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Book Review: Textiles & Dress of Gujarat. Eiluned Edwards

Tyabji, Laila, is a designer, writer and founder member and Chairperson of DASTKAR, a Society for Crafts & Craftspeople. She has worked in the craft and development sector for over 3 decades. In 2003 she was awarded the AID TO ARTISANS Preservation of Craft Award in New York – the 2nd-ever recipient.

Laila's work with artisans includes the Chikan workers of SEWA Lucknow, Kasuti embroiderers in Karnataka, Mahubani painters and sujni quilters in Bihar, regurs in Rajasthan, and Banjara and Rabari mirror work craftswomen in Kutch and Maharashtra. One of her most rewarding projects has been the creation of new employment avenues through craft for pastoral communities displaced by the Tiger Reserve in Ranthambhore. A recent intervention has been in Kashmir, working with women victims of terrorist insurgency, using embroidery as a catalyst for social and emotional recovery.

Previous to DASTKAR, Laila Tyabji studied art in India and Japan and worked as a free-lance designer in textiles, graphics and theatre. She writes and speaks regularly on craft, design and social issues.

December 2012, Craft Revival Trust

Gujarat and its craftspeople have been an integral part of my life since I chugged into Bhuj station 35 years ago on the metre gauge train from Kandla and - excitedly, nervously - took a tonga to my new assignment at the GURJARI.

A barren, dust brown landscape burnt by the blazing, cloudless sun - duned and rippled with the restless movement of the wind. Against the horizon, dwarfed by its scale, a line of men and women led camels: swaying, pouting and sullen, padding deliberate hooves in the shifting sands. The women shrouded in faded black wool; the men in pleated and gathered peacock ruffles of crumpled, once-white homespun cotton. Beneath the dusty layers, the glint of colourful mirrored embroidery, and heavy silver and ivory ornaments. The arrogant, straight-backed stride sent out a message that the poverty and rootlessness of a nomadic people did not destroy their sense of self.

I was a young designer who had only lived and worked in the metro cities - Delhi, Mumbai, Tokyo. For me, Kutch was an extraordinary, eye-opening experience.

I had never realized that beautiful craft and creativity could spring from such austere beginnings, and that women who toiled from morning to night in the fields could still labour for months embroidering an exquisite mirror-work blouse for their daughter. It was moving to see how important aesthetic was for even the poorest villager - every utensil, textile and surface covered with motif and colour in every medium - from mud and mirrored glass to the carved wooden spokes of their camel cart wheels. Amazing hand skills transforming utilitarian usages into art forms. Waste materials casually twisted and shaped into magical treasures. Coarse goats hair woven into a shawl with a tie-dyed sunburst motif; rags patch-worked into a pattern of tiny, quilted stars and lozenges; torn chindis transformed into stunning patchwork quilts; mud, cow dung, and broken mirrors transformed into murals of fabulous birds and beasts and flowers. How beautifully the men and women dressed and coiffured their hair, even though they had to walk miles for a bucket of water!

Kutch is a truly incredible experience. It is not surprising that it has inspired and motivated so many. Eiluned Edwards, the author of TEXTILES & DRESS OF GUJARAT, is only one of a band of intrepid foreign women who has been traveling, researching and writing about Kutchhi textiles and crafts for over two decades - Judy Frater, Vicky Elson, Caroline Douglas, Charlotte Kwon, Michele Hardy, Maggie Baxter….. drawn by the irresistible lure of its unique socio-cultural mix. Nor is it surprising that Kutch dominates so much of this book on Gujarat!

What interested Eiluned Edwards was the "sense of history attached with all that is handmade". Her book explores "the social function of textiles, not just embroidery and fancy, but also their intellectual context, the fact that they are turning it into a source of income generation," she says. The mata-ni-pacheri cloth paintings of the Vagharis of Ahmedabad, for instance, once part of ritual practice, now transformed into sarees and cushion covers.

Originally trained as a designer, Eiluned Edwards was a senior research fellow at the V&A and is now a senior lecturer in Design and Visual Culture at Nottingham Trent University. She has been researching the production and consumption of textiles and dress in India over the last 20 years, and has contributed actively in the revival and preservation of many traditions and techniques. Her support was one of the enabling factors in the creation of the block printing village of New Ajrakhpur after the Kutch earthquake decimated the homes and livelihoods of scores of traditional ajrakh resist block printers, and she has been a consultant to SHRUJJAN, one of the major local NGOs working with Kutchi embroideries - appropriately, since her thesis on "The Desert and the Sewn: Textiles and Dress of the Rabari of Kachchh," secured her a PhD in Art History and Archaeology from Manchester University.

