On Monday we had a long bus ride to Jaipur in Rajasthan and on the way we saw a lot of bright, marigold coloured saris. Even the women working in the fields wore saris and colourful scarves. There were ladies in traditional outfits perched precariously side-saddle on scooters, usually sitting behind men, only some of whom wore helmets. There were plenty of cows wandering or sleeping on the highway. As we got nearer to the Pink City of Jaipur, we could see jagged, rocky hills. Rajasthan is an area larger than the UK, known for mining of minerals and textiles. We stopped at a countryside palace undergoing extensive restoration for a lunch of mixed dahls and rotis, sitting outside under a wide verandah.
As we entered the outer limits of the city we saw many makeshift shelters inhabited by Bangladeshi refugees but our guide, Govind told us that Jaipur is a mainly wealthy city which has an unbelievable number of school, colleges and universities. We settled into another plush, international hotel with a magnificent outdoor pool with squirting elephant statues. My 7th storey room overlooked a builders’ shanty settlement which highlighted the contrast of wealth and poverty in India.
Pam gave an introductory presentation on the techniques of kantha quilting where old saris are cut up and repurposed into quilts, several layers thick and sewn together with large running stitches.
Noticing that there was a beautiful full moon, I decided to see if I could get onto the rooftop to take a photo. The lift did not go any higher than our floor but I found the staircase. Unfortunately, the door to the roof was padlocked and the door back to the staircase had shut behind me. I had to go all the way down to the ground floor using the back stairs, getting closer to Indian pop music and shouting in Hindi until I surprised the kitchen staff by arriving unannounced in the staff area. I travelled back up to the lobby with food trolleys in the service elevator. An elderly man wearing a tribal outfit invited me to see a traditional puppet show. It was a short show, rather bizarre where he played the tabla drums, sang a folk song and then ran over to make the marionettes perform. A Maharani puppet did suggestive dance moves, a baddie somersaulted and removed his head, a king was attacked by a snake and an elephant cavorted. It was weird but entertaining.
On Tuesday we had our first visit to the manufacturing area for a short kantha workshop with local ladies who spoke no English. They showed us how to make lines of running stitches using a needle at least 2 inches long. This was followed by a visit to a showroom full of antique kantha quilts. I spent more than I planned to on a glitzy pink quilt made from highly embroidered pieces salvaged from saris and kurtha tunics as well as an older quilt in indigo and pink which I wanted to be made into a tailored jacket.
The final excursion of the day was to visit a handmade paper factory. Waste cotton trimmings from T-shirt factories is finely cut then pulped and dyed, sieved through fine screens and pressed using antiquated presses. The shop sold wrapping paper and small sketchbooks, perfect for gifts. I asked the owner what dyes they used and he kindly gave me half a dozen small packets of powder dye to take away.
We had an evening workshop session with Pam auditioning scraps of kantha onto a plain background to produce a small art quilt but did not get much further than selecting some colours that worked well together and laying them out roughly. I had a cooling dip in the pool then enjoyed a simple supper of samosas and masala chai tea at a small, trendy teahouse next door to the hotel. It had some quirky translations in its menu, including instructions to clients, from asking them not to be too over enthusiastic at kitty parties and requesting that paper serviettes should be used judiciously.
On Wednesday our little bus drove us through Old Jaipur, The Pink City. All of the buildings were painted a pink-terracotta colour when the Prince Regent visited during Queen Victoria’s reign. The small shops, raised above street level and sheltered from the sun with a covered walkway all looked attractive and stocked with all manner of wares. We passed two impressive military forts commanding strategic positions on the surrounding hills to the Amber Fort, the original fortified city of the region. An impressive, impenetrable wall surrounded the entire city, even going up and down the hills.
We had the most incredible experience of riding sideways on a mattress on top of an elephant! I could not imagine travelling a long distance using this mode of transport since it was a fairly bumpy, swaying journey, rather like being in a small boat on choppy water. It looked more comfortable to be the turbaned driver who perched on the elephant’s neck. Holding onto a short piece of rope with one hand I tried to take photos and hold onto my camera with the other hand. The view across the valley and of the landscaped gardens are stunning and the colours were crisp and bright in the clear sunlight.
At the top we were guided around the magnificent courtyards, accommodation for concubines and studied the different patterns in the carvings and jail screens. I had used Google images for inspiration on my “Purdah” quilt but it was wonderful to experience the actual place. The Maharajah could watch dancing girls twinkling in the 6 million mirrors used to decorate the Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace.) The decorative influence for the Amber Fort complex is a blend of Persian and Mughal styles. Beautiful ladies swept the courtyards and knot gardens, keen to be given a few rupees in exchange for tourists taking their picture.
