Thank you one and all for the responses to my last post! It feels good to be back in blogland. In perfect sync the weather cooled down late last week, and I promptly headed to a local wool store and cast on for something. It’s nearly done, too… will post more pictures soon.
A couple of years ago I had posted about being in Pune during the Ganpati festival. This time, am in Kolkata, the heartland of Durga Puja. As far as I can remember, people all around me have always compared the two festivals – the installation of the idols amidst colourful themed decorations, the immersions, the community/political overtones of the festivals, their historical importance, etc. Plus, every second Bengali I have met has at some point waxed eloquent (and often nostalgic) about Calcutta during the Puja… so I was very eager to experience it all. In many ways, the festivals are a lot similar – not least in the way the loudspeakers invade neighbourhoods.
But at least to my first-time-observer eyes, the nature of the celebrations is also very different. The art of the puja pandals is of a different order altogether, exploring many different textures, materials and themes… the visual magic and intensity that the various clubs that organise these installations create with bamboo, cloth, pith and clay is quite something.
Rather than indulge in comparative sociological speculation on the basis of my limited exposure, however, here is a slideshow of some of these wonderful creations within a small area of south Calcutta, mostly around my neighbourhood this year. Do click on the bottom right to view the slideshow in full-screen.
Some of these, however, deserve to be blown up on the page here too, not least for us fibre enthusiasts. Two of my favourite pandals were right around the corner from where I live. And while this meant that the neighbourhood was transformed in many ways, drawing huge crowds all through the night, complete with mini-vuvuzela sound effects, I was delighted to be able to just walk there when it wasn’t rush hour, and look at the installations in great detail. The Shib Mondir pandal, in recent years a major player on the pandal prize circuit, created a swirling, thick and colourful tropical jungle entirely out of jute fabric:
The other one by Bengal United Club, a much smaller one, was equally a riotous celebration of fibre, in very different motifs. Angular and flat icons that nevertheless burst into life through a mixture of rags in different fibres, and beads. The dancers and musicians seemed to leap out of the bamboo frames in the soft light of the dim lanterns; it was truly wonderful to peer at them closely and have them stare back at you.
Today is the last day, when the goddess is bid goodbye until next year. Best wishes, dear readers, for Dasara, Vijayadashami, Bijoya…
This simple, shapely and harmless-looking contraption is currently my new love, and my nemesis.
I laughed out loud when I read Swapna’s comment a couple of posts ago about the sewing machine roaring away at the slightest provocation. Mine (or more precisely my cousin’s) is still similarly untamed, which is to say I am still a dunce at using it. There is one little manoeuvre required to get it going: gently rolling the wheel forward with your right hand, and then pedaling with your feet to keep it running in that direction and thereby setting the whole contraption down to the bobbing needle into motion.
Sounds simple, except that the smaller hand-wheel keeps wanting to turn away from you, thereby promptly breaking the thread and requiring continuous swearing re-threading. If the wheel-pedal coordination is off even slightly, it’s twang-clap-snap-thut. When you see a veteran doing it, it’s very difficult to figure out just what the hell they’re doing to keep it going in the right direction, and of course they can’t really tell you what they’re doing because it’s second nature to them, and they can’t understand why you’re making such a fuss about it. Rather like when you are learning how to drive a stick-shift car, and just can’t get the hang of releasing the clutch just as you press the accelerator, and the car keeps stalling. Or like you thrash about and swallow a lot of water but the correct freestyle action to stay horizontal and swim somehow seems impossible to do. Until one moment you suddenly you can accelerate, or strike through the water, or start sewing in the right direction, and you cross over to the other side. There are setbacks, of course, but then it goes on to become second nature. Right now I’m somewhere between a setback and second nature, as I try to shape the neck of my very first own-sewn kurta.
There is a distinctive sound to the running of the old mechanical sewing machines, especially the ones with the foot-pedal. For me the clickety-clack of the wheel and the needle immediately conjures up two distinct themes. One is the ubiquitous neighbourhood tailor shop. Dyspeptic tailors bent over in a line in the poorly lit back of the shop, the air suffused with a mix of machine oil fumes, the smell of freshly cut fabric and sweat. Little triangular scraps of cloth litter the floor, sari blouses and kurtas line the walls above the bent tailors, and the main tailor-master, standing behind the counter that doubles as shop-front, cutting table and dogeared pattern library, tries to persuade the reluctant auntie customer to break with her regulation U and try a new octagonal neckline.
