Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
They say that ‘when the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the plane, the plane will fly’ – stressing the importance of the planning that must precede any creation.
In my world, this saying must be modified to include the number of words that must be uttered in lengthy discussions required to form a workable plan.
For, I spoke with my local friends in Ladakh every week for 2 months to thrash out the details and firm up the path forward in executing the Astitva project with their small group.
As mentioned earlier, the total population of this tribe rests at about 2500. They live in a small belt along the Indus river in small villages that are spread out over an area of 50 kilometers. Their distinct features and their unique culture set them apart from the other people groups in the region. These people are said to be the original Aryans, live within their own people and marry among themselves.
In the past 5 years a friendship has been struck between me and two men from this group, who were generous and took me into their lives. An alliance that began with ‘cultural photography at breakfast’ is now a long standing friendship with them and their families.
The two men who are roughly my age speak of the development that they have seen in their own lifetimes. The route from their village to the main city Leh that once took them 6 days to cover on foot and on hoof, now takes a maximum of 6 hours on wheels. The road is precarious and at many points along the mountain roads, the words ‘living on the edge’ seem literally true – but it is still a tarred road and is a mark of development that they are all proud of and grateful for. But it is on account of this development that their young ones are now studying in universities elsewhere and are all but leaving behind their own little curious cultural traditions and adopting the homogeneous monochromatic lives that the rest of us are already living.
The art of making pattu – semi-woven-semi-felt type of construction of local wool is being forgotten. The art of embroidering, the legacy of their grandmothers and mothers is not being picked up by the 20-year olds.
On my several adventures with their families I had become acutely aware of their distinctive costumes – with bright colors contrasting against un-dyed wool. And through the interviews I had become aware of absence of transference of this traditional knowledge to the next generation.
This was one tragedy that could be avoided with a little bit of intervention. And I decided to attempt to do something about it.
In my visit in Feb 2016 the seeds of the idea were sown in all our minds – with my questions and their answers. Through the drives in the winter of Ladakh we bonded over the idea that we should do something about this together. The two Drokpa friends fortunately had the bird’s eye vision to see how this would benefit their cultural identity. And so we began our journey into this unknown space – not knowing if we would find any success.
But as my 85 year old mentor said – 1 foot after the other …. if you face problems …go on solving them one by one.
And so we began.
Over the next few months we made the plan and over 3 days of meetings in September we finalised the details.
In October, during the Bonona festival, we visited the villages, recruited 17 women to take part in the program and launched the micro-program.
4 women in each of 4 villages would train the younger 13 women, first on a sampler and then to pants that they could use later on.
Both groups, the teachers and the students had monetary incentives to participate in this program.
While there are many processes in the costume making that are at-risk of being lost arts for the first micro-project, we chose to work an easy process – that of embroidery. If this is successful we might do the more complex ones in the following years.
Further, I had seen dozens of elaborately decorated and embroidered tunics but seen maybe one or two pairs of pants with embroidery in the 4-5 years. Most pants are plain and without decoration. But the two that I had seen led to questions and the answers revealed that this was indeed a prevalent practice in the past that people were moving away from. “Making do” with embroidering just the tunics. So, after confirming that this was indeed a lacuna, we agreed that the medium for our micro-project would be the pattu pants.
Teachers would be paid to teach and students would be paid to learn. But how would we ensure that there would be inner motivation that would kindle sparks within? Sparks that would be far more crucial to sustaining the larger objective?
So we announced an end-of-project recognition – a little healthy contest that would push each woman to give her best and to inject her own soul with enthusiasm into her little work of textile art.
The deadline for completion as set at Losar – January 2017.
But extreme weather delayed the process of dyeing that was to precede the embroidery and so more time was needed.
We finally finished in March 2017.
People Group: Aryans, Ladakh
Goal: To train the next generation in the art & craft of the at-risk embroidery that is a signature of the ethnic group.
Structure of the Project
Number of Villages: 4
Number of Teachers: 1 per Village
Number of Students: Max 4 per Village
Only married women were invited to join the program. This ensured continuity as younger unmarried women are likely to move to other places either for studies or on account of marriage.
The lessons would be conducted in the home of the teacher
Sept 2016:Planning Discussions
Oct 2016: Recruitment Fieldwork
Oct 2016 – March 2017: Execution and ground level
April 2017: Assessment and Conclusion
Teachers to teach the students the basic embroidery stitched on a Sampler
Teachers to work with the students to create 1 embroidered garment per student
-Salary to Teachers for 2 months of classes
-Attendance Incentive for Students to attend learning sessions
-Materials – basic cloth & thread
Motivational talks were held at the start of the program by respected members of their community to explain the goal of strengthening their sense of identity through the teaching and learning of textile traditions that are a signature of their community.
A community level contest for the end-product was announced to kindle motivated engagement and result in excellence in the final output.
All the students and teachers delivered on their commitment to the cause and produced the embroidery works as promised. No one dropped out.
Every student produced a practice sampler during the initial days of learning. Every student also produced embroidered pants for self use.
The Recruitment and Briefing Stage
The Results – Final Stage.
Everyone had brought their practice samplers and also the pants they had created with panels of hand-dyed pattu upon which they had added the freshly-learned embroidery of their ancestors.
The contest that had been put in place to fuel inspired learning, was judged by the teachers and 4 winners were declared.
Every one present also earned a certificate of participation.
But the real reward was the feeling that the Himalayas were blessing all of us for the micro contribution to the culture of its inhabitants.
In the larger scheme of things does this matter?
NO. Absolutely not. The effort is too small and the forces are too strong to prevent the genocide of micro cultures all over the world.
But, we are still slaves to our desire to do something …and so irrespective of how little it matters we go out and do it and try to extract some enjoyment / fulfillment along the way!!
UPDATE APRIL 2018: We are excited to be beginning Phase II of the project soon! Discussions are ongoing, schedules are being drawn up and the frequency of phone calls is increasing! More soon!
UPDATE MAY 2018: Phase II has begun. Read more here.