All of the coloured decorations were painted on using pigments ground up with precious stones and gum arabic. The sealant used was the white flesh of a coconut to add shine. There were so many photo opportunities – angles, views, even green parrots and pigeons nesting in nooks of the old walls. We travelled back down the hill in Indian jeeps, hotly pursued by persistent hawkers, desperate for us to buy embroidered bags, trinket boxes and sandalwood elephants.
A gem factory was our next destination. Outside workmen were hand grinding precious stones which were then finished and set upstairs in a secure laboratory-like facility, watched closely by 76 CCTV cameras. The workers had to remove their uniforms at the end of the day and hand them in to be washed by machine so any gold or gem dust could be collected by specially adapted filtration systems. The showroom was very classy and the jewellery was priced well beyond my budget – there were not guide prices or tickets to give an indication of cost even for the cheaper silver jewellery.
We had a buffet lunch at the glamorously titled “Glitz Hotel” which was where I took a photo of a decorated water delivery truck. Across the street a female builder’s labourer was balancing a large basin of a sandy cement mix on her head. The male builder had the less arduous job of scooping the mix into her basin with a shovel while she did all of the hard work dressed in her sari.
The next stop was a carpet and textile warehouse. We watched weavers tie up to 900 knots per square inch on old looms using intricate patterns and at least 20 colours. The carpets were carefully brushed and trimmed by hand when finished and if the client required an antique look they could be washed with henna in the water. Finally, each carpet was blasted with a flaming blow-torch to remove any last bits of fluff. Each carpet could take months to be made by one weaver using camel hair, cashmere or silk. Because of this they were justifiably expensive. I had hoped to find a Mary Poppins carpet- bag but they had no idea what I was looking for, even after I showed them a picture on Google Images. The fabric on sale was beautifully displayed in an immaculate showroom. Suiting and ticking was displayed on shelves and would not have looked out of place in Saville Row, London. The fabric was therefore priced accordingly so a small group of bargain hunters went to look for less pricey fabric elsewhere. I bought a couple of Gudrun Sjoden style tunics and was measured up for a simple to in a typical Indian orange block print. The tailors were working at the back of the shop. I was expertly measured and they promised to have the item made within an hour and delivered to the hotel later in the evening.
The bus wove its way back to the hotel in rush hour traffic. We saw feral dogs sleeping in municipal plant pots and school children being taken home by Tuk-Tuk with their satchels and backpacks hanging off the back. The sights and sounds of just one day in Jaipur were simply amazing.
The dinner was buffet style in the hotel and I chose Indian veggie curries. Obviously, I felt that I had to try a “Live Chat” which was a wordplay on watching the chef assemble some chaat artfully – lentil dumplings with some sauce and toppings, a little like how a pizza might be assembled. My simple orange tunic was delivered to the hotel and was fitted and finished beautifully.
Our Thursday excursion was to a slum to visit tribal, Rajasthani puppet makers. The slum dwellings were small and rickety but clean inside. Fortunately it was dry in the narrow lanes, only just wide enough for 2 people to pass. There were wobbly slabs and some raw sewage but it was not at all grim. Ladies in gorgeous saris peeped out of doorways and seemed surprised that we wanted to take photos. The puppet makers constructed huge procession puppets and also small marionettes with wooden heads just like those I had seen in the puppet show. The clothing for the puppets was made from scrap cloth from deities in temples. A pair of puppets cost 400 rupees and two people could make up to 20 figures in a day but there is no guarantee that they will sell all of their stock to tourists via hawkers.
We were invited to a Khambhatya patchwork class later in the morning and learnt the technique of couching rough cotton strands like string over pieces that had been salvaged from worn-out tribal tunics. The women used huge needles to couch down the cords, having stuck the random patches down to a muslin cloth using a stinky glue made from milk. This was followed by a trunk-show / buying session of more quilts, shawls and embroideries. There was even an antique elephant blanket! Kay had asked me to buy her a kantha quilt like mine so I bought her a very similar version and arranged to have it shipped direct. Next time we share a hotel room at FOQ we can have matching beds.
