Thursday, June 30, 2011

You Never Know what You'll Pass on an Indian Road

Indian roads are far from dull. There's the constant honking, daredevil passing, selective adherence to road rules/signs, and then there's those who use the roads. Aside from the usual melange of trucks, auto rickshaws, buses, cars, motorcycles, motorbikes, pedestrians, and bicycles, one can also find animals being used as transport vehicles. In South India, that usually is the cow. In northern India, camels are a favored beast. Occasionally though, elephants are also used. Staying observant and keeping the camera handy enabled me to quickly snap this photo as we drove past on the highway to Patan, Gujarat.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Men in White

While we baked in the "AC room" of the restaurant that didn't have electricity, these men enjoyed the company of fellow farmers outside. They had gathered to celebrate a birthday of another farmer. The typical uniform for farmers in this region of Gujarat is all white - from the turban down to the pants.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


When walking through a small Banni village in remote Gujarat, I was intrigued by the shadows cast by an incomplete conical thatched roof. Many of the buildings (mud and concrete alike) in the Kutch region of Gujarat were flattened during the devastating earthquake in 2001. Many of the mud huts are being rebuilt using concrete. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Jasmine-Scented Chennai

Few things are more symbolic and representative of Tamil Nadu than its temples and prolific use of jasmine. This fragrant white flower permeates all of Tamil society. Nearly every street corner has a woman busily stringing together these white buds. From festivities to paying homage, inside temples as well as adorning the virgin Mary, and secured to the braided black hair, the simple jasmine flower can be found. Its life span with maximum fragrance is around 24 hours, requiring a quick turnaround from plucking to customer.

The main source of flowers headed to the main Chennai market of Koyembedu comes from Periapalayam, Oothukottai, Arni, Vengal, Chengalapattu, Madurantakam, and Tiruvannamalai. (Some day I'd love to visit a jasmine farm in one of these towns). A smaller market for jasmine is found in Parry's Corner. These markets are particularly popular with women, who then string them into garlands sold by the mozham, the length between the elbow and fingertips. At about 4AM, the first of the flowers arrive. These early batches command the highest prices. As the day wanes, so does the price. Scent factories have begun purchasing jasmine in bulk during the late afternoon hours, reducing waste and benefitting the farmers. Irregardless of the price, most regular customers wouldn't do without their daily purchase of jasmine. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gujarat's Nuclear Power Plants

After the terrible nuclear tragedies in Japan, many counties are reconsidering their nuclear power programs.   Gujarat is one of the states in India that have recently initiated nuclear plant constructions. In a particularly energy-deficient country such as India, what future role will nuclear power play? This plant was photographed in Gujarat near Ahmedabad.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Broom Seller

A ritual taking place inside and in front of nearly every home and business in India involves sweeping the area with a natural-bristle broom. These brooms tend to lose their sweeping efficiency rather quickly, so a new purchase is in line. Perhaps this mobile broom store would even deliver a broom right to your doorstop.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reflections: Gujarat

Despite the heat, we had an awesome time in Gujarat. It’s a pity that the neighboring state of Rajasthan commands all of the attention on touristic scene. While Gujarat doesn’t have the sheer numbers of forts and palaces of which Rajasthan can boast, its stark beauty, vibrant rural life, exquisite step wells and Jain temples, incredibly warm, authentic people, and magnificent crafts puts Gujarat on par with its neighbor. Considering that most of the textile pieces I had purchased in Rajasthan were actually from Gujarat, it was only fitting that I traveled to see where they were created. Going into the homes of the artists and seeing the process made me appreciate the demonstrated art form even more. Having a car and driver, along with a knowledgeable guide, enabled us to spontaneously stop or stay longer at things that particularly interested us. While this method is more expensive than traveling by public transport or going on a bus tour, we experienced so much more. Gujarat will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Kutch Museum, Bhuj

Likely to my father’s delight, he had only been to only one full-fledged museum so far on the trip. Today would visit a second- the Kutch Museum. Established in 1877, it is Gujarat’s oldest museum. Once only for the eyes of the ruler’s guests, it has in its collection ancient Kutchi script writings, local silver, gold, and enameling work, would work, coins, musical instruments, and the ever–present artillery display. My favorite part though was a section devoted to the tribal people and their arts. Life–size dioramas were made depicting the various tribes showcasing their unique clothing, homes, and ways of life. Beautiful examples of the different styles of embroidery and other textile arts were preserved under glass. It made me want to visit the villages all over again and perhaps do a bit of shopping.