The other is an image of the ever-suffering and consumptive, but hard-working and morally upright mother in old Hindi films, played with melodramatic gusto by actors like Leela Chitnis, Sulochana and, of course, Nirupa Roy. All these women fought great societal and financial odds to bring up their children singlehandedly in film after film with one important weapon in their struggle for self-reliance and middle-class respectability: the humble sewing machine. It has been part of countless scenes where a) Ma weeps and coughs as she adds yet another seam and worries about the rent; b) Ma chastises wayward younger son for profligacy and truancy even as she has worked her fingers to the bone to pay his college fees; and c) the hero bursts into the room as Ma is working at it, announcing that he has passed his BA or got a job, thereby implying the machine’s impending redundancy.
Hindi film moms in the last decade have shed their widow whites and have become a lot more glamorous and trendy. While their acquiring of colour and joie-de-vivre, even sexuality on occasion, is entirely welcome, I can’t help thinking that the vanishing of the sewing machine from screen is part of the broader evaporation from Hindi cinema of working class and lower-middle-class lives, characters and stories in favour of globalised, consumerist and insanely wealthy settings. Dress-making, though, continues to be a gendered sign of self-reliance and respectability – young heroines in films and TV serials often have their own fashion boutiques as a business. I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen a sewing machine, vintage or electrified or computerised, in any scene, though…
To return to the saga of my own sewing, my seams need some sobering up before they can walk in a straight line:
But hey, that ghostly apparition is my own-sewn, completed and freshly washed salwar, waiting for its kurta to be done so it can be ironed and worn (yes, it fits!):
Last week a hush fell over the fair city of Pune. Yet another lost trail in the archives, documents ever more illegible; the sun smiling ever so cruelly with not a dark cloud for relief; my knitting blog parched for content, gasping for breath as my hot, clammy hands shuddered at the thought of holding any yarn in them; my travels too rushed to include blog-worthy photography.
And then the last straw: I lost a long-running battle and retired, bruised and hurt. The fifty-seventh tailor in town let me down in my search for some decently-fitting clothes, and left me with two salwar kameezes gone terribly awry. Over the years, I have fought this tribe of tailors with ready-made clothes, diagrams, my own measurements, extra cloth, cheap cloth, expensive cloth, plenty of time, compliments… it all came to naught. Famous ‘Ladies’ Specialists’, old and wizened darzis, genius housewives known only through word of mouth – all cut from the same, ill-fitting cloth. Yet more lovingly bought material came to hang sullenly on my frame like a tent, making a mockery of maths, measurements, and me. As for ready made clothes, I am heartily sick of Fabindia, despite the fact that I love most of what they have. Even if their kurtas do fit well, they either shrink, or fade after three washes, or you see the same fabric on someone’s cushions or curtains.
Inspiration, however, came like a pre-monsoon shower at the end of a hot, humid and overcast day in May. I have long wished to learn sewing, but never really taken steps towards it. The sticker-shock a few years ago at what Delhi tailors charge for a sari blouse nearly propelled me towards a sewing class, but it was the latest fitting disaster that actually got me looking for a teacher. My cousin, another battle-scarred veteran of the tailor-wars, decided to join me. And so, last week we had our first basic Salwar-Kameez class. Armed with sturdy handloom cotton (in photo above – printed for kameez and cream for salwar), bobbin, tailor-scale, chalk and a pair of lethal-looking scissors, I am already in the thick of it! Seven more classes till it’s ready to wear.
(The blue packet to the bottom left is a “French curve” drawing scale that announces its use for “artists and tailors”. Ahem.)
Our teacher is a long-time Marwari resident of Pune who speaks a mixture of Marwari, Hindi and Marathi, not to forget the sprinkling of English terms. It is quite a multilingual sewing vocabulary, but she said the only thing I needed to pay attention to was not mixing up my inches and centimetres. That, I think, I can manage…
When I mentioned the class to my sister, she brought out a relic from the past – her sewing class journal from ye olde days when she was in college. They were not friends, my sister and sewing, and we all recall immense drama and trauma surrounding every project she had to submit. Even she was amazed she had not burnt the damn book with all the pajama pockets turned backwards and botched seams. She has this amazingly detailed diagram for a sari blouse, and I am already dreaming that if I can conquer the salwar kameez, the sari blouse could be the next fortress to storm.
In the meantime, however, I need to find, and learn how to use, a sewing machine. My aunt has one of those gorgeous, old foot-pedal ones, which is totally cool, but heavy to transport. Another one in the extended family is a simpler, hand-lever powered one, but it tends to get stuck from time to time. My options are either to get it repaired, or buy one of those foot-pedal babies for myself. I am already coveting it, despite the fact that it but I think I should get at least one well-fitting suit under my belt before I invest in some heavy iron machinery, no?
