SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
I don’t think I ever wrote anything about this piece. It’s one of our India-acquisitions – a beaded toran (small window curtain or alcove decoration). Glasses for scale.
We bought it in the Koregaon Park neighborhood of Pune, in a curiosities/furniture/antiques shop called Sanskriti Lifestyle. The clerk there was only able to tell me that it was old – he had no other information to share. So I began to research.
The beadwork style is called “Moti Bharat“, and is practiced in both Gujarat and neighboring Rajasthan, but is a relatively recent practice, only dating back to the mid to late 1800s. I don’t know enough about how the execution of this style differs between those two provinces to identify the exact source. All I can say is that compared to many on-line examples from both areas, it’s a rather modest and understated little piece.
On “old” – it’s definitely not a recently made piece, but neither is it very aged. I suspect it was probably made before the 1970s, but probably not earlier than the 1940s, based on the colors and types of beads used (all glass rather than plastic, with a wider color set than pre-1940s pieces).
I believe this piece was beaded off-fabric, using a mesh technique. That’s the traditional method.
It may or may not have been displayed in this original un-backed format – the condition is quite good with no breaks or evidence of stress, which leads me to believe that it probably wasn’t. But I don’t think this piece is totally untouched.
I think that what I have might be a fragment of a larger toran.
Look at the red/orange beaded line that surrounds the center motifs. On the left, it’s a straight line, and the width of the white beading to its left is more or less constant. But on the right it’s wavy, it corners earlier and the white beaded area varies in width, and is oddly bunched in places by the blue/white/red border. If my hunch is correct, the border (which has a different periodicity than the field) might have been applied later, after the bulk of the piece was salvaged from an earlier work, and after its right side was more or less restored.
After the beading (including any theoretical restoration) was finished, this piece was affixed to the current red cotton cloth backing, by hand. I’ve looked closely at these myriad little attachment stitches, and they do NOT go through the beads themselves. Instead they loop around junctions in the beaded mesh, to attach the entire structure to the backing.
Again – there may have been an earlier presentation that involved the beads and the red backing, possibly with some sort of other edging because the seam allowance of the red bit shows evidence of earlier hand stitching.
And at a still later date (based on wear of the backing cloth), the edges of the beadwork were stitched down again, with long reinforcing stitches in heavier string, and the piece was edged around with the yellow bias binding. At this time the white ruffle on the bottom was added. The bias binding, hanging loops, and ruffle were all put on with machine stitching. There is evidence that the piece was hung for display in this configuration – rust stains on the inside of the top loops, plus one of the bottom loop that has been pulled from its attaching stitches.
As to what the motifs symbolize – all I can say is that trees and the little bulls are traditional. The top center motif might be a representation of a divine figure, I can’t say. All I can observe is that the composition although balanced and pleasing is very simple for pieces of this type. It was a decoration that brought joy to a modest household, albeit it one of the means to afford such things. It now hangs in my house, and continues to bring joy.
I invite my India friends to chime in with more details!
IN WHICH WE BUY FURNITURE
On Saturday past, for something to do, we wandered out to visit several antique and decorative item shops nearby. We’ve been looking for smaller items to bring back home:
We’ve been looking for a second chair for our living room for a very long time.
We found this in Just Antiques, on North Main Road here in Pune. They specialize in pieces made from repurposed wood. This piece is aged teak. The back is a recycled piece of interior paneling or carved window screening. The origin of the legs and seat platform are less discernable.
When we get home we’ll lose the egregious purple foam cushion. I’m now on the lookout for a length of embroidery, a small weaving or lightweight rug that can be used to cover a sprung cushion. I think that a very thick knife-edge piece with a center button would look far better than the slab of purple cheese that’s there right now. Perhaps next week’s trip to Kerala and the beach will turn up something appropriate.
We also got a small shelf/coat rack at Ra in Kalyani Nagar. That is destined to go behind our front door, also in the living room. It’s a simple wood shelf, with antique cast iron side brackets sporting pierced ornamentation, and a wrought crossbar below the shelf to which is attached four large wrought coat hooks. We have no front or reception closet, and it will be nice to have a place to hang guests’ coats when they visit. I do not show pix today because it is securely wrapped for shipment, and I don’t want to undo its bubble-wrap cocoon.
Of course, you can’t be in Another World without exploring the retail options. India is a textile lover’s paradise, with all sorts of fabrics both hand and machine woven, ranging from the humble to the outrageous. I can’t buy it all. In fact, I can’t buy very much, especially compared to the vast volume I covet. But I am keeping my eye out for special items, with special purposes in mind.
