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Intricate weaves

Carpet and shawl weaving has been a traditional craft passed on from generation to generation in India. Two books on a part of the textile heritage are a lay reader's delight.

HERITAGE weaves depict the classicism of Indian tradition and it is heart-warming to look at the burgeoning of books written on different aspects of the subject. More so when they are written by authors such as AshaRani Mathur, a versatile writer who has a feel for Indian culture and its ethos. Indian Shawls and Indian Carpets are each divided into five sections dealing with historical perspective, design inspired Persian influences and an overview of production centres.

Mathur's books on carpets and shawls have a thread of commonality. Shawls and carpets were status symbols in ancient India and used as wraps, floor coverings, wall hangings, saddle covers and so on. Wool was commonly used for weaving both, and silk was reserved for the more fancy and expensive products while cotton provided affordability and practicality. The gossamer threads of the shahtoosh make a shawl so warm and soft that it passes through a ring. That the chiru — gazelle-like antelopes of Tibet and China — had to be slaughtered to obtain the wool was another matter. Today the equation is different and the shahtoosh shawl has to be consigned into oblivion to save the languishing species, the killing is now illegal.

The pashmina wool obtained from the neck and underbelly of the ibex living in Ladakh and the Tibetian plateaux is much sought after for weaving classic soft shawls, and the animals are not killed for their wool. This wool is also used for some carpets.

Any craftsmanship blossoms under sustained patronage. Under the umbrella of royalty the craft of weaving reached heights of excellence as skills were honed to perfection and mediocrity was quickly elbowed out. It reached its zenith during the Mughal reign and, with the humming ateliers of craft in royal workshops, free cross exchange of ideas took place from textiles, from paintings and forms of art. The swing of patronage descended to an all-time low in Aurangazeb's reign and carpets retreated into the background while shawls took centre stage.

Both books are excellently produced with visuals accenting the wealth that once was existent in this country. The telling pictures reveal the intricacy of design and the colours of the weaves, which never went askew thanks to the usage of vegetable dyes available then. Since carpet and shawl weaving has been a traditional craft passed on from generation to generation, aesthetics have become part of the weaver psyche, and colours and design remain beautiful despite the intrusion of chemical dyes. From the colourful bandhini shawls of Rajasthan and the thick coarse shawls of Himachal Pradesh to the warrior shawls of Nagaland and the embroidered shawls of ari work in Kashmir, each is a superbly executed piece with its own identity. Women in Punjab worked on phulkari embroidery with the nonchalant ease of confirmed knitters.

Indo-Tibetan carpets have symbols with religious connotations, some woven for monasteries or meditation rugs. Durries ideal for a hot tropical climate are beautiful, affordable and easy on maintenance and make attractive floor coverings. They are produced in Andhra Pradesh, Dharwar and Sirmaur in Himachal Pradesh. The numdahs of Kashmir — is a poor man's carpet — has jute for base with very closely done ari work. A mention of the Bhavani silk mats from Bhavani Mettur and the boldly striped south Indian jamakalam has been omitted. The Indo-Gangetic plain has the largest conglomeration of carpet producing areas, and 1,00,000 weavers work at 60,000 looms to contribute to produce four-fifths of the country's production.

Though child labour, education, rehabilitation and vocational training of the children and welfare of the weaver community is touched upon, what could have been added to an otherwise fine piece of writing is a chapter devoted to the craftspersons who are the living traditions of India. A glimpse into their lives, their living conditions today with a small write up on a couple of master weavers would have rounded off these editions.

Mathur talks about the pathetic conditions of the shawl weaver, little more than slaves during the 18th Century Afghan regime. Many went blind before they were 50 and most of them so ill that they wished they were dead. Out of this pyre of suffering came beautiful woven cloth. It would have been interesting to know how they have progressed in a 21st Century India which recognises handcraft and its value and where NGOs and Government agencies have sought to ease the craftsperson and weaver out of the rut he or she had fallen into.

These two heritage books are not inundated with statistics and information to produce comprehensive scholarly academic journals, but they are the lay reader's delight in scratching the surface of the romance of carpet and shawl weaves, with the promise that further research would yield more.

One can look forward to more books in this series where one can learn about one's heritage craft and be proud of it.


Indian Shawls: Mantles of Splendour; Indian Carpets: A Hand-Knotted Heritage, AshaRani Mathur, Rupa & Co., Rs. 495 each

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