Travels in Textiles


Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A new year and a new trip to India is booked...

...That will total up my India trips to once a year for the last 4 years. (well almost - I travelled twice in 2008 and again early 2010)

I travel on the 18th Feb which gives me five and a bit weeks to: get a visa and all the other practicalities, e-mail people to arrange visits and meetings, plan what I will do on these visits and meetings, have interview questions drafted out, buy a new computer, a video camera would be nice too, book train tickets.....

Assembling the bricolage
I am being drawn back to the vast, isolated desert region of Kachchh by the powers that I think drag so many people back to India time and time again, and also the need to collect more information for my research. Since I last went which was a year ago, (arghh) I have developed ideas, gathered pieces of information from various sources, and I am currently piecing them together like the bricoleur (french for handyman) or quilt-maker that Denzin and Lincoln describe the qualitative researcher as in their book Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry. ( I have recently been reading up heavily on research methods!)

I like this metaphor because I can relate to the title 'quilt maker', my previous textile projects involving drawing, printing, stitching and layering fabric, experimenting with new processes and media, and then trying to make sense of it by creating a final piece of work out of it, suitable for a gallery, a throw on someones sofa or a scarf.

The process is pretty much the same for my research, the main difference being that the end result will probably sit on a library shelf, hoping to be read and valued by future researchers, students, designers and artisans.

So as I'm gathering the pieces of data - interview answers, images, video clips, artifacts, dialogue and scores of book references, and trying to piece them together, I'm finding gaps that can only be filled in by going back to the country where the research is based, where it all started.

Dialogue and discussion
I have met, had tea and conversations about ajrakh block-printing and Indian crafts in general, with so many people in India. However, many of these have been one to one conversations. I have decided to arrange meetings with a few different people within the field to have discussions about the situation now within block printing, its designs, markets, its sustainability and future. These groups would consist of organisation members or directors, designers, the artisans working for them either directly or indirectly, and perhaps buyers if possible. 

These discussions will help me gain insight into the opinions of people from all sides of the industry and a group environment would initiate more lively and spontaneous conversation than a one to one interview. In an interview, both interviewer and interviewee are placed strictly in these roles, and there isn't much room for manoeuvre, whereas a group discussion allows for everyone to take equal stance, and each person involved can take part in the research.

Stories and symbols
On another level, I do want to gain more in-depth detail about the stories behind the block-printing tradition from both young and old block-printing artisans. This may be more effective as a one to one conversation and rather than an interview set out, the artisan would lead the conversation and tell the stories he knows and of his experience being a craftsman.

The reason I talk about stories is because I think stories will hold information on the origins and meanings of these designs. Various sources have led me to believe that there are more to these patterns than their aesthetic quality. Many have written of the myths and symbols behind such patterns. I am still trying to find out whether the patterns still have strong links to the ancient patterns of the Indus Valley Civilisation, or due to the strongly exerted Islamic influence at the time the oldest surviving examples of these fabrics were discovered, whether the patterns lie purely in Islamic geometry and cosmology.

Detailed descriptions of patterns found in Islamic art are given by Keith Critchlow. He says the circle ‘has always been regarded as a symbol of eternity, without beginning and without end, just being’ and later as ‘a symbol of simplicity and plentitude’. The circle when inter-linked and connected with other circles and shapes takes on further meanings.

It is thought by some such as Francois Cousin, that ajrakh could have its roots or influences in Sufism. Tahir Shah says 'Sufis used teaching stories as a way to package ideas and information, making them palatable to the mind' Symbols are also very important in Sufism and reflect the same ideas as in the stories. Could some of the motifs and patterns in ajrakh relate to, or have origins in these stories and Sufi ideas?

Tahir Shah in his book In Arabian Nights talks of the rich use of symbols in Christianity as well as Islam (there are probably symbols in most religions), and how the young generation hardly know anything of them, just of symbols seen in computing and the digital world. 'They have become separated from an ancient kind of thinking, oblivious to symbolism in religion, stories and art. The chain has been broken..' He goes on to say teaching this symbolism again would be like teaching a language that has been forgotten so that an ancient literature could be accessed again.

I hope to find out whether the language of ajrakh is still known, who knows of it and how it is being interpreted amongst its new international markets...