(The following post was written last week, apologies for not getting this up sooner. Jeff got a horrible flu last Thursday, and has spent the past 4 days in bed, and I have been pretty much attending to him. Though much better now, he had a high fever and was delirious for a little while. The doctor came and gave him some meds, and he’s been slowly getting better. Knock wood, I didn’t get it. But it was awful to see him suffering. I also emailed back and forth with my doctor-in-training friend in London, who helped me determine that it wasn’t malaria or dengue. Thanks, Elena!)
We are more or less ensconced in Jaipur, after several changes of housing. We are now staying at Diggi Palace, a shabby-chic haveli that is fairly centrally located. It features lots of green gardens and old buildings. It’s rather like being in another time.
Hanging out on the lawn in the evening would actually be perfect, if not for the mosquitoes. But maybe when the weather changes they will go away (I’m hoping…die, mosquitoes, die!!!)
I have finally settled in enough to begin researching in earnest. I have started going through the archives at the Anokhi farm, had a visit to the Anokhi museum in Amber as well. If you don’t know Anokhi, it’s a block printing company that was started in the late 60s (or maybe early 70s) by a Brit named Faith and her Indian husband John Singh. She came to Rajasthan and found that the block printing industry was foundering. A lot of the block carvers were dying off. She looked to jumpstart the traditional craft by designing and marketing to Westerners, and it worked – 40-odd years later, they are still going strong, and have also been an ethical business model in the industry. At the organic farm and factory outside of Jaipur, they employ around 300 people, and there’s a crèche (nursery) to care for children of the female workers. Here’s their website as well as an article about the company here.
They have a working archive of prints and blocks that includes traditional and contemporary designs going back to the company’s inception. Several years ago, they opened a museum in an old haveli in Amber, which Jeff and I visited last week.
It’s a beautifully renovated space with exhibits on the local block printing tradition, as well as more recent designs.
(According to the Anokhi folks, it is also haunted. A woman who stayed there saw an old-fashioned dressed man carrying a lamp in its halls and staircases. Also, it has had a monkey problem of late—monkeys have broken in after hours and done rascally things like rub their butts against the glass museum cases, and screwed with the exhibition signage. They solved this by installing wooden carved screens on the windows. Nice!)
We also stopped at the old fort in Amber, which is a labyrinthine palace complex—initially built in 1592, with successive additions and renovations over time. The outside looks like an imposing fortress, and then you go inside and it’s another world entirely – ornate, with little passageways running all through it and an inner courtyard.
You can ride up on elephants, though it makes me sad to see those poor elephants. They don’t seem happy. (In fact, most work animals here in India, or at least in Rajasthan, seem forlorn and underfed. The cows are often munching on garbage. Gangly camels pull carts of construction materials and the like. It’s hard to see people suffering—especially old people and children—but the animals really tug on my heartstrings.)
Despite this, I am getting inspired by all the pattern and design, and at this point have many ideas about what to do with all this, but no real plan. We are planning on going up to Dharamsala at the end of October to do an 8-day Buddhist meditation course, to get some fresh mountain air and an infusion of dharma. Other than that, my only plan is to keep looking and digesting. I’ve made some small attempts at drawing at my makeshift “studio” here at Diggi Palace (see pic below). I’m also going to take some miniature painting lessons from a master painter here in Jaipur in November.
I’ve been reading a lot about the block printing tradition in and around Jaipur. Also about the Mughal empire and the influence of Persian and Islamic design on the patterns here, as well the European traders who came here looking for spices, and discovered almost by accident the stunning cotton textiles. They brought them back to Europe and people were so crazy about them—light, soft cotton! A revelation, easily washed and worn, as opposed to the scratchy wools or waxy, coarse linens of that time—that an entire industry was created for the western market, starting in the early 17th century. Patterns were migrating in both directions, coming from India to Europe, and vice versa. Hybrid design forms emerged.
Throw into the mix the Industrial Revolution. Initially, Europeans were way behind in terms of printing technology and dye recipes. Those rascals, they soon stole the secret recipes of the Indian dyers and then when they figured out how to manufacture them at home, and then to add insult to injury, boycotted or heavily taxed the Indian imported textiles. Eventually, when the British took over, Indians were forced to buy their “calico” cotton prints from factories in Manchester. Cotton weavers and artisans in India were literally starving from lack of work and dying off – to quote British colonial Governor General Lord Bentick: “The bones of cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India.”
They really were ingenious capitalists. Instead of just enjoying these new amazing cotton fabrics and prints and resting on the laurels of making all this money from trade routes to India, the British up and invented a little thing we call the factory system. The whole modern idea of manufacturing came out of this time. Incredible. They starved a whole subcontinent on the singular concept of the factory.
(I could—and probably will—geek out and write a whole post about cotton in India. Believe me, it’s really fascinating.)
In the meantime, more photos…