Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stitches from Kutch (26 April 2015, Deccan Herald)


Stitches from Kutch

Juanita Kakoty, April 26, 2015,
Folk craft
A creative touch A colourful display of Kutch embroidery. PHOTO by Author

In a corner of the courtyard at the recently concluded Design Haat by the Apeejay Institute of Design in New Delhi, 40-year-old Keshav Bhai sat in his stall displaying all sorts of embroidery from Kutch — patka, chaupar, khatri. Intricate embroidery with glasswork, made with threads of vibrant colours, enchanted visitors at the stall. Gorgeous bags, quilts in patchwork and apparel were on display. 

“Weaving has been a family tradition,” Keshav said as he laid out beautiful kanjaris before me. Kanjaris are long backless blouses which are heavily embroidered, traditionally worn by the women of Gujarat’s Kutch region. “These are only worn by married women,” he thus spoke of the kanjaris. 

“And they stitch it themselves for their wedding and to wear thereafter. By the time a girl is eight or 10 years old age, she learns to stitch; and when she is about 20, she would have stitched some eight to 10 of these kanjaris for herself.” For contemporary fashion, he said, kanjaris could be used in kurtas as embellishment.

Sitting next to him, 35-year-old Umra, wearing a stunning kanjari, was teaching a team of Chinese students a few stitches. These students were working out some Chinese designs with these stitches. “This is in tandem with the spirit of the Apeejay event, the Design Haat that is being organised,” said graphic designer Ashit Sarkar, who has been working with the Apeejay Institute of Design for the past 15 years. “The intention is to facilitate the exchange of ideas whereby the traditional crafts could be taken on to the level of contemporary expressions, which would attune them to modern markets.”

“I learnt these stitches from my mother and aunts when I was a little girl,” Umra said. Referring to the kanjari she was wearing, the talented artiste revealed that she had stitched it as a young girl, before she got married. “We get a lot of demand for our embroidered bags and quilts, which we make through appliqué and patchwork,” Keshav explained. “Appliqué and patchwork have been traditionally used by women in Gujarat to create bags, quilts, dresses, etc. from worn and torn pieces of cloth.” These techniques have been especially used in the region for making quilts for domestic use, he emphasised.  

Laying out a quilt in front of me where little patches of geometric-shaped fabrics were sewn together, Keshav said, “This is patchwork. Traditionally, this technique was used by women to create quilts with used pieces of fabric.” Appliqué, on the other hand, he said, is the art of decorating a piece of textile by applying fabric on fabric with the edges sewn down. “We cut the fabric in some form or shape and then stitch it on the surface of the textile. Appliqué is one of the oldest crafts of Gujarat; the women have used it to create quilts, wall hangings, and dresses by using different patches of fabric and piecing them together.”

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Parvathy Baul (Deccan Herald, 19 April 2015)


Singing her way to the divine

Juanita Kakoty, April 19, 2015, DHNS
Baul music

Musical discovery Baul artiste Parvathy Baul during a performance.

Parvathy Baul needs no introduction. She has mesmerised audiences in India and abroad for 22 years now. And I understood the why and how of it when I saw her on stage for the first time at a recent event in Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi. Draped in a saffron cotton saree, jata hair falling like a cascade down to her ankles, an iktara in one hand and a duggi slung over the shoulder hanging by one side of the waist, Parvathy cast a spell over the audience every time she sang in that powerful voice of hers.

It wasn’t just the voice or her singing, but the strumming of the iktara and the playing of the duggi along with it, accompanied by graceful dance movements, that had a transcendental quality to her performance. Sitting in the audience, I realised, although she sang in Bengali, I could experience the transcendence she was going through as well as the transcendence she was affecting upon me. The manner in which the audience applauded her after every performance was evidence enough that the others felt the magic too.

Baul is listed as one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO since 2005. Parvathy told me, a few hours before she went on stage, “It is a tradition which is thousands of years old. And it is a guru-shishya parampara where one needs to be initiated into the Baul tradition. The singing and dancing here is typically used for meditation: You start feeling lightness, you give up your ego and all that you carry in your mind, and finally you transcend, you experience freedom. That is Baul. And once you experience freedom and cross all your blocks in the mind and knots of the mind, you experience pure joy and love! To experience this is Baul.”

Parvathy doesn’t come from a Baul family. “I have learnt Baul singing and dancing from my guruji Sanathan Das Baul from Bakura and Shashanta Goshain from Murshidabad.” As a child, she had been trained in classical music and classical dance though. “But,” she admitted, “What I was looking for was freedom of the spiritual kind. I was looking for an art form with a strong spiritual side; which would not only be a performance, but also a path that would make me live in a certain way and make me experience what I perform throughout the way... Like you need to keep a connection which is divine! With Baul, I think, it is complete because it involves singing, dancing, meditation, as well as playing one’s instrument: You become a complete receiver, absolutely open and transparent.” Then she added candidly with a smile, “Now I can articulate all these things. But when I chose Baul, I could not articulate it. I just loved it.”

