A perfect Thursday in January

One fine day, she rose early. The kitchen woke up under her fingers and she cooked for the day, simple nourishing food for two. Much later, she wrapped herself in cotton sunshine and went to an enchanted garden of old trees and pretty flowers. She found a pretty yellow shevanthi to call her own, a burst of happiness in a happy day.

She drank deeply of nature’s beauty and slowly found her way home. Along the way, a young friend joined her and they watched a movie they had begun a long time ago. They didn’t finish it and have made a date for Monday afternoon, away from the bustle of the city. They’ll sit below a sturdy old tree and finish what should have long been finished.

She went to say good bye and on her way back, stumbled on a delightful little patisserie. She got herself an indulgence, a perfect lemon tart with just the zing to celebrate the coming of spring. It was a perfect Thursday in January.

Kaleidoscope

Sarees are incredibly sensuous in themselves for their texture, colours and fluidity. Today was all about light and colour and the many moods of shimmering, colour shifting and spilled memories from long ago. A kaleidoscopic day so here goes…

Kaleidoscope
the mind is

shifting pieces
of wounds
and scars
to make
hymns
and dirges
sung
long after
the years
have closed

There’s
only one
lens
to enter
the enchantment
of illusions
and art
of an artist
doomed
to
create
recreate
arrange
rearrange

Inevitable
the slash
of pain
but
craft
demands
its price

Experience

Wander in the woods

I met a dog on the trail today, a bounding bundle of joy who demanded love and gave it abundantly in wet doggy licks. Just the pick me up I needed. It was a bleak day and a walk seemed to be the only way to salvage something out of it. There’s no one at the time save a bunch of cricket crazy young men in a couple of clearings. So, I had the whole trail pretty much to myself.

It feels like a precious gift, this access to a patch of wild where the city fades away just a couple of hundred metres into the woods. Once I’m in the heart of this land, my life outside of it disappears and I don’t think much. It’s a sensorial experience of intoxicating wood smells, bird song, stray dog sightings and so on. In such a setting, there is no urgency of deadlines or meetings. Just a full sense of presence. I’m looking forward to getting to know the trail and its whimsies over the next few months.

Today, I hung on a branch and swung like a child, picked up a dried stick and swished it around and finally threw it as far as I could. Childlike thrills. Why do we stop playing as adults? Anyway, I walked for an hour and tentatively ran a few hundred metres in installments and the voice in my head automatically kicked in about the cadence, arms yada yada even as the rational part of my being told me to not mess up the knee. If I got hurt or couldn’t walk, it wouldn’t be easy to get back.

Long story short, the woman who entered the woods wasn’t the one who came out. I felt rejuvenated and had a spring in my step. On my way back home, I also found a coconut seller and quenched my thirst with sweet tasting coconut water. Sometimes, all you need to do is wander in the woods.

And a friend dropped off a stash of sarees, some mine, mostly hers.

1969 -2019

The year was 1969 or thereabouts. 50 years ago, India would still have been very young in her freedom and quite poor but the handcrafted aspect of her everyday was rich, a living, breathing continuum of history, full of colour and flavour. A tiny part of that piece of culture wound up in a country far away marking time.

A New Yorker visited India as her friend was from this exotic land of colour and chaos. Perhaps her only visit and she might have been enamoured by the colourful sarees she saw on the women around her, enough to splurge on a few herself. Soft silk with exquisite zari work, thread work and unusual motifs, they lived half a century in the wings before winding their way to me.

I wish I knew more about that lady, her impressions and thoughts about my country as it was then. Travel in that era would not have been like it is today with app based cabs and airbnb. It would have been fraught with logistical nightmares and culture shock. I am curious to know about her relationship with M, the Indian lady who was her friend. Which part of the country was M from? What nostalgia did she bear for her country that kindled a desire in her friend? What were the seasons of their friendship and how did their lives play out?

I don’t know any of the answers and the questions still bubble over as I run my fingers over 50 year old silks in extremely good condition. Part of me wants to know and the other part is happy imagining their lives and flavouring it the way I choose. All of life is really a series of choices, moment to moment anyway and a different choice at any point could result in a different unfolding.