Her latest publication, TEXTILES & DRESS OF GUJARAT, examines how textiles and dress, which have always defined Indian social identity, are changing in both rural and urban Gujarat, with the advent and impact of industrialization and globalization. Traditionally in India, as she says, "little about dress is random; textiles and clothing are a powerful form of non-verbal communication that has been harnessed into a complex symbolic language". This is an area which has always fascinated her and she has written previously on 'Hair, Devotion and Trade in India,' Hair: Styling, Culture and Fashion, (2008); and 'Marriage and Dowry Customs of the Rabari of Kachchh,' Wedding Dress Across Cultures".

She quotes Nehru's remark that 'the history of India may well be written with textiles as its leading motif.' India's extraordinary textiles were once part of the tribute paid by regional satraps to the emperors. The book is full of fascinating little nuggets - for instance in Kutch, ajrakh resist fabrics are worn by men, while across the Indo- Pak border, in Sindh, they are worn by the women. Tattoos and mirrors avert the evil eye, and the unadorned body signifies renunciation. Formerly, Hindu orthodoxy looked at tailored clothing as "traps for impurity", while Muslims, instructed in the Koran to cover all parts of the body, regarded India's unstitched, draped garments as "barbaric". In most Gujarati communities today, men have adopted the western "shirt pant" but women still cling to their traditional costumes. For both sexes, clothing defines who they think they are and how they want to be perceived by other people.

Eiluned Edward's canvas encompasses the contemporary production of traditional block-printed, woven, tie-dye bandini, and embroidered textiles, and the use of natural dyes in Gujarat - the rationale behind the disappearance of some and the revival of others; caused by shifts in lifestyles, markets, and social practice. For example, local conditions or the availability of appropriate raw material play a huge part in craft production: the waters of the Sabarmati suited block printing and dyeing; now that the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is commercially redeveloping the river front, the craft is dying.

The book also explores the developmental role of the many state agencies and non-governmental organizations working in the craft and design sector in Gujarat, and how adequately these have sustained once-dying crafts and impacted socially and economically on craft communities. By rationalizing and mass-producing designs, sizes, and colours, and converting freehand embroidery into tracings and printed transfers, have they destroyed the creative wellspring of the textiles while professionalizing them? The Garacia Jats, who never allowed outsiders access to their embroidery, now cross-stitch once sacrosanct motifs onto sandal straps!

A fascinating section is on how embroidery, which was once the bench mark of a Kutchhi or Saurashtrian woman's femininity and domestic attributes, is now seen as primarily a wage earner, with the women themselves wearing mill prints and polyester. In some communities, such as the Dhebariya Rabaris, embroidery has even been proscribed - regarded as an enemy to women's development.

My only disappointment with this enthralling book is the production and design: especially surprising in a publication which has craft and design as its core, and bearing the MAPIN imprint! The layout is random and unattractive, with wide blank white spaces in some places and in others, the photographs (also not all of the first quality), bleeding off the page, and disappearing into the binding. But this is a minor caveat in an otherwise illuminating, wide-ranging, and well researched book. It will be required reading for all of us in the field.

35 years since I first arrived in Gujarat, much has changed, as has Kutch. It is difficult for textile and costume to remain a purely cultural statement as earthquake relief schemes and the tourist trade combine to make every second Kutchhi a craft entrepreneur. Well-meaning NGOs and exploitative middlemen proliferate, sending out conflicting, market-driven messages. The sprawling villages, with their thatched round bungas and mud-mirror murals, have given way to rows of little concrete boxes built by well-intentioned but insensitive donor agencies after the 2001 earthquake. The Bhuj market in the old walled city, now a jungle of high rise concrete, hoardings and tangled electric wires, is a-flood with sub-standard tat - the embroidery traditions of a dozen different communities cobbled together in a khichdi of crude, chemical-dyed, floss stitches and thick, machine cut mirrors. Reliance Industries and the Chinese, always quick to sense an opportunity, are producing machine-embroidered and mill-printed versions of traditional tie-dyed and mashru brocade textiles.

Nevertheless, despite all the erosions and incursions of globalization and industrialization, Kutch remains a unique micro-culture in the midst of an increasingly urbanized homogenous Gujarat, where traditional textiles and dress survive only if they find alternative commercial markets. For the Khatris, Rabaris, Meghwals, Jats, Ahirs and Sodha Rajputs and all the other Kutchhi communities, costume remains cultural identity, and textile and craft are not merely a production process. Transcending the limitations of environment and income to re-craft their universe is a creative skill and strength that is uniquely theirs - an individual statement of their identity, culture and being.

Too often today, the celebration of cultural ethnicity is perceived as being in conflict with a modern, casteless, secular society. Kutch disproves that theory. Eiluned Edward's book signposts both our past and future.

Pub: V&A Publishing, in association with MAPIN . 2011. pp: 248 with 243 colour photographs, maps and line drawings.

First published in the BOOK REVIEW, June, 2012



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