Photo from, as photography was not allowed.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Aina Mahal, Bhuj

In the same compound as the Prag Mahal was the Aina Mahal, heavily affected by the 2001 earthquake. A portion of it has been made into a museum. Meaning “palace of mirrors,” the 18th-century palace’s name to fame is its Hall of Mirrors room. Though its splendor didn’t quite match that of the palaces I had visited in Rajasthan (not to mention the earthquake tarnishing some of that beauty), there still was some to see. The wall still contained portions covered with white marble. Gilded mirrors covered the majority of space at eye-level. Venetian glass candelabras and colored glass lamps dangled from the ceiling. For me, the room’s most striking feature was the floor, decorated with blue china tiles manufactured in Bhuj.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Prag Mahal, Bhuj

Walking past a large mound of rubble from the earthquake (including portions of more colonial sculptures), the first building we saw was the Prag Mahal.
Bui 1865-79, this Gothic-style building was constructed by Italian architects. From the outside, it looked like this part of the Prag Mahal fared better than many buildings in this area. Looking up at the towers, one could see huge cracks zigzagging down the large bricks.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Gateway of the Nagar Khana, Bhuj

On our last day, we visited a part of Bhuj where older buildings still remained, albeit with earthquake damage. Although I would not be able to see the walled city with beautiful palaces and havelis and famous bazaars, as described in older guidebooks, I would try to appreciate what remained. At one time, Bhuj (and the region of Kutch) was a wealthy city due to its sea trade with East Africa and Persian Gulf countries. We started by entering through the arched Gateway of the Nagar Khana that leads to the Prag Mahal (new palace), Rani Mahal (Queen’s Palace), and Aina Mhaal (old palace). Once three-stories high, only the front shell of the second floor remained. A few sculptures on the lower level looked very colonial European – a visual reminder.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bhuj - Kutch Area Headquarters

While visiting the various villages in the Kutch area, we used a larger city of Bhuj (population 137,000) as our headquarters. Our hotel was located on a rather drab street, whose stores only sold items such as motorbike parts, hardware, and auto parts. The dusty street was shared by ambling cattle, the occasional camels, cow–pulled carts, tractors, large trucks, and various public transportation vehicles such as trucks, motor bikes modified with a wagon on back. If we wanted to get something to eat at a place other than our hotel, we would need to be satisfied with packaged snacks from the tiny convenience shack. At least there were ATM machines, enabling us to make additional crafts purchases!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rabari Women, Bhujodi

Walking around the village, we met a Rabari woman was sewing on a mirror to an embroidered piece of cloth. Her long, dangling earrings particularly fascinated us. How heavy those earrings must have been to have weighed down her earlobes with such a large hole! Another Rabari woman squatted as she washed metal eating containers outside. She also had the same style earrings, in addition to tattoo tribal designs on her arms, feet, and lower legs.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Under the Flowering Tree

Under the shade of a flowering tree were two cattle, which had just been brought in by Mr. Valji’s father. While they were eating, the father knelt next to them and began carefully inspecting them. Mr. Valji explained that this was done every night to ensure that no tic-like insects were on the cattle after a day of free grazing. Such tender treatment of their cattle!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Kutch Kitchen and Silver Jewelry

Mr. Valji then showed of his house. One white wall of the kitchen was decorated with the same relief design and mirrors as we had seen in the Banni region. Family–woven blankets covered the refrigerator sides and door. In the next equally clean room stood two storage cab made out of mud and decorated with the same relief/ mirror design combination. Elevated off the ground and away slightly from the wall in case of condensation, this is where they still stored their food grain. Mr. Valji’s mother was on the floor on a carpet, working on a quilt. Along with her colorful, traditional dress, she wore some chunky looking jewelry. Her two silver necklaces weighed 800 and 200 g respectively (1.76 lb and .44 lb), while her two anklets weighed 500 g (1.1 lb) each.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bhujodi Harijan Weavers, Gujarat

In the Harijan village of Bhujodi, just a few kilometers from Bhuj, we met Mr. Valji. His family was engaged in the art of weaving. We commented about his beautifully carved wooden door that opened to the entrance of his courtyard. He explained that it was one of the things that he had salvaged from the earthquake that had destroyed his family house as well as most of the village. Although I’m sure was quite devastating, the way he spoke about it demonstrated the resilience that I saw in so much of the state.