These sarees found their way to me via a pretty circuitous route. I opened the package yesterday and they shimmered in all their silken glory. The choice of colours would have made it just the right range for an exotic garment of an infrequent saree wearer. I wonder how many times M’s friend would have worn it and the way she might have played with it.

M’s friend would have been quite the hippie and might have worn the saree out and about in NY. I imagine a happy woman with a full throated laugh who would own a drape and make it her own. In my head, I have an image of Audrey Hepburn like elegance. These were a part of her life’s possessions and her daughter kindly offered them to me, a stranger on the internet. And just like that six yards of silk stretched across time and space to connect the lives of 4 women and an unknown number of hands who wrote poetry on silk.

Social media often gets a bad rap but it’s brought me real people and their stories, some from many miles away. Often, homes are opened and strangers like me have been privileged to break bread. And sometimes, they take the shape of stories, like this one about vintage sarees that unfolded thanks to a fellow blogger’s generosity. Thank you Caitlin for sharing a piece of personal history with a stranger.

Update:  The New Yorker in the story- that’s Caitlin’s mother Cynthia and Molly Tharyan’s friend. Cynthia wore these sarees around Toronto causing quite the scandal amongst the sedate moms in their understated and elegant pearls and cashmeres. She would have been an exotic adventurer considering she did a trip to India in a cervical collar after an ill fated dive into a swimming pool. The silks are so vibrant and full of life, colours of throaty laughter and uninhibited expression.

Half a century later, Molly has passed on, her sister and daughter lost to distance and time. Estrangement at many levels. Some wild art of me wants to see a story unfold here, it’s just a romantic’s dream. Maybe Molly Tharyan’s daughter and sister stumble upon this post via an unknown reader and connect with Caitlin. I’m not sure if that’s desirable or not but it makes for an afternoon’s worth of story making.

 

Relentlessly Me

Because we will not wait for the year to be good but catch it by its pigtails and swing away. 😛

If I had to have a word of the year, I would choose, relentless. It is an intense word with a negative connotation but the paradox is that the word springs from relent, which is soft and yielding.

Why do I choose relentless and what does a saree have to do with it? This stubborn desire to mark every saree wear in 2019 is part of a larger design, to be relentlessly me. No matter what, I’ll keep chipping away at everything inside me that does not serve the essential me. And it gives me wild pleasure to see others who do so effortlessly or take the plunge into a tentative first step.

Saree of the day is a reminder to be #relentlesslymetoday and marks 45/2019. This one is special as it is from a dear friend’s leap of faith into an entrepreneurial venture with nothing but a studentship of weaves. I loved the name of her curation, Anandi’s Trunk. As she says, “Anandi is every little girl or boy who wants to dress up like her/ his mother or grandmother, and the trunk is that precious box of old textiles that are part of our inheritance.”

Sarees have no boundaries of time, space or gender. Period.

A night of songlight

An old saree picture and a scribble for a Saturday

Shakin Stevens is crooning because I love you, it must be from the house with the boy. It’s the radio playing, nice. I should play the radio too.

Unbreak my heart now and Toni Braxton sounds soulful and sensual all at once. I slip out of my dark bed and stand unseen behind the curtains in my bedroom. I think I see the man-boy’s shorts. It is him and he stands behind the curtains of his room.

I’m lost in this pointless moment where two people stand behind curtains looking and not looking. I’m a voyeur while he’s trapped in a wordless mind. His days are mostly spent on a dusty terrace where he makes distressed animal sounds and ranges like a wild one.

Now it’s James Blunt on that radio, my mind drifts to the firstborn. It’s our song, the one she uses to deflect my telling her she’s beautiful. Mais oui, she is!

It’s midnight and I’m still enjoying the music. They are strains of my youth coming out through a busted speaker. I think of getting the radio from the Kid’s room to mine and playing the same channel but somehow this is better, a tenuous intimacy between unseen people.

The volume is down now, maybe the father has retired for the night and the boy still needs song. The neighbour’s air conditioning has stopped its loud whirring and Leo has found his pillow on my arm.

Let her go by Passenger spikes up the volume. I wonder if anyone else is enjoying this night of mushy love, unrequited love. They no longer make me yearn for languorous lovemaking but wash over like a pleasant breeze.