First, I’ve written about Kasuti embroidery before. I’ve been on the lookout for an example, but so far, I’ve not seen anything. Not so much as scrap. Perhaps when we go to Kerala next month we’ll see some, but I suspect that given its intricate nature and simple presentation, it is not being made in quantity for sale any more, because other more showy work of less labor can sell for more.
But I did find this piece. It’s NOT hand-made. It’s machine embroidered sari, using traditional colors and patterns on an all-cotton ground. In terms of scale, the stitches are about twice as large as the museum pieces I saw here in Pune, and in Delhi. But it’s unmistakably part of the heritage, and the seller was very surprised that I recognized it as such.
I have also found some trim for my long-delayed library curtain project. The 1 inch wide red paisley at the bottom is actually hand-stitched. I’m not sure what to do with the blingy gold at the top, but it was so over the top and of such a typical Renaissance configuration, that I had to buy it. A use will present itself, I am sure. Aside: most borders and trims here in India are sold in single piece 9-meter lengths, the optimal length for application onto a standard sari.
Also at the same store as the red trim, I found some silk embroidery floss.
This stuff is quite fine, with the individual strands being significantly thinner than Soie d’Alger, my go-to silk for countwork. I got a bunch in assorted colors, each big bundle containing 10 skeins, and the skeins being 10 rupees apiece. That’s about 16 cents US at the current exchange rate. I will probably go back and get more, although the range of colors was rather attenuated.
And finally, I got a yard of real silk canvas. My signet ring is shown for scale.
What to make of this? Given the silk threads above, I’m thinking of something along the lines of this piece:
This is a 17th century sampler in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago (Museum #2008.627). It’s worked on a gauze ground in darning and double running stitch (among others). It’s not going to happen any time soon, but the materials are now in my hands and ready.
IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES–PART V
It occurs to me that before I can begin writing about our holiday week London trip, complete with meet-up with Elder Daughter, plus all sorts of interesting sights at various museums, historical places, and theater performances, I have to finish my posts about our November trip to Agra and Delhi. Apologies for the delay, I plead computer woes, spotty connectivity, and ennui (in no particular order).
Here’s the prize piece from our big India trip – a tamboured Pashmina jacket, made in Kashmir, but purchased in Agra.
It is one of the nicest, most finely worked tambour items I’ve handled. The colors in these shots are pretty true, but they glow a bit more in person. The golds, oranges, reds, and browns twinkle against the cobalt blue ground. The edging isn’t trim – it’s more densely packed tambour work, done on the same piece of cloth as the scrolling vines of the main body. The buttons are cloth, covered with more stitching. The thread is all Pashmina wool, too. No metallics or glitter. You can see the surface sheen from the fine, densely packed chain stitches in the button placket.
I will say that this was an indulgent gift from The Resident Male – the price made me giddy, even after he bargained it down from the stratosphere. But for work of this quality, the price was fair. I adore my luxury present, and am looking forward to wearing it in cooler climates.
I am still looking for other good examples of Indian needlework, more within my budget. Sadly, as with so many handcrafts, bad drives out good. Since most of the tourist market does not recognize or reward quality craftsmanship, artisans pursue greater revenue and higher volume over better artifacts.
Pieces that show skill and solid artisanry are few and far between, but I’ve seen endless piles of poorly stitched shisha (mirror) work cushions, sloppy satin stitch hangings that look like they were done in one evening, and beadwork that sheds its sequins after a light shake. I can’t fault the makers – they are pressed to provide income for their families. But I won’t buy those things, either. So the hunt continues…
IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES–PART IV
I’m not done yet!
Here’s another piece we found on our Delhi/Agra trip. This came from a dealer in Agra, and not the fair trade market in Delhi.
This is a patchwork wall hanging. It’s sort of in Crazy Quilt style, although the piece is one huge block, roughly 4 feet x 2 feet. It’s made up of fragments of highly embellished antique textiles, much of it overdyed in black; plus some newer pieces to eke things out. The fragments are appliqued to totally cover a background, and that ground cloth is in turn backed by another heavier cotton cloth. There is minimal quilting between the layers to hold them together – mostly some tacking stitches along the rolled borders between the fragments.
Close up you can see the amount of beadwork, sequins, gold stitching and other encrustations:
The dealer had several like this. Believe it or not – this was the plainest. It was also the one in best condition. One problem with antique pieces is that often the cloth is not stable. Silk is friable, and crackles with age. All the more so when it has been overdyed. Threads securing hand-hammered sequins or rough edged metal beads can break easily. I looked long and hard at the five offerings, and picked the one in the best shape from a curator’s perspective.
