Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Write...Edit...Publish...June 2018 : Unravelled Yarn


Image credit
Baluchari sari anchal - traditional handloom silk from Bengal.



Hello WEPers, and welcome to the June Challenge - Unravelled Yarns. Today I have a flash set in 80's Bengal, which is my home state in the eastern part of India, historically and also currently an important handloom centre. Undivided Bengal was where the famous muslin, so prized from Ancient Rome to 19th century Europe, was made. For millennia, Bengal produced a range of exquisite handloom textiles which were prized the world over. The setting therefore was a foregone conclusion! :) 

Many of these weaves were lost between the 19th and 20th centuries because of various reasons. However, revival and recovery efforts after independence has meant a steady restoration of skills and a comeback for these unravelled, and unrivalled, yarns.


The Motif

The road leading into the village washes out every monsoon for miles, but thankfully it is a few weeks before the rains hit and there is still a thin film of tarmac left. And it has been a miracle of connections, the call coming through that morning, the landlady remembering to mention it promptly, the trains and the buses and all the tedious details of travel aligning. Above all, my cluelessness for once taking a holiday and letting me decipher the message for what it was. Please tell him we could do with his help. Grandfather misses him. He must be very sick indeed, he has never let it be said out loud that he misses me ever before.

Even as I rattle the knocker, there seems to be something odd about the atmosphere. I cannot quite place it for a moment. Then Moilu opens the door and I am in the tiny courtyard. I realise what it is – the quality of silence. Already heavy with some nameless foreboding, the reassuring ker-thunk ker-thunk of the looms is missing among the medley of birdsongs and the phut-phut-phut of an autorickshaw on the main road two lanes away. The difference is an aural shock – I have never heard the looms silent during the day before. Even Moilu’s face is quiet, too quiet for a child.

The faded dark green curtain has not changed, the doorsill is the same uneven slash of concrete separating the raised veranda from his room. I lift the fabric and go in. The curtain filters the half-light to a green darkness. He is on his string bed, I realise I have never seen him lying down during daylight hours either.

“I touch your feet, Grandfather.”

He opens his eyes, when did they get so tired? His eyelids look like wrinkled bedsheets around a dark glass marble, his cheekbones sharp as a bamboo holding up the middle of a crumpled marquee.

“Ah, you came? I’m glad. I’ve things to tell you -”

I reach for his hands, they feel cold and dry, the fingertips roughened by the wood and the yarns and the years of working the Baluchari patterns, making the perfectly oblong storyboards meet without gaps or mitres at the silken corners of the anchal.

He has been doing this since childhood, his childhood, not mine. Baluchari is the family livelihood, and I have been initiated into it early too…but he sent me away enthusiastically a couple of years back. “Oh, it will be good for you. And us. Fresh design ideas. Traditions can be kept alive only through the new,” his hands all the while moving briskly on the loom, the copper colour yarn and the navy blue slowly forming into the pattern, spelling out the story of Rai-Kanai. Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

“Rest and get well, Grandfather.”


“No time, I’ve an idea…you'll put it down for me…Moilu doesn’t have your gift...You’ll do it, won’t you?”

“Yes, of course.”

But there is no response from the bed. The eyes have closed back again.


***

Outside, my mother is hovering with a glass.

“It’s not long,” she whispers and her face too is like the silent looms. “I’m glad you came. He’s been asking for you ever since...come and eat something.”

After the meal I go back to him and he opens his eyes, all of a sudden remarkably lucid, takes up the conversation as if there has been no break.

“You know Moilu goes to this school run by the Khristhans? They too have this story of the Flood, a great big Fish and the Tree of Life in a perfect Garden…there too they tell stories of Prophets on high mountains.”

“Really, Grandfather?”

“Yes, they’d make great motifs...Come closer.”

And so I sit next to him with the paper and colour in a beautiful woman with long hair holding out a fruit to a man in a resplendent garden with apple trees. And a snake. He insists on the snake. Who wants to wear a sari with a snake?

As it is young women nowadays do not always wear traditional Bengali saris, there is a lot of choice now – lehengas, shararas, anarkalis and even memsahebi gowns. His grip on reality is tenuous. Our traditions themselves are unravelling. I see it every day at the studio where I work. But I do not argue with Grandfather. There is no arguing with him.

“Ivory on green.” He murmurs when it is finished to his satisfaction. “Only the fruits picked out in deep red.”