Their window is shut now and I can only hear faint crests and troughs of music. A cue to fall asleep but I’m still listening.

The radio is silent now and I’m wide awake…

Instagram memories

I’ve had many blogs over many years, always zealously private until something started to loosen up. Perhaps it was a sense of growing older and figuring out all of us had the same loves and losses. We guard our secrets from friends and family but let them tumble in front of strangers.

Some of my ramblings have been like this space, a kind of chatting over coffee and some have been anonymous journals of solitary roads that could be found only by those travelling similar paths. Most of the time, these writings are invisible and it’s only ever an offering. The words may flow through my pen or screen but their authorship comes from a source that has no beginning and no end.

It felt good to be acknowledged by someone who has been a practitioner for more years than I may ever be and a writer to boot. So, someone may be reading my musings after all. It’s a humbling moment and one of joy too. My next instinct is to duck under and hibernate until every one disappears. It’s the paradox of a solitary passion, the necessity of silence and the desire to be heard. Have I shared too much… Blame the grey day.

The youngling and I have time on our hands now and I imagine there is no school. In this make believe world, we spend cocooned days learning new words and making new ones up while not climbing trees or running free. Sometime during the pretend day, we will sip on a Pink soda with a dash of lime, kind of like today’s pop pink and lime green khesh and her tee.

Little K has got the mischief back in her eyes after a long snooze and will be a whirling mass of energy before I know it. Thank you for all your love and warmth, that’s just the magic we needed. .

📷courtesy: the youngling

– written in February 2018

Songs of the loom

It’s been a few months since I returned from my whirlwind travels and a piece of my heart has taken root in the verdant hills of Anamalai and the small towns in its plains. Ever so often, I drape one of the Negamam cotton sarees that came home with me from the land of their origin and I am transported to a couple of days spent in the company of a gracious family and an unknown friend.

The 80s count Negamam saree is a little known weave and is typically lumped under the generic Coimbatore cotton umbrella. It is soft and hardy, extremely breathable and perfect for our tropical climate. Traditional designs include checks and stripes, like the ones the women in the village wear. Infact, Soundamma, one of the ladies we met was wearing a checquered saree that she had woven herself. These days, there are more intricate designs as well as solid colour sarees to pander to contemporary urban tastes.

We reached the cluster after a pleasant drive out of Sethumadai and were greeted with a spotlessly clean village of freshly whitewashed houses with pretty Margazhi kolams. As we entered the first house, the husband spotted an old game, Chenna Mane, from his childhood and Saavitri Paati’s daughter-in-law quickly showed him how it was played. It made me a tad bit sad that our children no longer have the pleasure of these rustic games made of seeds and stones. In the march of progress, we have lost many simple delights.

Saavitri Paati and her husband managed the spinning of all the cotton fibres onto the bobbins. The mechanised spinning makes for a very pretty boomerang like picture. About 25 of these are required for the length of 6 sarees, the usual that was stretched on the huge drums for warping. These then found their way to the dyers house where the pallus were given a different colour.

spinning 1

These days the yarn comes pre-dyed and only the pallu section is separately dyed. There is a separation of the six lengths into the body and pallu which are tied to mark the portion that gets dyed. The remaining length is securely covered in plastic.

Unfortunately, the dyes used are chemical as natural ones are not commercially viable. The hazards of the open flame, fumes and chemicals were of no consequence and when asked, they credited yoga with keeping them healthy. It was fascinating to see how they matched the shades sent for the sarees to the T using nothing but crude tools, the most intriguing of which were coins with holes! These were used to measure the powders and get the desired shades. We were treated to the magic of the yarn changing from no colour to a beautiful teal in a matter of minutes! The hanks of yarn were then left to dry before being sent for warping.

coins with holes

Usually, these large drums accommodate 2 different sets of six making for a total of 12 saree lengths. It’s a tricky task with the turning the whole contraption clockwise a certain number of times and then the other way around. Missing one turn can ruin the length but Soundamma and her husband, Dandapaani make it seem effortless as they explain what they do. Their pride in their work is obvious and they are more than happy to talk at length.