Another, unexpected benefit: maybe this blog will actually see some crafting posts, cause by GOD it is hot here, and unless it rains a bit, I don’t think I can even bear to think of knitting, let alone actually do any of it. But given that frogging is not an option in sewing, I guess you can expect a lot more tears and swearing.
Yes, those two words do conjure up my near neurotic devotion to the HBO series, but this is not about my turning into a basket-case over the Wire. It’s about a craft that involves making shopping baskets out of plastic wires, something my aunt Madhavi mami has been doing for decades.
Madhavi mami has made hundreds of these, and gifted one to nearly everyone in our extended family on my mum’s side on some occasion or other; my parents have brought the veggies home from the market in the one she gave us, for twenty-three years. It was getting rather frayed at the handles of late, so she gave them another one. While I was visiting her some time back, she was making yet another, so I decided to capture the process in a photo-essay.
Kits for these baskets are available, in solid or multi-coloured packs, in that great mecca of crafts in Pune, Tulshibaug. I haven’t been able to trace how the wires themselves are made, or from what kind of plastic. The wires are flat, slightly curved, and are in long spools of 20-odd metres per colour. You start off by cutting off strips of equal length (there is some odd maths involved here about the ratio of the primary to secondary colour, one being slightly shorter than the other to ensure the rectangular shape of the basket).
Then you make the first knot of two tightly interlocked Zs, folding one wire into a Z, and then threading the other sideways into it. Once they are locked in the vice like grip, you have the basic unit of the basket.
This is not as easy as it seems, and the main problem is sorting out which wire goes where, and keeping the knots tight. It takes not so much physical strength as deft wristwork to get the knots to sit snugly, and takes a bit of practice. I tried a few after a very long time – my aunt taught me this basket making when I was a kid, and the bits I helped her make were very easy to spot in the finished basket: loose, half-hearted patches in the middle of the tight, determined weave. They weren’t much tighter this time round either, but I was certainly determined!
You then add knots in all four directions of this initial knot, making the central spine of the flat bottom of the basket. Once you have the length and breadth you want, you “turn” the knots upwards into a rectangular tube, and keep weaving till you have a basket deep enough. When done, you weave the wire ends inwards into the basket, leaving it with a sturdy edge.
Then you braid a nifty handle for it.
These bags were probably the height of fashion a long long time ago, and when I was in college it was simply not cool for a certain set, especially the urban elite in Pune and Bombay, to be seen grocery shopping in them. They are, I guess, the shopping basket equivalent of crocheted granny squares, and over the last couple of decades, it’s breathtaking how almost everyone has taken to the flimsier, disposable “carry-bags” as not only more convenient, but a consumer’s free right. In this utterly warped sensibility that views plastic bags as modernity and progress over cloth and straw, clogging our drains and brains alike, these baskets are quaintly unfashionable, stubbornly utilitarian, and odd: they too are plastic, but reusable and heavily durable. Does anybody who has seen these in Pune or elsewhere know whether they are, or can be made of some kind of recyclable plastic?
On a recent trip to Delhi, a dear friend took me jewellery shopping. I am not a big fan of traditional desi gold jewellery, both for all the nauseating cultural importance it has in our society and for how literally hideous and excessive it can be. Like many Indian women of my class and generation, I have accumulated a lot over the years through various ceremonies, but have stubbornly resisted wearing it on a regular basis. I do confess to a severe weakness for earrings. But why go for gaudy gold, I say, when there is such superb, oxidised silver around?
I had long eyed the lovely jhumkas dangling on my friend’s ears over the years, and she finally consented to take me to this secret, favourite shop of hers, where she watched horrified as I went totally overboard and mopped up a good deal of it. Maybe it was the blistering, unforgiving September heat in Delhi, or our being rattled after the serial bomb blasts the evening before, but I got inordinately, obscenely fascinated by these earrings.
Before I knew it, I was practising my macro photography turning the lens love on them – for what’s a blogger to do if not to photograph something and upload it? I’m neither knitting nor cooking much these days – so here’s some stone-metal-pron instead, a few select pieces from the stuff I bought. I wish I’d taken my camera to the shop to snap the artisans deftly matching stone to pattern right in front of me. They are able to personalise your chosen pattern to a wide range of stones, and their intricate artwork is stunning.
Now I have a dreadful task ahead of me. This afternoon I have to give a few of these to my sister. She’s more fond of gold than I am – maybe she’ll just snort at these trinkets and say she doesn’t want any, you think (she asked, hopefully)?
What’s that you said about where I bought them? Alas, my friend (wisely, as it turned out) blindfolded me before taking me there. So excessive and proprietorial, I tell you! But, then again, maybe it was for the best…