The number of techniques in this piece is hard to estimate. There’s tambour in silk, cotton and metal threads; beadwork and sequins applied in myriad ways; satin stitch, laid couching of various types; buttonhole stitch; something very much like or nuée, with gold threads affixed with colored silks in patterns or to create shaded effects; appliqued lace; some very old mirror work (shisha); and heaven knows what else.
The way this piece is put together reminds me a lot of a cherished gift at home. Jackie of the late and lamented Wild & Woolly, gave me this knitting bag for services rendered when I helped her with a major home reorganization:
It’s also of Indian origin, assembled patchwork style from small pieces of sari borders and other embroidered snippets. In this case the backing fabric is cotton velour, instead of heavy flat-woven matte-finish cotton. I have a feeling that this bag is somehow related to the black hanging, if only distantly.
But as jaw-dropping as the black piece is, it’s not our ultimate acquisition (so far). You’ll have to wait until the next post to see that!
IN WHICH WE BUY MORE TEXTILES–PART III
O.k. So technically, these aren’t embroideries. But they are still textiles.
Among the various indulgent purchases we made on our Agra-Delhi vacation was this Kashmiri rug, bought after much hard bargaining from a traditional Smiling Rug Merchant:
The bargaining is part of the theater. I don’t believe for a minute the merchant’s protestations that we were taking bread out of the mouths of his children (their graduation photos from US universities were behind his desk), but the play of price, offer, counter offer, reticence and commitment must be played out for any large purchase. It’s like high school dating, but for merchandise.
This piece is a runner, for use in the long hall outside our library. It’s an heirloom quality, all-wool warp hand knotted rug, with long, luxuriant fringes, and dyed with traditional vegetable colors. It’s hard to say how such muted reds and tumerics glow, but they do. We’ll probably leave it out for a couple of days to admire, then roll it back up in its muslin bag to await shipment home with the rest of the household goods, come June.
The next day we bought some woven pieces at Dilli Haat as gifts and souvenirs.
The small woven bags and coasters are cotton and straw. The four larger hobo-style soft tote bags are cotton with inset hand-woven bands. If my notes are correct, these are backstrap-loom produced pieces from Nagaland, near Assam.
[UPDATE] I’ve done some research on the small woven straw clutches. I didn’t write down the region of origin when I bought them, but I’ve now pegged them to the c0astal region of Orissa. They are made of sabai grass and cotton, and are part of an economic initiative that assists families in flood-ravaged areas reclaim economic self-sufficiency.
These smaller items we did not bargain for, other than putting together a group and asking for a price for the larger purchase, rather than toting up each item individually. All were quite reasonably priced, and sold as they were by the village or guild co-ops, we were happy to provide fair recompense directly to the crafting artisans themselves.
I’m not done yet. There are more pix of textiles to come. And if you want to see the larger sights of our trip, the husband has posted an excellent two-parter on our trip to the Taj Mahal.
IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES–PART II
Here’s the second group of purchases.
These are three cushion covers and three small glasses-case-sized pouches, all done in pattern darning. We also got these in Dilli Haat, in Delhi; from a Government-registered ethnic arts stall. In this case, the pieces were done by a Toda cooperative. The Toda people are from South India in the Niligiri Hills and surrounding areas. Their traditional culture is pastoralist, centering on dairy herds.
Their stitching, seen on a Toda’ woman’s outfit below, has been adapted for retail sale. The Dilli Haat vendor was selling the square cushions and small bags I bought, plus tote bags, larger throws, and bolster cushion covers (think cylinders, with the stitching going around the circumference).
Image credit for the lady above: 6 Assago via the Fair Trade Forum – India, which also works with Toda cooperatives to market their crafts.
Anyone who is familiar with my love of black, red and white geometrical stitching will know I was especially delighted to find these pieces. It will be difficult for me to part with any of them, even though I bought them as gifts.
In terms of technical specs, the white ground cloth is a bit like Aida cloth, even weave with a well defined “stitch here” hole structure; at roughly 20 doubled threads per inch. The thread used looks to be an acrylic lace-weight plied yarn. It’s a bit friable, so gentle care is in order to minimize surface fuzzing. The pouches and cushion covers are lined, so seeing the reverse is problematic.
