Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Malkha Project in Bangalore

The show at Cinnamon in Bangalore by The Malkha Project designers was a hit, with reports in both DNA and Deccan Chronicle [images above]on July 8. Bangalore has over the last 3 years since Malkha has been showing at Dastkar's annual Nature Bazars taken malkha to its heart, and there is always a good response there. My Bangalorean designer friend Julie Kagti says 'everybody is talking about malkha'. Well we'll be there again at Dastkar's Nature Bazar, opening August 6.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The exhibition season is on... after Akruthi Vastra in Hyderabad, Malkha takes part in Weavers' Studio, Kolkatha's show of khadi and related textiles from August 10 to August 17. This is our first showing in Kolkatha, and will run at almost the same time as the Bangalore Nature Bazaar which opens on the 6th of August.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sales at the Akruthi Vastra exhibition in Hyderabad were good in spite of the rain and the bandh, and malkha was introduced to a buying public that would normally not be interested in the khadi look. Both this annual event and the venue are well-known to the elite market of Hyderabad, and the stalls that catered to their taste did roaring business. The event was very well organized by the Crafts Council of Andhra Pradesh: they collected the cash so the stall holders did not have to worry about handling money. They organized credit card sales as well.

It was a pleasure to see Ansari's stall where the traditional Banarasi designs of sarees have been revived and also adapted as dupattas. Raw Mango had some interesting developments in Maheshwari and Chanderi, perhaps too daring for the Hyderabad gentry.

Vinita Pittie, the well-known designer from Hyderabad visited our stall, and some of our mail-order customers were fellow stall holders. Some of our customers at the show had heard of malkha and were pleased to find us. Subsequent sales at the malkha shop have benefited from this exposure. Our stall was managed by Sathyam & Venkatesh with help from neophyte Sandeep. Pavani, our newest recruit, was able to come only on the last day, and both the young ones enjoyed the excitement of the continuous cutting, packing, billing and delivery.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Part 3 [last]of Requiem for a Master

Along with the dyeing at artisan location Dastkar Andhra developed its tradition of the regular annual natural dyeing workshop in Hyderabad for all comers, artisans and others. These workshops were usually for cotton, though we did do one specifically for silk. Sir was the chief resource person for these workshops, helped after 1993 by Jagada Rajappa who had worked with him for the last fifteen years. These workshops were as much for our own learning as to teach others, and each one was a great stride ahead in our grasp of skills. Again, in these early workshops we set traditions that continue today: We alternate practical work with theory sessions, documentation & sampling, laced with anecdotes and the personal histories of the participants. The first of these annual workshops was held in 1990, and was the first time we used indigo.

Over the years we have taught artisan groups, individual artisans and others from Bengal, Orissa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Kerala. Most of the people we taught were new to natural dyeing when they first came to us and have since gone on to practice it regularly and even to teach others. Through these workshops our network of natural dyers has grown and strengthened. We have dyed silk, cotton, wool, tassar, jute, bamboo, sisal & korai grass.

Sir died in May of this year. Against his doctor's advice and to the despair of his loving family he led to the last the life he wanted, going wherever he was invited to teach natural dyeing, in the heights of Ladakh or the depths of rural Madhya Pradesh. Our last workshop with him was in February this year, for artisans from Uzbekistan. For the first time we worked with a group of artisans just thirsting for knowledge. During the Soviet regime traditional crafts had been banned in the Soviet republics, and our trainees were among the few left who had kept up the traditions of embroidery and weaving. It was a model workshop, with the learners as eager to learn as Sir to teach. As usual it was full of fun and laughter as well. When he died the Uzbeks ourned the passing of "a great usto".

Natural dyeing is one of the many skills that has been perfected by the people of this country, been forgottoen, and which we now seem to need white people to teach us. The process by which community knowledge is being appropriated by centralized knowledge systems, a process that began about two hundred years ago, is still going on and the original communities who were the rightful heirs of that knowlege are becoming more and more impoverished and reduced to selling their physical labour. The appropriated knowledge is encoded in forms that are accessible only to those with the accepted qualifications: the ability to read and a knowledge of the English language. Most people with these qualifications also become part of the same process, where knowledge becomes a source of personal gain, the right to which is symbolized by the institution of the patent.