warping drum

The looms are mostly pit looms but there are a few that are over the ground. It is backbreaking work to sit angled on the stone ledge for hours on end. As a spectator, it is almost hypnotising to watch the shuttle fly non-stop with it’s clackety clack while the radio hums in the background. There is extensive use of jacquard cards which allow beautiful motifs to come alive on the saree. Paisleys, flowers and creepers as well as peacocks are common while geometrical designs also find their place. Some of them with a muted zaree make for mildly dressy sarees which have a quiet elegance. The looms work through the month except on Amavasya day in honour of Soundamma devi.

pit loom

The trip courtesy Thadam Experiences, was educational for a handloom enthusiast like me but far deeper than the sheer skill and artistry was the richness of their seemingly limited means. All the houses we went to were far more welcoming and hospitable than some of the richer homes in the cities. All of them invited us to stay and share a meal which I would have been honoured to partake had I the time. There was contentment and purpose as they went about their lives of hard physical labour and large hearts that shared their art and home to absolute strangers.

Theirs is probably the last generation that will weave these fine cotton sarees and with the end of their age, the looms may sing no more. There is a sense of urgency with creating these sarees to suit modern sensibilities and the looms have a frenetic touch to them as they marry warp and weft. There are hardly any takers from the next generation of their families  to continue the hard life and most of the children study and move on with urban jobs to secure their life ahead. While there is a sense of loss looming in the not so distant future for the weaves of this green land, there is also the fullness of song before dusk falls. It is the nature of life, birth and death and art is no exception. However, there are always seeds of hope. Many old weaves have found revival. I do hope, there would be someway this legacy can continue.

The sarees that came home with me will always remain special for I have seen where they were born and watched as the hands created magic. They will be cherished and worn with love and pride and someday in the future they will pass on as heirlooms to my daughters. And within the folds of these lovely sarees will be the strains of old songs of Negamam and a brief afternoon with some of the happiest people I have met.

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Saree Seller

Twenty years ago, there used to be a Bengali saree seller who would come home to sell his wares. I don’t remember how he came home the first time but I do remember the first saree I bought from him. A grey taant with large borders. It was a saree bought soon after the firstborn came to be. The saree is long gone having been loved and worn before it died in Amma’s rough and ready use. A light breezy saree in an unlikely colour for a young mother but it whispered to me.

I digress, this is not the story of that saree but of the saree seller. Let’s call him Radhagobind. Him of the soft speech and unerring instinct of the sarees that were most likely to beckon you.
He would come around a few times each year and inevitably I would succumb to the lure of the six yards. It used to be almost like a choreographed dance. We’d exchange pleasantries and he would open his huge cloth bundles and start displaying the starched sarees that almost looked like little rectangular boxes. Radhagobind would keep a constant stream of conversation going as I swiftly sorted my favourite colours. He would then nudge my attention to the newer designs and sometimes it felt like there was nothing really to pick when he would conjure a beauty. I didn’t know the extent of the diversity in the weaves of our land and never bothered to find out the story behind them. As a young woman, all I wanted was a collection of sarees like my mother’s. Simple, elegant and timeless.
Now I wonder about Radhagobind. Where did he come from? Were the weaves from his family, his village? Did he leave his family back home as he trudged through the hot, sweaty streets of Bombay to earn a living? Did he ever sell all his sarees? What happened to those that didn’t find closets to call home? Did his wife wear any of those weaves? Perhaps she huddled over a loom and taught her children to conjure up designs as she sang songs of longing for her man out in the big city streets…
So many questions and Radhagobind is nowhere to be found. Part of a lost network of saree sellers, he dropped off somewhere as the malls sprang up and businesses went online. The mobile explosion hadn’t taken place and he was a nomad with his bundles. I wonder if he gave up the Bombay dream and went back to his village and stayed in the land of sweet sounds and beautiful women. There is a tailor in the neighbourhood who has the same quizzical expression as Radhagobind and what if, just what if, he is the same lost saree seller?
On an aside, I spoke to a young Bangla salesman to get a little detail on the sarees my old man bought me from Kolkata. He was eager to help but all he could tell me was that they were taants. I have a feeling that there’s a little more to a couple of the sarees. But, there’s the insta sisterhood of saree lovers that always comes up to share their knowledge.