“The Baul songs used to be oral, maybe up till the 1990s,” she informed. “After the 1990s, we have lots of books. Many people have published the Baul songs.” Bauls of yore used to go from place to place in search of music, collecting songs. But there is an available repertoire today. “And this repertoire is strong. But, one has to remember that Baul is about continuity. It is not about looking for an end by just gathering information. It has to come from within. If one is with the flow, then naturally one will write a poem and compose music for it. That’s the uniqueness of this tradition. It never settles. You have a repertoire which you collect from your guru. And then you have to go beyond this repertoire. You have to become independent and find your style, your song.”

Today, Parvathy is one of the foremost Baul singers of the country. “I feel happy that my work has been appreciated, but I feel I am still a student and I have a long way to go.” She is just 38 years old but when she speaks it seems like she carries the wisdom of a soul which is civilisations old. “What I am doing is a service to mankind. I am sharing the experience of love that I have inside. If I can make somebody happy or if someone draws strength from my Baul, then my work is worthwhile. And I feel this is a service to my gurus as well. I feel a need to carry on this parampara without compromises, without diluting it in any way and practicing it in its absolutely pure form.” 

For all those who have watched Parvathy on stage and have interacted with her, it is not difficult to see how she lives what she practices. Incredibly warm, with the glow of compassion and kindness in her eyes, she connects with people and her songs with a smile that reflects how free she is. It is not only her Baul that stays with you; she does too.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Bone jewellery (Deccan Herald, 2 April 2015)


Unusual accessories

Juanita Kakoty, April 12, 2015, DHNS
Camel bone jewellery
craft culture Some intricately craved camel bone jewellery. Photo by author

Bone jewellery is an imitation of ivory jewellery, and has been an exquisite craft from the walled city of old Delhi. I recently came across master craftsman Kahkashan from Old Delhi, a 42-year-old woman who represents the fourth generation of a family which has traditionally dealt in jewellery making. 

“Traditionally, we used to first carve jewellery out of ivory,” Kahkashan revealed. “But since the ban on ivory some 30 years ago, we now work on sandalwood, buffalo bone and camel bone. We source our camel bones from Rajasthan.” Speaking of the difference between ivory and camel bone  jewellery, the former has an off-white tinge, she said.

Ivory assumes an important cultural symbol in many societies across the world. In India, Kahkashan informed, a Gujarati bride is given an ivory bangle as a gift by her family just before the wedding. In Rajasthan too, she said, ivory bangles form an important part of bridal jewellery. “There are many other regions in India where it is compulsory for the bride to wear ivory bangles during the wedding ceremony.” Elsewhere in the world, ivory has also been much sought after not only for jewellery, but also for piano keys. This profuse use had resulted in the incessant killing of elephants for their tusks. A steady decline in the elephant population prompted a worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989.

“We have been using buffalo and camel bones since the ban,” Kahkashan said as she strung a few beads together around an engraved piece carved out of bone. And then she disclosed in a lighter vein, “There are some people who freak out at the mention of bones and think that we kill animals to procure them! It is quite a Eureka moment for them when we tell them that we use the bones of dead animals.” 

Kahkashan has been regularly invited to train students at the National Institute of Design, Ahmadabad as well as art institutes and craft centres around Delhi. She and her husband, who happens to be a cousin and from the same family of craftsmen, are often invited by centres in South Africa. “That’s one country where we have met with a good response,” she said. “My husband goes there to impart training on this craft as well.” 

Speaking about the market for bone jewellery, Kahkashan apprised that the demand mostly came from markets in Europe. “They love this type of jewellery, which goes elegantly with their apparel. South Africa also has a good market for bone and beaded jewellery. In India, there is not much demand, although it used to receive great patronage sometime in history under the Mughals. Today, it is mostly high-society women in India who make for a steady clientele.”

I came across Kahkashan at the recently held Design Haat by the Apeejay Institute of Design in New Delhi. She was one among the five noted master craftsmen invited to display their products and share their craft techniques with design students. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

My latest short story (fiction), 'Boundaries' published by Earthen Lamp Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1

My short story 'Boundaries' gets featured by Earthen Lamp Journal's latest issue. It is primarily the story of a Bangladeshi domestic help and the domestic help woes of middle class women, but, as the editor mentions in the editorial, "the reader must not miss reading between the lines". The story, largely, addresses the complexities of socio-religious identities.

One can access the story at the link below.

My short story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018

My short  story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018 Right in the middle of the sprawling Nakhasa Bazaa...