Dec 15, 2015

Exploring Crafts and Artisans in Rajasthan in the Monsoons - Blue Pottery!

With the upcoming Pujas, Diwali, and Christmas-New Years, I decided to take a trip out to Rajasthan and then onto Gujarat, in search of new handcrafted items from various artisans.  It was in August and the monsoons were in full swing in Kolkata.  I wondered how it would be in arid Rajasthan.

A very early morning flight out from Kolkata got me to Jaipur by 7:00am!  I headed straight for the village of Blue Pottery, some 55kms outside of Jaipur.  The weather was perfect! Not hot and not humid but quite pleasant. I had connected with this artisan potter family in June when I had come for a separate reason, which, I'll be writing about soon!

Vibrant, cute, fun, and creative blue pottery decor items were placed before me in this lovely home where I was greeted with smiles and a cup of steaming Rajasthani Masala Chai!!  Door knobs, incense stick holders in the shape of a palm, little cute Turtles - all made using the unique technique of Blue Pottery!

The patriarchs in this artisan family were trained by Kripal Singh Shekhawat, the father of Blue Pottery.  Kripal Singh is known to have been approached by Maharani Gayatri Devi and Kamala Devi Chattyopadhyay of Crafts Council, to revive Blue Pottery.  A unique mixture of gypsum, quartz, glass and gum is used as the basis.

Once put in certain moulds, they are baked in the hot Rajasthan sun for a few days. Then the artisans paint various patterns on them and they are put in the kilns.  Once the product comes out of the kiln, one can see the beautiful and vibrant colors of turquoise, navy, yellow, green come alive!

I picked up my loot of items for Maka Maka, and headed off to the village of Bagru, known for natural dye block printing and Mud resist printing!  But before I left, my artisan friends made sure I had a plate of homemade "poha" (a snack made of flattened rice and vegetables) and another cup of sweet Rajasthani masala chai as they weren't sure when and where I would grab lunch!!

I love making such friends wherever I go!

May 14, 2015

New Discoveries - Madhubani Painting and New Weaves - Part 2

I had left off the last post leading into the next set of exploration that would happen in our old stomping grounds, Bhagalpur.  The once thriving silk town in North Eastern India has seen quite a bit of changes in the past few years.

The overnight train journey from Muzaffarpur to Bhagalpur was a very cold and uncomfortable one as we forgot to pack blankets and sheets for this particular ride where it was a sleeper class train!  We arrived into Bhagalpur in the wee hours of the morning when this otherwise chaotic city was still asleep.

The rest of the day was spent exploring our old weaver clusters to see what kind of current work was being done and what the current status was.  To our dismay and alarm, we found that the number in handloom weavers had drastically declined in the past 4 years or so.
 Due to the cost efficiency in production, more handloom weavers have either shifted to powerlooms or have quit their trade!  The ones that are left behind, a handfull 15-20, are highly skilled, slightly aged individuals, who still love to work on exquisite weaves at their handlooms but desperately need work!  The availability of cheaper and inferior quality textile products from China has caused a huge dent in this industry!
We met one such artisan, who is selling potato chips, paan parag, etc. from his home cum workshop to make money while his loom sits idle on the other side of the room!  He was quite annoyed with us for taking photos and recording him and said, "How many more photos do you need?  Give us work!"

This image stuck in my head and I felt that unless we, as Designers, Producers, Retailers, don't wake up and take notice in a collaborative manner, this ancient and amazing art of weaving in North Eastern India will soon be extinct.
It was refershing to visit another village where the artisans seemed to be thriving and were prosperous.  The key was demand for Tussar and Gicha silk sarees from Bengal and some other parts of Northern India.  They had enough work and it was relatively less complicated of a weave so it was cost effective for them to continue their work.
A visit to the ancient ruins of one of the seats of knowledge, Vikramsila University, ended our trip on a pleasnt note.  However, it made me more aware of the current situation in handloom weaving and unless more of us, Producers and Consumers, collaboratively support this initiative, we will have lost another exquisite art!

Mar 27, 2015

New Discoveries - Madhubani Painting and New Weaves - Part 1!

The travel bug bit me again!  Last February, we were finally able to get away for another exploration trip to the villages where our weaving is done and to source some new Artisan work.  This is probably the most fun part of what I do, besides getting to design to my heart's content!

This time, we decided to take a trip out to the Madhubani region of Bihar, bordering Nepal.  I had long wanted to explore the beautiful handpainted Madhubani artwork and finally, we were heading there! Leaving Maka Maka, our flagship store and cafe in Calcutta, in able hands, we headed out.

The winter chill was strong as we got off the train in Muzaffarpur, in the early hours of the morning.  We headed out for the town of Madhubani with our escort, Kailash-ji.  As soon as we got out of the congestion of the city, the highway became a pleasure to drive on!  With yellow fields of mustard flowers on either side, and the morning mist hanging low, it was a refreshing and serene sight.

Once we reached the town of Madhubani, we headed to the NGO's workshop where most of the Madhubani artisans came to showcase their work or use the space to do their work.  We spoke with a few women artsians and the chief coordinator of the location about the history of this beautiful and intricate painting that apparently originated during the times of the epic, Ramayana!  The folklore says that, King Janaka, Sita's father had ordered that all the houses should be decorated with intricate paintings during Sita's wedding to Ram.

It's traditon, till date, for the villages in Madhubani area, to decorate their homes with this form of painting when there's a wedding or any festive occasion.  In its original form, Madhubani painting was done using local herbs and cowdung.  Currently, fabric paint is used to create the beautiful paintings on silks, cottons or on paper.
The pen used to create this artwork is almost similar to a fountain pen of the old days where the nib had to be dipped in paint to get the color in it.  The artisans meticulously paint various stories from the epics, folklore, village scenes, or just elements from nature.
It was really enriching to see the high quality of artisanship.  The icing on the cake was the freshly made sweets using fresh milk from a cow that lives on the premises!  The flavor and taste was just out of this world!

After our work was done in Madhubani, we had to speed off to the village where Sujni embroidery work is done so that we could speak to a few artisans and start off a project with them, where a few of my designs would be done in their traditional Sujni embroidery.  But before the next stop, a quick bite to eat was a must at a roadside dhaba!! Minimal facilities but optimal food at unbelievably cheap prices! 3 cheers for dhaba food! :-)

By the time we entered our familiar village, it was getting dark and cold.  Without much further ado, and only after soaking in the fresh unpolluted air, feasting my eyes on the greens of the fields, did we get down to business!  After discussing the new concepts and designs with the artisans, one of which is "Shakti"(women's empowerment), we headed back to the Muzaffarpur station to catch the overnight train to Bhagalpur.  We knew it would be a pretty cold and uncomfortable journey as it was a Sleeper Class train! Well, it is what it is!