Something about me

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Stories from the loom - Chanderi Diary

Nestled in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, is the town of Pranpur. Together with it’s better-known neighbour, the town of Chanderi,  it resounds with the strangely musical clackety—clak of looms that weave gorgeous Chanderi sarees. A region that peaked in influence between  the 12th-16th centuries as a strategic trade and military outpost, as well as an important center for Jainism, today Chanderi has been bypassed by other tourist destinations in Madhya Pradesh. 
However those curious about the indigenous weaves and craft forms of this region do make the arduous journey over terrible roads, as my entire team from work did last week. We picked up the so-called superfast Jabalpur express from New Delhi in the afternoon and had a lovely few hours playing games, giggling and generally making a nuisance of ourselves in the compartment. I haven’t had so much fun on a train journey since I left college! Almost 6 hours later, we reached a tiny station called Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh. From Lalitpur, we jolted along over horrible roads in pitch-darkness for 15 km, until we crossed the border into Madhya Pradesh where the roads were well-paved and smooth! 20 more km later during which I dozed off, we reached our destination, a quaint retreat in Pranpur. We could do nothing more than fall exhausted into our beds that night.
We were up at 7 the next day (my roommate later confessed she could not sleep during the night because it was so quiet!) and began exploring our home for the next couple of days. The rooms were pretty basic but clean. Mine had pretty latticed windows and Chanderi curtains. There was a small reception area, a restaurant, a 'conference room' and lots and lots of mango trees! We started work at 10 am since we had a full agenda – budgets, dashboards, goals, targets had all to be discussed threadbare and argued over! Lunch-time introduced me to some simple and tasty Bundelkhandi food.
The guest house
Bundellkhandi platter
After lunch, we toodled off to our first stop of the pm. The Bunkar Samiti or Weaver’s Cooperative at Pranpur saw 8 females walking in, cameras and notepads at the ready. What a visual feast it was! Imagine 8 women let loose in a roomful of exquisite sarees and you can imagine the pandemonium :) Sarees were touched, oohed and aahed over, draped and bought. We heard from the weavers about the hard times they had been through, why the cooperative was formed and what benefits it had for the weavers and how Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor had visited them a few years ago. The latter was a recurring theme in all our conversations in Pranpur and Chanderi.  The Kareena Palla was a much cherished design and source of pride for the locals and left us wondering at the power of celebrity endorsements! Maybe more Bollywood stars should promote craft in India!

We then visited another cooperative nestled inside a heritage building near the Chanderi Fort, where we got to learn some technicalities of the loom and spoke to more weavers. Visiting the weaver’s homes in Chanderi was a wonderful experience. We had a guide who led us in pitch darkness through narrow alleys to the homes of potters and weavers. We sidestepped cow and goat dung, and stumbled over uneven dirt tracks to reach our destination. Every home has atleast one loom of not two, purchased or rented at usurious rates. Very few homes were pucca. Most were just one room shacks with a coal or wood chulha and a thatched roof. Electricity is intermittent and night-time weaving is done without the aid of cooling and with kerosene lanterns. Most kids go to school but are at work on the looms during their free time. Yet we were always invited inside for a meal or hot tea. People invited us home unreservedly to look at their work, take photos and chat. They shared their stories with no reserve and no bitterness.
Chanderi - the street lined with wevare's homes on both sides
A weaver's home - one of the few prosperous-looking ones
At the loom
The spunkiest person we met was this 90 year old woman whose husband and son were both State-level master weavers and awardees. Her husband was a few years older and hard of hearing. She dragged us inside her house, made us all sit down. When we asked her whether she could also weave as well as her husband, she scornfully said “Haan main bhi bunti hoon. Sara kaam to maine hi kiya hai!” She was confident and secure, making me wonder about my preconceived notions of empowerment. If this old poor woman sitting in a dark hut in interior MP was not empowered, who was??
The other interesting observation was that absolutely not one of these women weavers wore a Chanderi saree, instead opting for synthetic sarees. When we asked why, they shrugged. The sarees are too expensive, we can’t afford them. Isn’t that the ultimate irony, that the artisan who produces something so exquisite does not get to experience it for himself? They had a dispassionate approach to their work typified by their response to what I now feel were our typically urban, upper-middle class questions. Do you like what you do, we asked? Again, that shrug. It’s a job. It’s what we do. They feel pride in their craft, but ultimately it’s a question of economics and feeding your family.
Our spunky friend had a telling response when we asked her why she did not have any of the sarees she had woven. Can I take anything with me when I pass away, she retorted with a toothy smile. I think all of us can do with a dose of that pragmatism! This is what my husband calls the Zooming Out approach to life!
We met many more weavers over the next day and a half and had many more conversations. As we headed back to Jhansi to catch our train to Delhi, all of us were silent reflecting on the eventful days gone by. Until we were literally jolted back to reality by one of the Boleros breaking down and all 9 of us with our luggage having to squeeze into the other one!! By the time we reached Jhansi, we were hot, thirsty and I had painful knees from having had a colleague perched on me during the ride. It was good to get back to some creature comforts! So much for living the simple rustic life :)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Jaisalmer - Part 2

Today was the big day - when we got to go to the desert! But first we had to explore the fort and the palace. Having been to Jaipur and Udaipur earlier, I felt that the Jaisal rajahs palace/fort was not half as impressive. Equally beautiful yes, but not as large and lavish. Here are a few snapshots from our morning tour.
The exterior of the palace, within the fort


