010 so it was the 60th birthday of India as a Republic.

On the same date in 2001 there was a devastating earthquake in Gujarat. Bhuj was badly affected. So for the people of this region it brings back tragic memories but also reminds them of their collaborative efforts to re-build their lives and positive thoughts for the future.

Concerts like this are quite rare in Bhuj as these musicians are from various villages around Bhuj in the desert region of Kachchh. Some villages are very isolated and so provide the musicians with difficulty to get together with other fellow musicians. There was first a concert a 7 am which fitted beautifully with the sun rising, There was then a concert a sunset which saw a huge gathering of listeners. A unique event that brought locals, tourists, musicians and others from far off places together to listen to some lovely traditional Kachchhi tunes.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Experimental, innovative and contemporary block prints

The next day I managed to visit the other Juned and his father Abdul Raheman. Another graduate of KRV, Juned had produced some pieces inspired by Islamic architecture and prayer mats. I tried to learn some of the names of the traditional designs and he showed me all the dyes they use. Juned himself uses all natural dyes, including myrobalen, tamarind powder for a thickener, shells from Mandvi beach where lime is extracted from for use in the mud resist paste, indigo, madder root, dried pmegranate skins, turmeric and others. He introduced me to his brother Faiz Mohammed who also block prints but uses chemical dyes. Chemically dyed ajrakh tends to be for local and cheaper markets such as Gamthiwalas in Ahmedabad and other market sellers in the cities.

I learnt that Juned's uncle is Mussabhai, whom I met on my last visit so asked if he could take me to his house, which he did and I was greeted by a huge group of excitable children, some of whom were his grandchildren, and extended family, and neighbours. So before getting to see any textiles I had to spend about half an hour taking photos, which was fun at first but when asked to take one of each individually and then different combinations I started to get impatient to chat to Mussabhai and his son Auresh.I eventually escaped but was still jumped on and asked to take more every so often while in the cloth haven. Mussabhai is quite an outgoing character and even though he doesn't speak much English, talks as much as he can. While showing me his son Auresh's work, poor Auresh hardly got a word in. Auresh, only 18 years old is another graduate of KRV. While showing me his son Auresh's work, poor Auresh hardly got a word in. Auresh, only 18 years old is another graduate of KRV and Mussabhai had plenty of reason to be hugely proud of his son's work as he had produced some beautiful pieces. I was in awe at every single one and didn't mind taking each ones' photo as Mussabhai eagerly asked me to.
I love this one of the horses. Its so different from any of the other prints I've seen. He had a really good eye for pattern and colour. He used only natural dyes on silk and produced a large collection of dupattas and some saris too. I wanted to buy some but they were saving them for an exhibition. I'd love to exhibit some of them here so said to Auresh to let me know what he's got left after the exhibition, probably none if everyone likes them as much as me!
Sale Mohammed had also produced some beautiful innovative prints for his KRV graduate collection. It consisted of women's garments such as short kurtas, skirts and trousers. HIs collection focussed on placement of blocks. He had used the composition of a traditional block, taken the design away and replaced with his own new design. He used both chemical and natural dyes, and I have to say I prefered the colours the natural dyes had produced as some of the chemical produced prints were more a little garish. He's done well in experimenting though.

Saturday, 6 February 2010


When I went to visit Judy at Kala Raksha, I told her about my study into block printing and she gave me some contact details for some of the block printers in Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka.

I set out to Ajrakhpur on the bus 10 km outside Bhuj. As usual I had to ask people to tell me when I arrived at the village, because there was only a tiny sign on the side of the road when we arrived and no early ones saying how far it was.