The afternoon was spent at a more relaxed fabric emporium with lots of block print fabric. This was the place where everyone in the group wanted to have items of clothing custom made. I bought some wacky floral cotton velvet for trousers and dungarees. This took some explaining until it was established that they might be described as “mechanical trousers”. Masala tea and wine was served at the end of the shopping and the previously tidy shop looked like the fabric had exploded. Everyone was exhausted. I wandered back out to the street where street kids gathered round to stare at the spectacle of the Westerners turning up in their neighbourhood. The bus driver shooed them away when they became too cheeky asking for snacks, “Challo, challo!” I was fascinated by kids riding around on bikes that were too big, small stalls selling snacks and berries and dogs sleeping on the street.
My supper was a couple of samosas at the tea house and when I returned a tailor delivered jackets that had been made from the antique kantha quilts which were very well fitted and almost reversible.
I was very excited to spend Friday finding out about block printing. The wood block carver had a small shop right on the street where he carved out the designs onto hardwood using small chisels. On the way we just happened upon a woman tie-dyeing sari lengths sitting crossed legged outside her house. She had tied pieces of cotton thread around red cloth then would overdye the whole piece with intense black dye. I bought a dozen blocks from the wood-carver and could easily have bought more.
We made a fascinating side visit to a Jain temple where photographs were prohibited. The temple often hosts naked monks but none were present for our visit. There were many marble statues in shrines to the 24 preachers of Jainism, the most famous of whom was Mahaveer, a Buddha like deity. He prescribed non-violence and decreed strict rules of how to lead a pious life.
The visit to the block printing “factory” was just too short for me to find out all that I wanted to know. I observed how to fold a piece of newspaper to a make a mask for a mitred corner and noted the method for applying the paint. The runny paint was in buckets on the floor then tipped into deep trays on trolleys. There was a metal grill-rack in each of the trays then a pile of cotton cloth that was saturated with the paint. The printer assisting my end of the table did not seem to be an expert so my corners ended up a mess. I was not keen on the dark purple paint that was assigned to us so I was bit disappointed in my project but I certainly learned a lot from the experience.
That evening we had a real treat as Govind had suggested that we go to see a Bollywood Movie. He bought tickets for the opening night of “Needle and Thread, Mad in India”. The cinema was undergoing extensive renovations but remained open despite holes in the ceiling and precarious looking bamboo scaffolding. At the opening premiere there were no crowds of cinema-goers, just half a dozen locals and us. There did not seem to be a staircase so we had to use an ancient lift to get up to the posh section. Our balcony seats were definitely vintage and just before the programme started a guy sprayed the row behind with a huge bottle of what may have been insecticide or air-freshener. After the Hindi adverts for men’s briefs and washing powder that could remove curry we had to stand for the national anthem. A trailer for a forthcoming film, what appeared to be a Hindi version of Pirates of the Caribbean, “Thugs of Hindustan”, looked highly entertaining – there was plenty of action, dancing, slow-motion, comedy and glitzy sword-wielding girls.
The storyline of film was a little difficult to follow in the first half but Govind explained the gist and we passed it along the row. Based on a true story, a poor couple in a village struggle to improve their life and overcome obstacles and family arguments, eventually starting a successful fashion business using artisan crafts-people.
There were a couple of fights, tears, a little slow-mo, many troubles, funny moments but ultimately a happy ending. Customers could order samosas for a snack during the interval and for the second half Govind arranged for English subtitles and a reduction in the volume. Even the projectionist enjoyed the film as he poked his head of out his little window to watch. It was a terrific evening’s entertainment – Govind asked if we could borrow the poster to take a group photo and I was delighted to be given it afterwards as a souvenir. I took a bottle of Schweppes back to my room from the cinema fridge but was sorely disappointed to discover after a large mouthful of G&T that it was just ordinary bottled water. I did not want to waste good gin so drank it anyway.
Saturday was an an exciting day as we visited markets in Old Jaipur. The first stop was the Milk Market where churns of milk are delivered by scooter or bicycle. Buyers dipped their hand into the pails to taste and test the consistency of the cream. The milk is boiled before it is drunk or made into yogurt and paneer cheese. We wandered through the flower market and saw heaps of marigold and roses bundled up in old saris. The aromas and colours were intense. Women carried heavy loads on their heads through the market as porters for wholesalers. The selection of fresh vegetables was amazing – there were mountains of okra, bitter gourds, chillis, onions and fresh ginger. Monkeys in the trees overhead boldly attempted to snatch bananas from the stall holders. We visited a busy Hindu temple where colourful crowds of devotees chanted and sang.