Those, as it happens, are his last words.

***

Nothing I’ve told you so far is true. This is how I wish it had happened.

My landlady forgot to mention the call till the next morning. It was monsoons so the telephone back at the village wasn’t working, cables were knee deep in water. I managed to get through only after a couple of days and started off a good week later, there were no tickets to be had, no stars aligned for me. It was all too late. The cremation was over when I reached.

Afterwards Moilu told me about her principal, a nun from the school attached to the orphanage, visiting grandfather to persuade him about Moilu continuing high school.  The visit sparked him off - he talked excitedly of a new motif based on the Khristhani stories. But he fell ill almost immediately.

I did work his idea into a motif. But without the snake, I couldn’t for the life of me get the snake done right, it just looked like a zigzag thread, like a horrible mistake. So in the end I just did the man and woman and the garden with apple trees. I wove one with ivory on pistachio green, the fruits in red.  It sold well. I wove one with green on deep red too, gorgeously bridal. But that was years later. I wove it for Moilu and she wore it at her wedding.

WC - 994
FCA

Read the other entries here: 






A few words about the context. Not essential to read this to follow the story, but might be nice to know.

Touching the feet of elders is a traditional Indian greeting and mark of respect.

Anchal, also known as Pallu/Pallav, is the free end of the sari draped over the shoulder. The handloom sari has an unbroken history of 3000+ years in India.

Khristhan - Christian

Lehenga, sharara, anarkali - traditional stitched attires from other parts of India, usually two pieces - a tunic and some kind of trousers, worn by women with a long scarf-like fabric draped over the torso.

Memsahebi - memsaheb refers to a woman of European/foreign origin.

Baluchari is a heritage handloom silk weave from Bengal, originally from a village called Baluchar (meaning sandbank), now woven in villages in the Bishnupur/Bankura district. These are characterised by a heavily worked anchal, and have human/animal narrative motifs from the Hindu epics in the borders, they often had motifs based on life/figures from the royal courts also, the people who patronised the craft. Essentially a story in a sari. These motifs meet seamlessly without disruption at the corners of the central space in the anchal symmetrically. In the past, the weavers/artists would achieve that from memory, there was no template, no documentation, each generation passing on the art to their descendants/disciples. But these skills were lost at the beginning of the 20th century. The Baluchari was revived in the 1950’s when the jacquard looms replaced the traditional old style jala looms. Nowadays there is an attempt to revive the art of the jala looms also. Read more about the Baluchari sari here.

Most Indian brides would traditionally wear red. Red is an auspicious colour in Hinduism, it signifies shakti - the feminine energy principle of the universe. But this is not confined to Hindus, it is a cultural practice, Muslim, Jain and Sikh brides also traditionally wear red in the subcontinent. Most Christian brides get married in white, but some might choose to wear colours from the red/fuchsia/peach spectrum also. 




36 comments:

  1. Oh. Moved to tears. Both versions can exist. Simultaneously. Sometimes (fortunately) the lines between wishes and reality blur..

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    1. Sometimes it's good not to get what you want, but this was NOT one of those times...

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  2. A story told
    of good and evil
    yet evil run away
    A line so very thin
    for evil hides
    in so many ways

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    1. Not so much evil as human error really...he would have made it back perhaps, if his landlady didn't forget.

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  3. Maybe Grandfather's pattern came through him, even though he was days late. Beautiful story.

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    1. Yes, perhaps this was the only way the pattern could be transferred from one generation to the next, who knows? Glad you enjoyed the story.

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  4. A beautifully woven tale of family and heritage. Thank you for it today.

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    1. Thank you for being here. So glad you liked the story.

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  5. Hi Nila - wonderful to read ... and to be able to come back and look up more of the traditions and patterns. It's good to know people are remembering and bringing back their traditions ... I've always loved the stories woven into silk, tapestries, carpets etc .. the story told via cloth. As EC mentions - these parts blend together ... we too dream and remember things ... loved it - cheers Hilary

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    1. Ya, I know your liking for woven stories :) remember your post on the Bayeux tapestry still...

      Many of our traditions were lost due to industrialisation and mechanisation but there was a concerted effort to revive them. Thankfully. And more importantly, archive them so that they are never lost again.