I had arranged to meet Juned Abdul Raheman one of the graduates of KRV, but on arriving I met Sufiyan who's father is Dr. Ismail Mohammed Khatri, a well known ajrakh artisan and business man. He received and honary doctorate from Leicester de Montfort and has collaborated with Eiluned Edwards on her ajrakh block printing research.
I'm not sure I had arrived at the best time, as just after I turned up so did Ismail's two brothers - Abdul Razzak and Abdul Jabbar. I recognised all of them immediately from my visit two years ago when on tour with Carole Douglas, and to my surprise they recognised me to. They didn't seem to mind me being there though and I was offered tea while they seemed to have a business meeting of some sorts. They looked so important and wise all sat there in their long beards, turbans and all white clothing, I felt quite odd out! I was later told that they are investing in some new land to share between all of their block printing businesses so wondered if that was what they were discussing.

After they had finished Ismail seemed to have plenty of time to answer my questions. He informed me that the market for ajrakh is currently very strong, mainly for the internationally and Indian companies like Anokhi and Fab India. They always use natural dyes now because these are more popular in the high end international market. This has meant the local market which was once very strong and their main market, has completely disappeared due to the high prices and the availability of cheaper synthetic cloths. Traditional Ajrakh is selling well, but new designs are also coming in with the help of companies like Fab India and Maiwa in Canada.

The main worry for the printers currently is the ever decreasing water levels. Water is vital for the printing process. Twenty years ago they relied on a nearby river, but it has since dried up. A well was dug but this has gotten deeper and deeper as the water levels go down. This is partly due to dams being built in Pakistan on the river Indus to benefit the Punjab but doing the opposite for Sindh, north of Kachchh, meaning very little is reaching Sindh and Kachchh. They are trying to find money to work on new irrigation systems but there are all sorts of complex political problems and government red tape that are delaying anything happening.

Sufiyan's brother and Ismail's second son Junaid (I am still trying to work out who's who amongst all the block printers - there's a few with the same names and big families, and they always take on their father's name as their middle name and call themselves by both too, which makes it even more difficult!) is also a KRV graduate. As I am looking at how ajrakh is being interpreted in a contemporary way, it was interesting to see how they have achieved this. Junaid has been experimenting with using traditional blocks but in new block combinations and colour combinations.

Sufiyan and Junaid showed me what was being printed and talked me through their work. I took photos and videos. I was then invited to stay for lunch at Ismail's which I was delighted to find was very tasty and spicy fish. It felt like a luxury after having the same palak paneer, aloo and chana for the last two weeks. I then bought a sample process of Ismail which I had been hoping to take home and exhibit in an exhibition that will be held in Macclesfield in July. - Fold. It will feature quilts from different ages and countries. There will be a section on Ajrakh because the cloth has been used for centuries for traditional Ralli quilts in Gujarat, Sindh and Rajasthan.

Just as I was about to leave I met a lady from Cornwall called Viviene Prideaux. It happened that she was staying at the Gangaram and I kept bumping into her after that.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Ahmedabad part 3 - Rabari cattle herding, dancing and thali eating

On arrival back to Ahmedabad after my trip to Pethapur about 3pm, I was exhausted and hungry, I hadn't yet eaten that day. The bus dropped me off near Ellis bridge, so I walked over in the direction of the lovely Green house restaurant in the House of MG. I encountered the SEWA (Self-employed Women's association) on the way though, which I had been meaning to visit, so stopped and had a look. There was another Western girl there, so I asked her if it was open and how to get in. After establishing it was closed for lunch we got chatting, and it turned out we were both from Sheffield. I told her I'd just been to visit Maneklal, and she said she'd also been there the day before. and when she said she was doing her phd in ceramics at Sunderland University, and was on a 6 month research trip in different parts of India, I remembered seeing her visitor's book message, the last one before I wrote my message. She was staying at the 'Arts Reverie' on an artist's residency, a place where I had visited last time and met with Barney Hare-Duke, the co-founder in Manchester. To add to the coincidences, I found out a few days later through an e-mail from her and my mum, that our mums, both nurses had met each other in Sheffield around the same time. How bizarre! There can't be a trip to India without bumping into to someone you know or knows someone you know. Last time it was Georgie whilst at Anokhi, who lives with the best friend of a friend of mine from university.

The afternoon was spent visiting Gamthiwala's the huge block printers and sellers, and shopping in the market.