But there is an alternative view, one that gave traditional societies all over the world their stability and allowed them to perfect low energy technologies suited to their particular conditions, the climate, the soil, the water and their own particular abilities. That view is that knowledge is the prerogative of the community, to be held in common for the general good.

There are critical periods in any field, when a choice exists for the direction of growth. At such times the personalities of individuals in such fields, their actions and ways of thinking determine the direction for that field. In natural dyeing as in many of the traditional skills there was such a period just after 1947, and Chandramouli happened to be the person at the nodal point. He had been trained as a dye chemist and had some practical experience when he met Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, who pointed him in the direction of natural dyes. He visited traditional dyeing communities all over the country in the days when traditional dyeing still existed on a large scale. He read all the available literature in English and in European languages in translation. Through his gift for scholarship, and the opportunities created for him by Kamala Devi, his knowledge of the theory and practice of natural dyeing gradually developed to an encyclopaedic level.

But the reason for which he will have my lifelong respect and reverence is not just his unequalled combination of brilliant scholarship and research on the one hand and his grasp of folk knowledge and tractical technique on the other. It is for the choice he made, to put the knowledge that he ahd gained back where it belonged, in its rightful place with the producer communities of this country. He took on the responsibiliteis of that choice, by developing methods of teaching artian groups with patience, humour, persistence and a complete absence of self-importance. This combination of qualites is rare, and at that particular juncture in history were crtical to the effort to redirect the flow of knowledge. Today if natural dyeing has a chance to regain its character as a living art, it will be due in large measure to the part played by K V Chnadramouli.

Sir's great gift was his ability to mix with all sorts of people without feeling that his great knowledge set him apart or gave him any special priveleges. He had great respect for artisans, patience with learners, indulgence with young people and tolerance of others' mistakes. His way of teaching by allowing learners to go at their own pace made it possible for them them to feel confident enough to work on their own, while he himself was always there as a source of information and inspiration. He taught innumerable artisan groups in this country, and re-established natural dyeing in Bangladesh. He taught business people too, for a fee, but refused the offer of a University position in a foreign country.

We never plumbed the depths of his knowledge: there was always more that he knew than we could ever learn. But our eight year partnership with him has established DastkarAndhra's traditions in learning and teaching natural dyeing. Chandramouli always regretted not having had institutional support in his career after the death of Kamala Devi. "I must have met you ten years ago" was his way of putting it, and he said it more than once. With that support he would perhaps have been able to bring other resource persons to his own level, not only in the technical, practical and scholarly aspects, but in the philosophy that underlay his work, his acknowledgement of artisan communities as the source of his knowledge and his deeply held conviction that it was his duty and the duty of people like him to restore the community knowledge base.

Today, thanks to Chandramouli there are at least twenty or thirty individuals who have access to both the practice of natural dyeing and to the information stored in books and libraries. Now the next step is to establish firmly the principles and practices that will ensure that natural dyeing takes root and spreads within artisan communities. The past is a source of inspiratin and information, but new ways are needed to meet new challenges and changing circumstances. Specific techniques of information storage and sharing, specific teaching methods, in fact a whole new tradition has to be developed to build on and consolidate Chandramouli's life work.

Dastkar Andhra
September 1997

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Part 2 of Requiem for a Master

In those early days of our natural dyeing, we travelled to Penukonda & Hindupur in Anantapur district with Sir to teach cotton yarn dyeing to a group of girls and young women through a local organization, and to work with professional dye-houses dyeing silk for our silk saree project through the same organization. We used to carry bags of dye material with us on the train from Hyderabad, which had to be unloaded quickly at Penukonda during the one-minute halt there. Once we had 11 packages and the train came in to the station on a track away from the platform, which meant that we had to climb down to ground level, cross one set of tracks and then climb onto the platform, quite a feat of agility. Sir on such occasions would behave more like an eager schoolboy than a famous 60 year old consultant with a serious heart condition.