Now, there are several embroidery styles in India that use pattern darning. For example, Kasuthi also employs Negi (weaving) stitch for individual stand-alone motifs or for borders in which the stitches form the foreground. But the Toda style is a bit different. It’s characterized by strips of uniform patterning, with the stitching making up a solid background against which the unworked ground cloth peeps through in geometric designs.
And I love it.
KASHMIRI TAMBOUR-EMBROIDERED CARPET
Mary Corbet over at Needle n’ Thread has just posted an interesting piece contrasting tambour needle produced chain stitch with the same stitch produced by a traditional threaded needle. She notes the speed, density and coverage factor of tambour stitching. I present a truly huge sample to corroborate her observations.
I have an entire room-size floor carpet done in tambour work.
For those of you who don’t know what tambour is, it’s a method of producing an even embroidery stitch with a chained appearance, by plunging a hook through a base fabric, catching a loop of decorative thread, then repeating the process to create a line. The hook used (called arhi, here) looks a bit like a fine crochet hook, but the end of the hook is a bit more pointed, to make piercing the ground fabric easier. Mary offers up some excellent discussions of the technique, so I’ll skip doing so.
In any case, Mary’s piece made me think about the rug we recently purchased:
This piece is roughly 6’ x 9’ (1.8 x 2.7 meters). Everything you see here is stitching. The white cotton ground is totally covered by vibrant, dense-pack chain stitch in jewel colored cotton:
By getting close up with my gauge square, I can see that the stitch count varies between 10 and 12 stitches per inch, with the longer stitches being in the plain areas like the simple straight pink and brown runs at the bottom of the detail, above. For width, about three rows of stitching equals 1/3 of an inch, with the longer stitch areas being a bit narrower in addition to leggier. Perhaps the less skilled stitchers were assigned the boring border areas, and the more skilled artisans did the intricate motifs. In any case, because of the variability of stitch length and some small mistakes here and there, I am pretty confident that this rug was done by hand and not with a sewing machine.
If I flex the heavy canvas ground cloth, I can see some pencil lines behind the stitching that mark off major design areas, but not every area or motif is indicated. Finally, the entire piece is backed with another layer of cotton sheeting, slightly thinner than the natural color ground cloth.
Our rug came from the Kashmiri area further north, the source of so many of the handcrafts available here in Pune. It’s a bit unusual because this type of stitching is more commonly done in wool. Namdas for example, are tambour stitched rugs worked in wool (or sometimes today, wool/acrylic blend or even cotton) on a felted wool ground cloth. I’ve seen them both here, and occasionally in import stores in the US.
Back to our carpet – how long did it take to make? Tambour is speedy, but 6’ x 9’ is a huge amount of handwork. The crafts merchant who sold it to us said that these pieces were the product of family manufacture. It typically takes several people (I’m thinking four to six, more can’t easily fit around the cloth to work) about two weeks to make one this size. I base this on the fact that he says one family can produce between two and four big pieces per month. Ours was one of the largest. Most of the other samples of cotton tambour were about half this size. To my stitcher’s eye, ours was also the most accomplished of the four available cotton rugs. It was the most evenly and densely stitched, with the best color balance and patterning.
The stitched surface is holding up nicely to moderate traffic, although we are careful with it. We do not wear shoes in the house, and I do not subject this piece to the vacuum. Instead I light surface sweep with a soft plastic broom, and supplement that with occasional shake-outs. Thankfully, nothing has spilled on it. Yet.
We bought this piece because we fell in love with the brilliant color, intricate patterning; and because I appreciated the skill that it took to produce, and the magnitude of labor it represents. It’s time and care, rendered in cotton, and will be one of my favorite keepsakes, long after we return home.
UNTIL THE COWS COME HOME
We’ve all heard the expression “You’ll be doing that until the cows come home.”
But when exactly is that?
It turns out that on this street there’s a small herd of Indian Urban Cows. They commute each day to local grazing, much like the businessmen in the surrounding high rise buildings go back and forth to work. Our street’s five cows amble out and back, shepherded by a guy on a bicycle (or occasionally on foot).
Having tracked the data, I can now say exactly what time they come home.
Roughly at around 4:30pm.
Here’s the data for October:
Amusingly, you can see that the trendline correlates with the slowly shortening days, as the sun rises later and sets earlier as the month progresses.
So if someone says that a task won’t be finished “Until the cows come home,” you can pipe up and say, “I’ll be back at 4:30 to pick it up.”
Another mystery of the ages, put to bed by scientific observation.