The problem with trying to do things on your own but whilst staying with a group and wanting to join in on some of their trips, was their constantly changing itinerary. The day after I had visited Pethapur, I had planned to join the group to visit a tie-dye workshop and a remote rabari village. In the morning we got in the car to set off, and I asked what exactly was the plan. 'We're going to visit a block-carver in Pethapur this morning'. You can imagine my frustration. I decided to go anyway as Monit informed me they weren't visiting Maneklal but a different block carver, and I wanted to visit the Rabari village with them after. It took us 45 minutes to get there.

We visited Mukesh and his family. He seems to be the main provider of blocks for Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka. We had tea and were shown the process.

The process - Sagwan wood is used. The older, the better the quality. It is left to dry out for 12 - 15 months . It needs to be completely dry to be able to carve. The block of wood is levelled out with a plain, filed and treated with a to smooth out the surface. It is then coated with a layer of white poster paint so the design is visible when carved. A grid is drawn on the block and is traced through the paper design onto the wood. the amount of blocks for each design depends on the complexity of the design. The main three are the rekh which is the outline block, the gudh - background and dutta, the fillers of motifs. Designs are sent to them in full colour, and the carvers split the design into each of the above accordingly.
That afternoon there was a long drive out to a village called Samou, what seemed like miles out of Ahmedabad. I have since looked for the location on a map, and it is far north of Ahmedabad and north even of Patan, where I remember visiting last time for its beautiful patola weaving (double ikat weaving). If I'd have know I would have asked that we stopped by there on the way!

Samou is mainly occupied by Rabaris - a large community spanning much of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and some areas further south. There are many sub groups each identified by their clothing. But generally they stand out from any other people, the men for their all white outfit of gathered jackets and baggy dhotis, and the ladies for their black shawls covering up bright colours underneath and jewellery all up their ears.
I don't thinks any of them had seen a white person before let alone a big group of girls such as us. The Indian students helped translate but they couldn't always understand the local Gujarati dialect, being quite different from Hindi. So there was a lot of amusement trying to understand each other, and being as in awe of them as they were of us. There were a lot more of them though and we were constantly surrounded by the girls giggling and asking for photos, asking us our name and where we're from.

It was Hayley's birthday and both us and the villagers took great delight in dressing her up in their wedding saris. After this it was time to bring the cattle in. Me and Tatenda were at the back of the group as everyone walked to where the cattle were coming in. We were rushed onto a bank and didn't realise at the time but the reason was that there were about 50 cows charging round the corner. If we were a few seconds later moving we ma have been trampled! It was quite an exciting sight though. I think the shepherds loved showing off their animals.

We were supposed to go and visit an NGO in a nearby village, but we were so exhausted after all the commotion in Samou, that we decided to head back, especially as it was a long drive and we planned to go out for Hayley's birthday meal.

This we did. Rajwadu, a magical little gem hidden from the business of Ahmedabad's streets. As you enter, you feel like you are going back in time. It feels medieval. There are lots of passageways with candles in the walls, then the next has drapes of colourful fabric making a tunnel, then you arrive in a courtyard holding shrines, floor paintings and a big ceramic font with floating marigolds. After being welcomed we were lead over a little bridge over a sort of moat, down a few more passageways and into another large courtyard where we were entertained while awaiting our meal.
There was music and dancing, including a lady dancing with a huge pile of pots on her head and a man on a pantomime horse. Then they urged us to join in which the Indian students did enthusiastically and us reluctantly, but got into it after a while. The Indian boys loved showing off their moves and there was a big dance off between a few of them and a performer. After being sufficiently entertained, we were took to our table. The Indian students had bought Hayley 2 birthday cakes and had them suitable iced to the max saying 'Happy birthday Hele'! We sang Happy Birthday, she blew out the candles and cut the cake. We ate the cake before the main meal, as is the custom in Gujarat - They believe its better for the digestion. Something to do with the sugars giving your insides more energy to digest your meal more efficiently.
Then came dish after dish of tasty traditional Gujarati delights. I have no idea what any of these are called. I should know by now, as I recognised a lot of them, having had them many times before, but always forget what they're called. Next time I'll write them down. We got suitable full that I couldn't move afterwards, and remembered I had to go straight to catch a a train! Luckily the food went down quite well so the train journey wasn't too unbearable. Hayley definitely had a memorable day.