Under a small shelter were below–ground containers. Lifting up the lids, he showed us their contents - a fresh and older batch of indigo dye mixture also containing lime and dates. To achieve the intense, dark indigo color, pieces would need to be dipped about five times. Beneath the containers (1.06 m or 3 ½ feet in height), goat dung was placed. All of this provided insulation from the heat and helped preserve the valuable dye. Inside one of the buildings, several people were engaged in different stages of the weaving process. Some were cranking a machine that spun the thread onto a spindle. A woman worked at high-speed to prepare the warp thread. In the corner, a man was weaving on a shuttle loom. Mr. Valji explained that such looms have replaced most of the pit looms that were almost exclusively used prior to the earthquake. While some wool from locally grown sheep is still used, his family has now also begun using synthetic wool and fine cotton. The fine cotton has enabled him to create more intricate, colorful designs. Such pieces had 90 threads per square inch instead of the usual 24. Although he has done some experimentation, traditional designs are still a major part of his work. About one plain shawl can be a woven in a day.

Inside his showroom, blankets, shawls, bed covers, bags, and placemats were neatly piled. Some had bright colors others dark, and still others retained the natural color of the fibers. Many of them contained small round mirrors that were so naturally into the woven design. As our conversation continued, Mr. Valji explained that he had been invited to attend the Folk arts and crafts festival in Santa Fe. Curious, I asked if he had met Nancy Walkup, an art teacher (an ArtsEdNet member I had known online for over 15 years) heavily involved in the festival, to which he replied, “Yes, I know Nancy.” Small world indeed.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Vijay Vilas Palace, Mandvi

Next, we visited the Vijay Villas–the summer palace built for its courtly ruler in 1929. Its architecture, particularly the curved bangaldar eaves above the windows in the upper floor, was reminiscent of that in Rajasthan. From its rooftop, we had a sweeping view of the Arabian Sea.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Mandvi Shipbuilding

After a quick stop at a Jain temple, we headed south about 60 km (37 mi) to the seaport town of Mandvi. For hundreds of years, this principle port of Gujarat witnessed the departure of its famous merchant navigators to all ports of India as well as to far-flung places such as South Africa, Arabia, Malaysia, China, and Japan - bringing back great wealth. Even now, one can find massive ships being built by hand in much the same way as they did hundreds of years ago. With nary a construction safety barrier in sight, we were able to go right up to the mass of wooden ships and even up the crude ladder into its hull. Inside, we had the undivided attention of each of the young workers; they didn’t seem to be working that hard anyway.

 On the outside of the unfinished ship, one man sat on a suspended plank, patiently wedging in strips of thick cotton cord in the spaces between the wide boards of the ship’s exterior. Supposedly this was done to help waterproof the ship. In the shipyard, several men worked in the heat at a simple lumber mill, transforming a massive log from Myanmar into lumber.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Mutwa Embroidery, Dhordo, Gujarat

In the Banni village of Dhordo, we met an artist named Sofiya. She demonstrated the Mutwa style of embroidery that incorporated tiny, round mirrors that she cut, along with intricate stitching using the buttonhole and chain stitches. Motifs were mostly geometric, in keeping with Islamic rules forbidding depiction of human and animal forms. Even during this short demonstration, she had to stop a few times to tend to her young son. Therefore, it was understandable when she regrettably replied that she did not have any larger pieces to sell. Such exquisite stitch work is passed down from the mother and learned at an early age (5-7 years old), which is when a girl begins preparing dresses that she will embroider, as part of the dowry.

Due to the increasing salinity of the ground, receding of rivers, and loss of grasslands, the people of the region have shifted their main livelihood from cattle breeding (as well as ghee and butter products) to handicrafts. For such women, belonging to a cooperative where they can retain a higher percentage from their embroidery work becomes even more important.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Banni Bhoonghas

The Banni villages we visited were quite clean– both inside and out. The surface was covered with a layer of cow dung, which made it easy to clean and the surface cooler. Goats freely roamed about. When a goat got too close to our shoes left right outside the door, our host shooed it away. Another bold one even tried to get inside the house. Most of the people in the village were related. Hanging from a column of a building was a round rusty container with a slit and small door that served as the village’s only mailbox. Despite the heat, children were outside playing. When they saw a certain motorcycle pull up, they dropped what they were doing and ran over to it. Their eyes widened with anticipation as the ice cream man pulled out treats for them: even in the desert, the ice cream man cometh!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Banni Women: of Sparkles and Spectrum