Teaching the girls was a pleasure. Though they were illiterate and natural dyeing was new to them, its basic vocabulary was familiar since it was like household cooking, and it was just a matter of learning the recipes. We worked out non-literate ways of weighing and measuring and they were on their way. The dye-houses were another matter. They were cynical about making the dyes fast and the Hindupur dyehouse made Annapurna & me tear out our hair; for the first time we encountered obstinate non-cooperation. The dyers there would not keep the yarn in the dye-bath on the fire for the 45 minutes required to get deep, fast colour. They would whisk it off in 10 minutes, so the colours were light and dye material wasted. Sir would not be upset. 'Never mind' was one of his favourite phrases. He excused others' faults though he was rigorous himself.

Chinnur was another of our early collaborations with Sir. In this former market town in Adilabad district we worked with a small group of 6 cotton weavers and a tassar weaver from Kusnapally, a nearby village. Sir initiated Dastkar Andhra's natural dyeing here, travelling uncomplainingly by second class on the train from Hyderabad to Mancherial, and from there only 35 kilometres but an hour by rattling country bus to Chinnur. The dyeing was done in a lean-to behind one of the weavers' houses using hand-pumped water from tube wells. The water here never gave us the reds we got in coastal Andhra. And in the beginning we had problems with fastness, but we and the weavers persisted, and slowly natural dyeing took root. Now, eight years later, this group of six makes a good living from natural dyed fabrics. And what we learnt here with Sir and the weavers is the basis of Dastkar Andhra's natural dyeing teaching programme today: How to share knowledge without falling into the trap of self-importance, how to pass on the respect the knowledge deserves without making it seem difficult or obscure.

more follows...

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Here is part 1 of Uzramma's account of Dastkar Andhra's association with the great K V Chandramouli, Requiem for a Master:

The first experience we had of "Sir", K V Chandramouli, was when we took him to Eluru to teach natural dyeing to woolen carpet weavers. We had heard of him as the authority on natural dyeing and had persuaded the Andhra Pradesh Handicrafts Corporation to appoint him as a consultant. It was 1989, he had just retired from Government service, and Dastkar Andhra was a fledgling group working with artisans in Andhra. Annapurna was 22, an electronics engineer in revolt and a trained Carnatac singer. Salim was a driver & I was a retired housewife in my later forties. I had done some reading on natural dyeing in the old Bristish gazetteers but the other two were completely new not only to natural dyeing but also to any kind of craft production.

Those first workshops in Eluru set many of the traditions of our association with Sir. In those days artisans were not convinced of the value of natural dyeing and not prepared to put in the hard work it involved. They would wander off and Annapurna and Salim would be left to handle the wool. Sir was unfailingly cheerful, never fazed by lack of response, always ready to give his best and to teach whoever was there to learn. Clean to a fault himself he put up with grubby dak bungalow accommodation. In spite of his age and his heart condition - he was 62 and had already had two heart attacks - and his status as a world renowned specialist in natural dyes he cheerfully shared our bus and ricksha travel and ate uncomplainingly whatever food was available. The atmoshere of those workshops was full of enjoyment of each others' company, of the pleasure we got from learning and Sir from teaching. Waiting for the water to boil of the dyes to cook Annapurna would sing Kannada songs for Sir. Guruppa Chetty, a leading Kalamkari artist from Kalahasti and his son Niranjan who had known Sir since childhood and called him Tatha, grandfather, were also part of our team. Guruppa would recite verses from the Puranas and tell stories. That's how Annapurna and Salim started in natural dyeing.

In Eluru we worked with wool using hired cooking vessels that has to be scrubbed of grease before we started and of colour after we finished. We dyed at the roadside tap, drying the wool on the pavement. The weavers were sceptical until they saw the beautiful colours we got: blue from indigo, rusty red from madder root, yellow from myrobalan and pomegranate rind.

More to follow...