There’s always something a bit bittersweet about the end of a holiday or festival. All that preparation before, then the exuberance of celebration, followed by an ending. And then all that’s left is clean-up, thinking on the past, planning for the future, and looking over the pictures.
Yesterday was the end of the 10-day annual celebration in honor of Lord Ganesh. We didn’t get to see the very heart of the festival in Pune – that was accessible only by wading on foot through blocks and blocks of dense crowds in the old parts of the city at night, something inadvisable for Western women on their own. But thanks to the resourcefulness of Driver Rupesh, we did get to catch some of the sights and excitement around the edges.
First, there are over a thousand sanctioned celebratory platforms (pandals) raised by various affinity groups – civic associations, merchant groups, political parties, charitable organizations, religious affiliates and so on. And there are easily as many “unofficial” pandals, not registered, erected by still other smaller groups; in addition to an uncountable number of displays and altars in private homes.
Rupesh drove us around the edges of the area cordoned off for pedestrian traffic only. We saw only a very small portion of the pandals, but even so, we lost count at around 50. The only thing these displays have in common is that there is a revered image of Lord Ganesh at the center, as the focal point for devotion and offerings. The housings differ in size, elaborateness, decoration, and other activities. Some include stages for live performances, and in between devotions show live action tableaux, plays, musical performances, puppet shows, or other in-person entertainments. Others include audio-animatronic spectacles, illustrating scenes from sacred texts, classical literature, or history. Some are total light shows, with throbbing music and choreographed displays of thousands of LEDs blinking in time to the beat. Still others include video loops or public speakers espousing various noble causes – respect for women, clean water, universal education, and the like.
Some, belonging to smaller, less affluent organizations, pass up the expensive lights and fireworks. Those are decorated with flowers and plaited banana leaves, paper ornaments, or modest household textiles. The most poignant were totally bare, with signs that said that the money the group would otherwise have used for decoration this year has been donated to flood relief in Uttarakhand, the province in which thousands of pilgrims and hundreds of villages were swept away during the June monsoon rains.
Here are a few photos of what we saw. Apologies on the image quality. Taking photos at night from a moving car in the rain requires a better camera and a steadier hand than we possess.
The architectural fantasy on the left had a large stage with dance performances. The LED creation on the right twirled and throbbed like a Las Vegas sign.
Here’s a GIF made up of images we took, that conveys a (silent) impression of the frenetic dancing lights at yet another pandal. But you’re missing out on the disco-beat drums of the accompanying sound track.
The animatronic display at the site above is of a pivotal scene from the Ramayana. In this story, Lakshmana, the son of Lord Rama has been gravely wounded during the wars against Ravana, king of demons. The only thing that can heal him is a herb that grows on a certain mountain in the Himalayas. Lord Hanuman, comrade of Lakshmana undertakes the quest. Prevailing against a hindering Ravana, the hero Hanuman arrives at the mountain, but even after stretching time for his search by delaying the sunrise, he cannot identify exactly which of its plants the healing herb might be. He solves the dilemma by fetching back the entire mountain (image at left). Lakshmana is saved (image at right), and Hanuman is extoled as a sworn brother of Lord Rama.
Pandals are the centers of celebration for ten days and nights, with most of the activity occurring after dark. On the last day, the images and devotional offerings are honorably retired by immersion, preferably in a flowing body of water. This is accomplished via procession, with as much music, dancing, singing, and general merriment as possible. Here you see a small family image being escorted down our street (seen from our balcony, above). What you can’t hear is the singing, chanting and cymbals that marked this progress:
The celebrants are stained with red because they launch red powder at the image as they make their way to the river, three blocks away from our flat.
It seems that on the last day, half of the city is in motion, conveying Ganpati to designated immersion spots. Big ones travel in luxury, in massive lorries and carts decorated as elaborately as the pandals (below). Smaller ones are pushed on hand carts (also decorated); or as above – carried by hand. In all cases, the images are accompanied with chanting, drums or marching bands, singing, and dancing.
Most processions converge on one of the official staging areas, where the images are handed to special groups hired to perform the final ritual to sink them into the river, either from boats or (if size is a limiting factor) being carried by teams of bearers and swimmers (left). Some families opt for non-official immersion spots, and even risking the rapids themselves (right).
Now today, the day after, the city seems empty. Pandals are still standing, but their sacred inhabitants are gone. The structures are being slowly disassembled. They have a slightly forlorn and empty air, as if all of the past ten days of celebration can still be heard echoing across the empty platforms, playing out before their absent Lord.