We caught electric tuktuks to the bazaar and visited a small spice shop where peppercorns and cumin seeds were piled up on the counter. I asked if he had Nag Champa incense sticks for sale and he gave everyone free packets that looked like it had been in stock for years. I was thrilled when everyone passed theirs onto me so I ended up with a dozen boxes. The busy side streets were raised above street level and we had to remove our shoes before entering each open fronted shop where the merchant would sit cross legged on a white cotton mattress.
The lacquer bangles were too small for me so the maker heated them up over a small charcoal burner then passed them over wooden forms to enlarge them. He kept his spare stock of bangles in the roof of the shop so shimmied up a shelf to look for more colours.
We had a great time in a “Matching Shop” which is where plain cotton fabrics that co-ordinate with saris can be purchased. This fabric was priced at 80-180 rupees per metre. I bought a bright selection of 2 metre pieces with no particular quilt in mind. The seller did not need a cutting table – he just used his enormous brass shears sitting on the floor in his modest shop.
My next stop was a shop that sold powder paint for Holi festivals where I bought 100g of every colour of fabric dye. I carried on shopping while he wrapped up my purchases in newspaper and caught me up for payment later.
We stopped for fresh lassi in a terracotta tumbler and a chilli pakora from a street vendor then visited a shop selling fancy braids, quickly running out of rupees. I am hoping that the very cheap white cotton that I bought will soften or wrinkle after a hot wash and I can add a trim of bright pink pompoms. After all of that frenetic bargaining we had the afternoon free for swimming and uploading photos before taking an in-depth design class with Pam. She explained how to enhance our photos so they can be used as prompts and design features in quilting.
On Sunday we drove to a rural settlement called Bagru, a village specialising in indigo dyeing. There was the main village of brick houses and a quilted tent settlement for nomadic itinerant workers. Life there must be hard during the 3 month monsoon season. Ragged but beautiful children dressed in traditional outfits carried pots of water on their heads.
Men worked waist deep in large stone tanks, blue with dye, rinsing the dye from the resist dyed indigo. The women carried heavy bundles of wet cloth then stretched them out on the dusty ground to dry in the sun. Washed plain cotton and silk was hoisted onto high drying racks, just as it would have been done for centuries. There was a loud, squeaky machine that rolled 100-200m of cloth through a dye bath. Printers mixed up a paste of black river mud, gum arabic, lime and flour containing weevils and used wood blocks which would resist further over-dyeing. Sawdust was sprinkled over the resist paste before drying in the sun and curing for a whole day. Hundreds of wood blocks were stacked on shelves and in heaps on the floor. Further on a man wearing thick rubber gloves sat over a 19ft deep well full of indigo dye and dipped the lengths of fabric into it. As it was hauled out of the well the sun developed the green of the indigo to a deep blue. The process was repeated several times, depending on the intensity of hue desired. All of the workers’ clothes and hands were stained blue. We had hard decisions to make in the shop, choosing indigo dyed scarves and some yardage of the hand-dyed and printed cloth.
I climbed the steps of a ruined temple thinking that I had spotted feral pigs at the top but was surprised to find a group of men sleeping in the shade. Pigs snoozed in the streets and trotted over the drying cloth. Apparently they are not as fat these days since people are installing flush toilets. Interestingly, pork is actually eaten by the lowest caste, Dalit people, which explained why we saw piglets in the tent village. A potter invited us into his yard to see his kiln and the pots he made in various sizes from tiny yogurt pots to large water carriers.
On the return journey I tried to photograph the decorated juggernaut trucks, hand painted with helpful safety advice and Om drawings for good luck. Some trucks even had taillights painted on as a substitute for actual working lights.
Back at the hotel, we met the tailors who had not completed garments satisfactorily because they had outsourced extra workers. My simple trousers could have fitted Ganesh, the elephant god with a Gangsta-style crotch. It was amusing to see that they marked where adjustments needed to be using an office stapler, sometimes even accidentally stapling the garment to the customer’s undies.
The evening entertainment was a visit to a Rajput family home where we were welcomed with marigold necklaces and neon green sherbet drinks. In their garden courtyard there were demonstrations on how to make pakoras and jeera aloo (spiced fried potatoes) at an outdoor cooking station, followed by a delicious thalia selection on a metal tray. The young, enterprising couple, Royal and Nidhi, run an upmarket guesthouse, offer cooking classes and will be featured on a popular Indian TV food channel. They were assisted by 2 male Nokars (servants) who had been with the family for years – they served the food, played with the little girl called Angel and joined in with the Bollywood-style dancing. Later in the evening they waved us off, reminding us to give them great reviews on Trip Advisor.