A couple of weeks ago the gentleman who supplies us with printing paper and cartridges for the printer called to say that he had received a new shipment of stuff. His wife was really the dealer, he explained, and she was ready to show us some of the latest lot. Good quality, he promised, good prices too. For a few seconds, I wondered, but then I realised I already knew. It was nothing in the least bit nefarious that he was speaking of, but something quite innocuous albeit desirable.
The gentleman has a wife who came from Bangladesh. She has a little home business of embellished fabrics that she sources from her home country. And every time she brings in some, the shipment is gone in a matter of a few hours. This time, we were getting a preview, just because we had been asking to see the materials ever since we had heard about them.
So we trotted over, took a good look, a second look and a third, and picked out what seemed to be the best of the lot, overall a good lot. It was not especially traditional, unlike some of the other samples in the bundle, but it was pretty and had the kind of subtle impact I tend to favour in my clothes. There were some pretty examples of nakshi kantha, the craft I had read so much about, all adapted nicely to suit a modern urban lifestyle, used on cool cotton saris, stylish kurtis and elaborately worked salwar-kameez suits. The work was very similar to what is produced in Bengal, the traditional and age-old kantha work, simple stitches elaborately set into intricate designs that make art out of what is essentially a village craft, used in garments that have acquired high-fashion tags the world over.
That is what fascinates me about culture and tradition. There is a growing newfound respect for that which we have taken for granted for generations, elevated from something that was used to make everyday utilitarian items, often for household use, prettier. It could make a chore a little more pleasant and time spent in the house more aesthetic. Once upon a time it could have been done with the intention of giving a housewife or ageing member of the family something to do; painting could have been a matter of decoration, or for ritualistic purposes, to ward off evil or send a message or even just camouflage the home from possibly-hostile visitors to the area. Inside, too, there would have been some kind of ornamentation, a sense of house-proud-ness, an attempt to make the surroundings more appealing and interesting.
However, history and the human mind being what they are, much indigenous culture has got lost over time, due primarily to the whimsical nature of man and his snob values. There have been many times in India, for instance, when local culture and tradition has given way to the western music-video ethos, be it in films, in fashion and, inevitably, in craft. Fortunately, every time, there has been a valiant group of individuals who battle to make that erosion stop, to even reverse it in certain cases, making sure that what is irreplaceable and valuable as a reflection of the history of a human evolution is not lost forever.
Many years ago, I met an elderly lady who told me about a fascinating method of tie-dyeing textile, native to a region in western India. The bandhini, a tie-dye technique that caught tiny pinches of fabric in string, protecting them from being coloured when the piece is dipped into a vat of dye, told stories in the designs that were created by the intricate pattern of dots and circles that resulted. There were myths retold, the lady explained, and see here, this is how the new bride tried to entice her husband to stay with her and not go on a business trip; and this is what the woman said to her daughter when the girl said she wanted a new skirt that had gold paisleys on a scarlet background; and this one is about the man who won the battle that he fought against 17 men who tried to take over his field…
Fabric is one almost-universal way of capturing legends and passing them on to a new generation. It is useful in so many ways, a sari converting to a quilt that is usable as a tent that can be made into baby clothes that may end up as a bag for carrying new saris. Each may be embellished, with simple stitches like in kantha or more intricate ones as in the fine tilla work of Kashmir, and each tells of a world, a people, a life.
As these pieces are passed down from elder to child, from community to clan, from one village to another, the stories spread, the myths get tweaked, a new history is created. In that, even the salwar kameez piece I bought, sent via various people from your country, Bangladesh, to mine, India, will become a part of my personal culture, one that bonds us with a sense of beauty.
Ramya Sarma is a Mumbai-based writer-editor.