Ahmedabad part 2 - Block carving

I told Errol at NID that I planned to visit Maneklal Gajjar the famous master wood block carver who has for decades produced carved blocks for many block printers all round Gujarat, Rajasthan and other Indian states. He gave me a detailed description of how to get to Pethapur where Maneklal lives and known for its block carvers. It is about 30k outside Ahmedabad near Ghandinagar.

So I set off the next day determined to meet this man who is so widely praised.
I arose early in hope of avoiding busy traffic, jumped in a rickshaw, which took me to the wrong bus stand, which I realised after about half an hour and asking about 10 people. I then got another rickshaw to the right bus station, which took ages as we were travelling at peak shopping time through the market. I finally arrived and waited about half an hour, standing under pigeon riden roofs, which luckily didn't poo on me, for the Ghandinagar bus. This took about 45 minutes. On arriving i was advised to pay 10 rs for a shared rickshaw, but I couldn't find any shared ones so asked an individual one to take me to Pethapur. He tried to charge me 60 rupees which I argued but he didn't lower it. Then came along a polite young English speaking lad who offered to help, and said why don't I get a bus. So he took me to the local bus station and asked the man calling out bus information announcements which one I should get. No one else spoke English, but the nice man found a girl who was getting the same bus so said to stick with her. I definitely wouldn't cope in India on my own without the kind help of the locals. I was very grateful and we exchanged e-mails, he hoped to visit England as he had relatives there.

The local bus didn't take long to get to Pethapur, and on arriving at the central bus stand, I asked the local pan wallah, as advised by Errol, where Maneklal lives. There was some discussion between themselves in Gujarati and then: 'He's gone to Ahmedabad to see his daughter'. I couldn't believe my bad luck. It had taken me about three hours to get there, and he was back where I'd just come from! So I asked where his house was anyway, and they pointed down the road. I found it and saw a big sign above 'Maneklal Gajjar, Award winning block carver'. I sighed and thought well, at least I tried. Just as I was about to head back though, two men opposite gestured at me to go up. I hesitated, walked inside and saw stairs so checking again with them started to climb, and there was an old man just sat there. I expected there to be a door I could knock on, and felt rude just walking in. I called his name, and he said to come up. I introduced myself and apologised for not calling before I arrived. - I didn't have contact for him except an address.

I knew it was Maneklal when I saw him as his retina was damaged and he couldn't see very well - I'd been informed of his poor eyesight. I'd seen pictures of him from a while ago and he'd aged a lot since then. He started telling me how much he wished he could continue his carving, that he would carry on for ten more years if he could get his retina fixed. He was 81.

After calling for some help, he took me up to his workshop and took out all his blocks and talked through the process. He was very proud of his work, and mentioned a few times that his work is exhibited all over the world. At the Calico museum, the V&A in London, museums in America, Japan, Thailand and more. I took a lot of photos and said I'd send them him, I bought a few blocks and said I would update him on my work, wrote in his visitor's book which was full and after I saw how pleased with it he was, I didn't feel as guilty for turning up out the blue, he obviously loves having visitors to show his work to.
His helper, Chetan was also a block carver, one of the few left in the village. There used to be about 25 workshops, now there are only 4 or 5. Maneklal said he thinks the art will be gone in the next 50 years. New technology is taking over, and people can no longer afford the cloth that has taken so much time and skill to produce. Young men are less likely to learn block carving now because of this. Maneklal didn't have any sons to pass it onto, although he taught a few young men in the village.
I was invited to Chetan's house and met his wife, 1 year old daughter and his nephew. His wife made me tea, and he showed me his and his father's blocks. He produces a few for Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka where I would be visiting later in the trip, and for other designers.