Muslim communities form a majority of the inhabitants of the Banni area. A few are from the Harijan (formerly called the “Untouchable” Hindu caste). Regardless, they are known for their bright colored clothing–probably as a response to the normally arid, hot conditions of the area. Here the women wore a type of blouse that was completely open in the back, with a couple strings securing it. Brilliant red, green, and yellow colors dominated. Their clothing was particularly heavily embroidered and sparkled in the sun as the light reflected off the mirrors.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

On the Way to the Banni Villages

Kutch police hut, where we obtained permission to enter Banni villages near Pakistan border

After a picnic lunch at a crossroads area where people could buy a few convenience foods, have a glass of chai, drop off people or cattle, and rearrange their loads, we drove to the northern areas of Kutch. This treeless area looked rather desolate and foreboding. The dull green of thorny acacia provided the only color against the dusty land. Dust devils spun around playfully.
A desert fox - a rare sighting
A Desert Fox raced across the road - a rare sighting. The road shimmered with heat. We were very thankful that our car had air-conditioning. To reach some of these villages, we had to obtain written permission from the area police. This was likely due to the proximity of the villages to the Pakistan border. As we got closer to the villages, we began seeing a type of role scrub plants that had moisture in it, and was consumed by grazing animals. We began seeing more boats, sheep, and the type of water buffalo that had very curly horns.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Recycled Fabric Dolls, Nirona

After the demonstration, the women quickly spread out toys and dolls created from recycled fabric and seed beads. Although rather crude, they had their charm. A few women also created jewelry out of seed beads. I was particularly interested in the women’s colorful clothing and jewelry, including large white bangles on their upper arms and brightly colored bangles extending from their wrists ¾ the way up their forearm.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Koli Wooden Lac, Nirona

Under the shade of a tree in Nirona, a group of Koli men were engaged in making wooden objects with lac coloring. Using a primitive lathe, pieces of teak wood were rounded and shaped. An elderly man used a chisel and file to form the main spatula part. Back on the lathe, a colored lac stick was pressed against the surface of the revolving handle. Due to the heat of friction, the colored lac melted and spread on the wooden handle. A cotton rag containing oil was applied to create even application as well as forming designs.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Copper Coated Iron Bells, Nirona

Located in a small dirt floor room whose main light source was the open door, was a young man who quietly demonstrated the craft of making copper coated iron bells. Currently, only two villages make these types of bells – Nirona and Zura. It is done by the Lohars of the Muslim community. Although the entire family is often involved (women and children help with the less technical aspects), only the men shape the bells and define their sound. These bells were traditionally hung around their necks of cattle and goats to help locate them. Now they may be made for musical instruments, wind chimes, and even for churches.

First the young man a rectangular strip of iron and shaped it into a cylindrical hollow. A cap was then formed by pounding metal into a die called a paroni. A Nero iron strip shaped like a horseshoe was then pushed through the Bell top to the inside of the Bell with both ends twisted and locked, forming the clasp loop at the top of the bell. We did not see the process of creating the burnished copper coating that includes baking the powdered brass & copper with stretched cotton. The metal is then buffed to create a lustrous polished tone. A shaped piece of dense hard wood was then hung in the inside to create the clanger. Using such simple tools and materials, it was amazing to hear their beautiful tonal quality.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Nirona - Small in Size, Big in Crafts: Part 1: Rogan Art

Although Nirona is considered rather small by Indian standards (15,000), a wealth of different types of crafts is created here. Driving through the narrow streets, we first visited Mr. Khatri Sumar Daud, whose family (males only) has been making Rogan art for the last eight generations. Mr. Daud pulled out a small round covered palette containing brightly colored pigment. He explained that the gooey gum substance was made from castor oil. Natural pigments are then added. He then transferred a small amount of the paste to the palm of his hand, working the substance until it felt pliable. Using an iron rod, flat at both ends, Mr. Daud touched the surface of the cloth with the tip containing the paste. It was amazing to watch how he was able to control the sticky, stringy paste and manipulate it so that it would form beautiful, curved shapes. In addition to varied lines and shapes, perfect dots could be made. Work was done intuitively and spontaneously.

After one color was completed on the half of the cloth, the cloth was then folded, transferring the impression to form a symmetrical design. A second color would then be added to the dried first half, but the cloth being folded again. This would be repeated until all colors were added. Many of the pieces he showed us (although each were unique) had the recurring theme of the Tree of Life. Mr. Daud explained that his family was the only one currently engaged in this craft. In the efforts of preventing this art from dying out, he is now teaching Rogan art to 25 females in the village.