When I was three years old, my mother stitched me a little orange frock. It had puffed sleeves and a bow, and was possibly checked. I loved this frock with a passion, and via a strategic deployment of tantrums and sulks, contrived to wear it every single day until I grew out of it. It made me feel like the king of the world, thrillingly glamorous and powerful; and indeed, anyone looking at the photographs would agree that I looked very like a fat baby in a cake.
When I burst, Hulk-like, out of the orange frock, my interest in clothes sighed a mighty sigh and died. I climbed into jeans and a t-shirt, and have pretty much stayed that way. So I wondered, as I drove into Jaipur last weekend, whether I might not be a tiny bit bored at the ‘Mantles of Myth: The Narrative in Indian Textiles’ conference organised by Siyahi. The talks are free and open to everyone, and if you want to participate in special events, you can register for a fee.
It was nice to be at the Diggi Palace Hotel. I’m very fond of the place, partly because I threw up spectacularly all over it on my first visit and they never brought it up (so to speak) on any of my subsequent four visits. And also because when you have back-to-back speakers all day, it’s nice not to have to commute. I needn’t have worried about boredom; I was hooked right from Devdutt Patnaik’s pellucid opening talk, on the relationship between fabric and civilisation.
Some of the best speakers included the gifted writer Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh, who spoke about Northeastern textiles armed with a dazzling array of stories and cloths, complemented by folklorist Desmond Kharmawphlang from Meghalaya. Kavita Singh, an academic of shining intelligence and fluency, talked about the subversive social commentary that runs through the textiles known as ‘Pabuji ki phad’, which depict the exploits of Rajasthani folk heroes and are sung about by bard couples known as the bhopu and bhopi.
Designer Wendell Rodericks presented his research of the last many years, tracing Goa’s colonial history though the Pano bhaju, a clever insinuation of banned Indian clothing into Portuguese norms. Jaya Jaitley spoke about namavalis, or Devanagri textiles, which feature verses or god’s name, and have a particular status and ritual use. Prof. BN Goswamy talked dreamily about the delicate Himachali textiles known as Chamba rumals.
There were other fascinating talks, about women’s personal histories in Phulkari embroidery from Punjab and sujni and kantha embroideries from Bihar and Bengal; the tree of life in its varied forms; the Ramayana stories in kalamkari textiles; the Vaishnavite textiles of Assam; the ceremonial pichwais of Srinathji; and Buddhist tangkhas.
The closing session, on the narratives of a nation, featured Lord Meghnad Desai, the eloquent Prof. Dipankar Gupta, and Namita Gokhale. The whole event was capped with a haunting Naga song, Aye Kuzu Le, which is sung to pass on weaving skills to other women, and was performed by a group of Naga women.
Over the course of three days I felt my mind burst, Hulk-like, out of its indifference (a process commonly known as ‘education’). Indian cloth is suddenly not just beautiful, but meaningful. I swear I feel like spinning cotton, re-reading mythology, and reacquiring the Indian textile treasures that lie in museums in Paris, London and New York. I miss the tiny toy loom I had when I was seven, on which I wove ill-fated scraps of cotton and wool. I’m turning over, in my head, notions of tradition, colonialism, citizenship, democracy, and the sacred. I can’t wait for Siyahi’s next offering.
Yes, you should have been there. Next time, sign up.