He then kindly escorted me to the bus stop and I took the same route back to Ahmedabad, again with the help of a few friendly locals.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Ahmedabad part 1 - Calico, Bhandej, NID

I've realised I haven't yet talked much about Ahmedabad, so I will re-live my experiences there.
I was staying with the MMU students for the five days I was there, which was nice as the university paid the accommodation and we just had to contribute to the transport and food. I spent some of the time taking visits on my own and joined the group for some of their trips, depending on what was relevant for my research or what I fancied for the enjoyment!

I spent a day studying at the Calico museum, a well established and known museum set in beautiful buildings surrounded by peaceful gardens. It was as usual a palava trying to get permission to spend time in the galleries on my own (the gallery is only open to the public for an organised tour 10.30 - 12.30 daily). I was lucky because the great Anne Morrell who has been kindly helping me with my research being an expert in India and textiles and works as consultant for the calico, arranged a visit for me. It took some time to get this clarified but it happened in the end. It was so nice to spend time looking and reading in the galleries without being rushed along by the impatient tour guide!

Another day with the group we visited Bhandej - a high end group of stores producing clothes and luxury goods incorporating high quality craft skills from around India. We visited the shop and then the factory to see and learn the production process. They mainly produce for their Indian shops and only a small percentage of their sales is for export. The factory was similar to the Anokhi factory but on a smaller scale - light, airy spaces, nice conditions for the workers.

A display in the Bhandej shop and all of us sat with the embroiderers who were as interested in us as we were of them!
Another day I took a visit to the prestigious institute NID (National Institute of Design ). I had been the last time I was here and shown around by Nidhi whom I had met while on placement at Kala Raksha. At that time she was also doing a placement there which all NID students do. They get sponsered by a company or designer and do a 2 - 4 month project/placement with them. Nidhi was working with some suf* embroiderers in Sumrasar - the village where Kala Raksha is situated, and producing some embroidery designs for a high end fashion designer in Delhi. I was excited to see her profile and some pictures of her final collection in the 2009 graduates book. They publish a book of all graduates' work every year. I thought this a really nice idea. I might suggest it to MMU although its probably too much money, work etc!

I was delighted to meet Aditi Ranjan, a long standing member of the textiles faculty and co-editor of a beautiful newly published book ' The Crafts of India', a huge encyclopedia illustrating and describing the vast variety of crafts in every state of India. She is a very warm and friendly lady and gave her time to answer my questions on her work. Her husband and co-editor keeps a blog - He also works on the faculty at NID (where they met I think), and is a specialist in bamboo.

I also got the chance to meet the famous Errol Pires who I had heard so much about from Anne Morrell. I know why now too. He invited me into his office where I was overwhelmed with the array of amazing and exciting display of colourful objects. I sat down and he told me his story of learning and experimenting with the art of ply split braiding - a technique similar to plaiting but instead of simply plaiting, the fibres of each chord are split to make the structure stronger. He learnt the technique from a camel herder in the desert near Jaiselmer who uses the technique to make camel belts. On the left is a picture of a traditional camel belt. are now rarely made because of the length of time it takes to make them and so replaced by cheap alternatives.

Errol experiments with all sorts of variation using this technique and has created quirky objects, structural art pieces, object holders, bags and even garments.

What is even more inspiring is that he doesn't wish to sell his work and would prefer to hold it all in a collection to be used for exhibitions and for people to see and learn from and know where they all came from.

In the evenings we spent a lot of time at the Law gardens market, shopping for 'Kutchi' textiles. Some seemed genuine, most just cheap rip offs but we all found a good selection of useless things and had a lot of fun haggling!

Other nights we just spent chilling out, drawing or writing on our hotel balcony, sometimes smoking bidis (cheap tobacco hand rolled in a leaf and no filter) to wind down after a crazy, busy day (its not socially acceptable for women to smoke so has to be done in our own private space!)