Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 17, 2017
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The colours of Rajasthan

Jaipur's exquisite crafts and royal history

“My father taught me how to make these,” Amin said with a grin, holding one of the spangled marionettes he was about to use in the puppet show he gives every evening.

The sun had just set and the gold and silver curtains of his small stage on the rooftop restaurant of the Sajjan Niwas Hotel in Jaipur, India, glittered in the lamplight. In the distance, the lights of the state of Rajasthan’s boisterous capital city shimmered.

Amin wore a traditional Rajasthani costume: a long shirt and wrap, called a dhoti kurta, with a flamboyant red, green and yellow bandhani tie-dyed turban wreathed around his head. His assistants were similarly dressed. They disappeared behind the stage curtains in preparation for the show.

Within a moment, the first of the puppets descended. “This is a dancer from Udaipur,” Amin called out. He began a rhythm on a two-sided dholak drum in his lap and the dancer came to life sashaying back and forth across the stage, her hips jolting up and down with the tugging of the strings. Her tiny hands were decorated with flowery henna patterns.

Next, a horse rider from Jaipur trotted out to perform handstands atop his steed, followed closely by a snake charmer from Pushkar who manically did battle with a fearsome King Cobra.

Each puppet was elaborately draped in fine blue, red and orange silks that sparkled from the shisha mirrors embroidered on their surface. Yet, despite their dazzling intensity, these costumes aren’t far from the everyday dress of many Rajasthanis.

Glittering colours

New Delhi’s palette is dun and dirty. So arriving in Jaipur from New Delhi was like entering a new country altogether. My eyes feasted on Jaipur’s seething train station filled with men and women dressed in the brightest array of colours; turbans of saffron and pink, sophisticated scarves that would suit the most discerning bohemians, and a cavalcade of saris in surprising colour combinations.

Here women carry jugs of water to and fro, draped in saris made by the tailors just down the street. Every town and village in Rajasthan is connected to an incomparable heritage of craftsmanship that produces a rich diversity of colour and textile technique.

Right outside Jaipur, entire villages are devoted to producing exceptional cloth, embroidery, hand-block print and appliqué textiles. The town of Barmer, in western Rajasthan, for example, has a cottage industry of embroidery and block printing on fabric reminiscent of those which dotted the English countryside before the industrial revolution.

As the capital, Jaipur has become a gathering point for the work of all these artisans, making it a great place to see a cross section of Rajasthani craftwork without stopping off at every town and village along the way. It’s a shopper’s paradise for Indians and tourists alike. It’s easy to discover artisans — whose skills and techniques have changed little in centuries — working right in the heart of Jaipur.

From rickshaw to palace

In the morning I met up with Mohammad Rashid (tel: 011-91-982-916-3820; Mohammadrashid_2001@yahoo.com), a cherubic rickshaw driver I was lucky to meet at the train station the day before. After reading the positive comments left in his notebook by tourists from France, Germany, the UK and Vancouver, I couldn’t turn down his offer of a five- to six-hour tour around the city’s textile centres.

As we wove through the congested streets toward the old city gates, Rashid gave me the bones of Jaipur’s history. The city was founded in 1727 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II after a booming population and resulting water shortages forced him to abandon the nearby Amber Fort. At the time, the city’s design was one of the most advanced in India. It’s often called the Pink City because of the soft hue of sandstone used in its fortifications.

Today it’s a metropolis of over five million, most of whom live in dense suburban pockets. The old city is still home to many, though, and fruit sellers congregate around the seven heavily decorated gates in its thick outer walls.

As we passed through the main gate and on to one of the broad thoroughfares, I could see from the rickshaw huge loads of freshly dyed red, green and blue wool suspended from large beams over a nearby alleyway. We headed on toward the City Palace which no longer houses the royal family but has become a museum with one of the finest collection of textiles in Rajasthan.

All the museum’s pieces are housed within the ornately carved marble walls of the central Mubarak Mahal building, and once inside I was immediately captivated. In a glass cabinet along the wall, there was an intricate piece of 18th-century flower embroidery that was to be the border of a floor spread. It was stitched using kalabattu, a silver- and gold-wrapped thread, and beside it hung an example of a stunning butis: lattice pattern cut from a golden fabric that was painstakingly attached to a cotton shift. Stitched to the surface of this appliqué were hundreds of tiny emerald beetle wings.