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  6. Nila, reminds me of when my father died. Arrangements had been made but before arrival that phone call. He was already gone. Your mind does change the scenario - you want so much to have it differently, and those scenes do play out in your mind. Lovely! Thank you.
    Thanks for the welcome, too, I'm counting on the next few months to change things dramatically. :)

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    1. I'm delighted to see you and am all for the dramatic changes in the next few months :) Heartfelt wishes for your complete recovery at the earliest!

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  7. So much love and heartache in this story! You write beautifully, Nila. And the historical postscript is very interesting too.

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    1. Glad you liked the story and the history :) thanks, Olga. The history of art and particularly of peasant artforms and crafts is absolutely riveting.

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  8. A skillful weave of history and culture, the past and the present. Your poetic flair sparkles, Nila.

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    1. Sometimes I wish the poetic would stop being a busybody poking its nose into everything haha...jk. Or maybe not? Glad you liked it, thanks Adura!

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  9. This was such a beautifully written and emotional story. I absolutely loved it!

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  10. What we wish and what comes true isn't always the case when family passes. Trying his last wish even without fully knowing sure is the way though.

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    1. Deathbed memories are always terribly fraught - damned if the grandson is there, damned if he isn't. But being able to channel the last wishes of the deceased can provide solace.

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  11. Excellent. Very enjoyable. Too many good parts to mention. Loved the quote "Traditions can be kept alive only through the new."

    I really liked the observation that Christianity is not the only religion or culture that has stories about "the Flood, a great big Fish and the Tree of Life in a perfect Garden…" I've always been fascinated by the similarities between stories about the early days of the universe, and our own planet, as provided by the mythologies of many different societies. (And although I'm a Christian, I've long referred to the earliest tales of the Bible as "Judeo-Christian Mythology.")

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    1. Yup, the Great Flood and the Fish (or some sea-creature) is more of less universal to all cultures and all religions. In Hinduism there is the concept of Nandan Kanan ( lit delightful garden) of the gods where souls roam free of sorrow and worldly issues.

      I like to think these similarities in motifs exist because we are all the descendants of a small core population with a core set of stories, carried through migration to different continents and retold over and over again to evolve into their present diverse yet unmistakably linked forms.

      The Flood is way too universal NOT to have been an actual catastrophic weather event, geomythologists have almost narrowed down the time and place :)

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  12. Sad he didn't make it in time. But he still created the Garden of Eden as his grandfather wished. Just missing the snake.

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    1. I say good riddance - no snakes in Grandpa's garden! :)

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  13. A beautiful imagining of what could have been, rather than what was. To arrive too late fills one with regret. We need to appreciate those we love while they are still with us.Glad he was able to finish the weaving. I loved the extra information about the cloth, and its patterns.

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    1. That regret will haunt him all the days of his life I think. So agree about appreciating what we've got while we have it!

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  14. We all have regrets, but at least he was able to create some aspect of his Grandfather's vision. Loved the tapestry picture. And thank you for all the info on Bengal muslin. This writing was perfect for the prompt.

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    1. It should be a solace if an ancestral vision comes to fruition through you. Glad you liked the textile info.

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  15. A great story of tradition and family. I enjoyed how you used the flow of time to influence how the characters acted. How the grandfather embraced tradition, while his grandchild embraced both tradition and adapting to a changing world.

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    1. The grandfather was an innovator - he's the one who sent the grandson off to learn new things, and who designed the motif based on Christian 'stories' so...the grandson is the executor, but the grandfather had the ideas...sometimes the older generation can be more dynamic than the younger one. Appreciate your feedback. Thanks.

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  16. Hi Nila. Of course I've been here and read this but wanted to re-read and take it all in. Still haven't managed to, so I'll be back! So much! Love reading of the Indian traditions. True, that some stories/myths/legends are universal and therefore must have happened. I love the idea of the Nandan Kanan ( lit delightful garden) of the gods where souls roam free of sorrow and worldly issues. How wonderful that would be. Sounds a bit like heaven to me.

    You are a master storyteller, Nila. I could sit at your feet and let you regale me with tales all day (while sharing a wine or two of course).

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    1. Ooh, love the idea of story-telling sessions with vino! Say when! :)

      I like writing about stuff I know and am comfortable with. And I like exploring the similarities between cultures. Thanks for your support.

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  17. The descriptions are vivid and beautiful yet the story's sad. Well written.

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    1. Thank you. Glad you enjoyed the flash.

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  18. Very lovely story. I liked the line about the eyelids looking like wrinkled bed sheets around a marble.

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