Statues displayed inside the palace, testimony to the skill of the stonecarvers of Jaisalmer

Top-down view of the fort ramparts
At around 4 pm, we climbed into an Innova and drove 40 km out of the city to the desert. The drive was really scenic, not picture-postcard scenic but the kind of scenic that is starkly beautiful. The Border Roads Organization had done a great job of building an excellent road through land that all belonged to the military, we were told. In fact Jaisalmer being only about 150 km from the Pak border has an IAF base as well as a significant BSF and BRO presence. We covered 40 km in no time and were soon at the place where we had to pick up our camels (or was it the other way around?!) Camels are not the most comfortable beings to ride on and it took a bit of getting used to and some holding on for dear life as we trundled into the desert. Ads and I shared a camel and he rightly commented that the landscape looked a lot like the African savannah (which he has seen on TV). Rajasthan is one of the states that managed a good monsoon this year and it showed in the tufts of abundant vegetation everywhere in the sandy soil. After a good 45 minutes ride, we were nowhere close to anything that resembled a desert!
Finally the sand dunes did come into view and boy, did the kids have a blast. Climbing up and sliding down the dunes, running behind beetles, and Y even managed to lose one shoe in the sand. Try as we might, we could not find it; the treacherous sand had simply swallowed her precious pink Croc! The sand was warm and super-soft and Dad got into the swing of things by playing in the sand with his kids. The sunset was breathtaking as was the view of the full moon, and here are some of my pitiful attempts at capturing the beauty of quintessential Rajasthan.

We stayed overnight at a camp in the desert. I'd been imagining Sridevi in Lamhe. The reality was very different! Tourism on a mass scale means badly-cooked buffet dinners and Daler Mehndi plus Bollywood beats until late into the night. Whatever happened to some quiet stargazing, intimate conversations, and soaking in the peace and quiet of the desert? I was a little disappointed but have shrugged it off since. Having experienced the magic of the Thar, even from the fringes, and even for just one night, was an experience to cherish!

Jaisalmer - Part 1

We planned our trip to Jaisalmer with friends, who were thereafter going ahead and visiting Jodhpur and Udaipur as part of a larger Rajasthan itinerary. I always tell people Rajasthan is best taken in small doses as it can become overwhelming otherwise - an option we fortunately have since we live in Northern India. We packed up and left for the Old Delhi railway station well in time - or so we thought. We managed to get caught in a minor jam near the old city, which took forever to clear. Our train was at 5.30 pm and our cabbie deposited us at the station entry gate at 5.27 pm precisely!! I had given up all hope that we could catch our train. We ran at top speed through the station, thankfully encountering a minimal crowd at the luggage screening. Up a long flight of stairs, panting and with a terrible stitch in my side (it's no joke running while carrying a 13 kg bundle!), down another flight of stairs, sure until the last minute that the train was going to draw away from the platform. Ahead of me, I could see S with our two suitcases hurtling down the steps, while behind me our friend was rapidly shepherding a nervous Ads through the bustle.
Thanks to the inefficiency of Indian railways, we managed to make it just in the nick of time to our coach, as the train departed at 5.35 pm :) Definitely the slowest train in the country, it took it's own sweet time to reach Jaisalmer the next day at 11 am. We stayed in the nicest little hotel, right inside the Jaisalmer fort. It was a tad expensive for the amenities, but the rooms, loos and sheets were clean, there was unlimited free chai and bottled water available, the staff was really courteous and friendly, plus we had a really nice view of the "golden city" from our room. The city does look luminous in the sunlight as all the buildings there are made of a particular golden-yellow shade of sandstone, very beautiful indeed.

The city view from our room
The room was cool even without the AC, so we had a nice long post-lunch nap, being all tired from our long rail journey and what not. After a refreshing cup of chai to wake us up, we set off to the Gadisar lake, a man-made catchment area created in 1537.

Tilon ki Pol at Gadisar Lake

Ads got his full paisa-vasool at the lakeside because it's common there to feed the catfish. People were throwing pieces of bread into the water and the catfish (big ones, though I was assured by Ads that they can grow upto 6 feet in length) fought over the choice bits. It all looked very slimy to me but Ads and Y were thrilled to bits.


The boatride across the lake was beautiful although we had to shield ourselves against the searing late afternoon sun. We saw ducks, geese and even a distant stork.

Gadisar lake
And some of it's inhabitants

Later, we went to the Sunset point (also known as Vyas Chattri) which has amazing views of the city. The Chattris of the royals are nothing much to look at, being arresting primarily because of the yellow sandstone they are made of which lends an undeniable attractiveness especially in the light of the setting sun.

Sunset through Vyas Chhatri

Can you see the Fort in the distance?
We also had our first taste of Ker Sangri, a desert and Jaisalmer speciality. It is a delicious dish made of Ker, a round pod-like vegetable and Sangri, which is some variety of cluster beans. It is peculiarly tangy, but mildly so. A very delicate and satisfying accompaniment to rotis and needless to say, we stuffed our faces full of this new discovery at every meal! Surprisingly, Y liked it a lot (another favourite of hers was the churma), confirming my suspicion that her tastebuds are rather more refined than her brother's.
So ended our first day in Jaisalmer city. Coming up - a half-day and a night in the desert!