The karkhana, or royal workshop, once based here in Jaipur, produced both these pieces as royal wedding gifts, and the artisans who created them would have spent years completing a single work.

Then I entered a room filled with a rainbow of jackets dyed using a technique familiar to any child of the ’60s. However, Rajasthan’s rangez, professional tye-dyers, use a more complex technique than that found on hippies.

Their skills were highly refined by the beginning of the 17th century and are still prized today. Rangez tie swaths of fabric so finely that after dying it’s covered with a structurally complex pattern, speckled with hundreds of little diamonds no bigger than a match-head.

Next to the tye-dyes I found a black silk pyjama — a Hindi word the English borrowed which literally means ‘leg clothing’ — sparsely decorated with a golden block print pattern. The prints are created using detailed hand-carved wooden stamps that are pressed into ink and then aligned on the fabric to create a continuous motif.

Looming large

After wandering through the museum, I was in the mood to see how some of the garments were actually made. So, I headed over to where Rashid parked his rickshaw and hopped back in. Then we were off to a place where he said I could see some real block printing, embroidery and weaving in action.

We soon pull up at a place called Mangal India Craft and Textile (A-5 New Rangarh Moden, Amer Road, Jaipur; tel: 011-91-141-931-263-1047).

Just inside the doors we met Kalim Khan, one of the business partners. He showed me down some concrete steps, through an alleyway and into a long room with workers milling about two huge pieces of fabric laid out on tables that almost reached the far wall. “Here is where we work on block printing. All the fabric you see is handmade cotton that we get from our workers in the countryside,” Kalim explained.

We walked along the table to the end of the room where one of the men was rapidly dabbing a carved wooden stamp in ink. He aligned it with the index finger of his free hand before plunking it down with a swift and final movement. With the size of the swaths of fabric it looked like a tedious task, but at least here the pattern was pretty.

Kalim called the worker over to demonstrate the complexity that block printing can achieve. He layed out four separate blocks and in quick succession dabbed each on a different dye pad and aligned the prints on top of each other. The finished pattern was of a multi-toned elephant carrying the maharaja and his queen on its back.

At first the colours were dull, but after the pattern was dipped in a salt water wash they brightened and came alive. “That’s all these dyes need to fasten them to the fabric,” Kalim said. “They are natural; we get them from the countryside. Spinach makes green; black pepper – black, saffron – yellow; indigo – blue; and chili, tomato, sometimes carrot are used to make red.”

As we walked away from the printing floor, Kalim explained that next we’d visit the embroidery workshop. When we arrived, the workers were crowded around a TV drinking chai and watching some Bollywood schlock. “They are taking a break,” explained Kalim. Still, we inspected their work and he pointed out the fine yellow flowers sewn into a radiant blue piece of fabric stretched over a large wooden frame.

Back downstairs we ran into Mohammad Shafiq, the carpet weaving foreman, talking to one of his workers at a loom. He explained that it takes six months of training to become a carpet weaver and the worker here had been making carpets for 20 years. His hands flew across the warp of the loom as he tied hundreds of knots of vegetable dyed camel hair fibres. Still, it would take him 35 minutes to complete a single line of the design and four-and-a-half to five months of work to finish the whole thing. Shafiq told us that they contract out to professional camel shearers to get the wool, and he grabbed a photo of a pink turbaned peasant shaving a sleepy camel under a tree.

When I left Mughal India Crafts and Textiles, there were two camels lying down across the road in the shade of a brick wall that could have been waiting for a haircut.

As we headed back out of the old city gates and toward the hotel, I was again astounded by the bright array Rajasthani clothing in the streets: the saffron, the shocking pinks, the emerald greens. The fluid lines, graceful asymmetrical cuts and trailing draperies of everyday saris. They are as resplendent as the dolls of Amin’s puppet show, and prove once more how alive and vibrant Rajasthani tradition is.

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