pictures at an exhibition

•24/03/2013 • Leave a Comment

West Meadow flyer

DSCN0066 DSCN0040 DSCN0050 DSCN0053 DSCN0063DSCN0046

A talim with too many half nals

•27/11/2012 • Leave a Comment

Recently I have been working on a revised draft of two pages of photocopied shawl talim that were sent to me back in 1998 by Dr. Jon Thompson.  They show four scrolls of talim instructions with groups of 12 and 13 lines of text, totalling 51 lines, all greatly reduced in scale to fit A4 sheets of paper.

thompson talim p.1

thompson talim p.2

While I have gotten used to seeing shawl designs as detailed as they could be, with weft passes of one or two nals predominating, even a preliminary look at this talim reveals a profusion of “half” nal symbols, specifying that the weft passes under just one warp thread, or under several but with its placement accurate to one warp thread exactly.  (“Nal” means “pair” and in the 2/2 twill fabric structure of shawlweaving, where at each treadling of the loom two adjacent warp threads are raised and the next two lowered, that pair of raised threads is the usual unit of counting the distance a coloured weft thread is inserted before it is exchanged for the next colour.)

talim number symbol key

Half-nals are routinely used in old shawl talim at the ends of alternate talim lines to signal their placement in relation to the twill weave structure – like the half bricks at the ends of alternate courses of a brick wall – and can be used occasionally within the design instructions to give the best possible placement and resolution of fine details.  Normally, weft threads are exchanged in the slightly wider space between nals, but half nals require that weft threads are exchanged between the two warp threads of a pair.  It takes much more effort on the weaver’s part to keep accurate count, to reach in between the fine warp threads, and just to navigate the thicket of crowded weft threads on the working side of the fabric.

talim colour symbol key

My first attempt to draft a design from this talim produced a field of confetti too scattered to recognize anything, except that I was probably misinterpreting the instructions.  Since then, I concluded that in the case of talim number symbols representing half nals, where a number shows a “half” notation both before and after, the count of warp threads includes the “halves”.  Thus while “o-” would be one-and-a-half nals or 3 warp threads, “-o-” would be one-and-two-halves nals, or more descriptively one-of-two-halves nals, but only 2 warp threads.  This was not an obvious interpretation to come to, but if “-o-” represented 4 warp threads, there was no other symbol in the talim text – that I would expect to appear more often – to represent two-halves comprised of just 2 warp threads.  A lone half nal, just one warp thread, is represented in the text by a simple vertical stroke.
So I finally set about drafting a new diagram from the talim text according to this newer interpretation of the many instances of “two-halves” symbols.  I began with approximately 60 nals at the start (left-hand end) of each talim line, and was encouraged to go on and add another 60 of each, still less than half of the total line length of about 300 nals.   At that point I gave up the idea of continuing, because the design still seemed to be breaking up due to accumulated errors.
The illustration with two drafts shows the recent draft with my new interpretation of “two-halves” number symbols at the top, and, at the bottom, the result of portions of lines shifted simply by eye to try to bring them into alignment with lines above and below.  To this point I haven’t gone back to the talim text to see if my nips and tucks corresponded to unclear text symbols.  (Each “brick” unit of the grid represents a nal, two raised warp threads and two lowered, and two picks of weaving.)
The most noticeable thing absent from the draft is the rest of a very large design.  Talim lines of 300 nals in width, at an average sett of 80 warps to the inch, would span 15 inches, perhaps half of a centre-field point-repeat pattern, typical of the later 19th century.  The portion shown here would cover about 1.25 by 6 inches.
The most noticeable shapes present are pink on a background of two shades of blue.  On these curving pink bands are segments of dark red meander interspersed with three-petaled blossoms outlined in blue.  The area including the pink bands appears to be enclosed on the left and below by a band of medium grey, and on the right, bright green, next to a more elaborate rope-like band of grey outlined with pink.  On both sides are tendrils of dark blue outlined with pink, and blue background areas display intermittent black and red details.  The colours representing the various colour notations in the talim were arbitrarily chosen for high contrast, and no attempt has been made to “correct” scattered, seemingly inconsistent colour details.

portion of the talim as drafted

The accumulated errors could be due to any combination of fumbles, blots, and scratch-outs visible in the text, similar errors innocently recopied in a fair hand for the text that we have, and my own misinterpretations and lapses.  Among the talim texts I’ve worked on there has been a wide range of accuracy, some producing a clean design and some fit only to be sold to tourists as an artifact.
This talim is obviously a small slice of a very large design, and I have seen some ambitious, similarly-large designs being woven today, perhaps encouraged by the CAD software developed for the carpet industry that is also being used to prepare shawl talim.  But this talim is unique of those I’ve seen, and exceptionally challenging for the weaver, for its use of so many half-nal details.  In fact, it is hard for me to imagine that the specification of such hair-splittingly fine detail would be needed in such a large-scale design.
I have purposely scanned the talim pages at a high resolution so that the reader can copy them (start by clicking on the image) and take up the challenge of trying to produce a draft showing the design clearly, colours traditionally associated with the talim symbols, or what are the misinterpretations of number symbols that I am still making.  Your comments are welcome.

Central Asia then and now

•12/10/2012 • Leave a Comment

Recently I was reading the “Babur Nama” (in a translated and abridged Penguin Classics edition), the vivid and highly personal autobiographical journal of Babur, the conqueror and founder of the Mughal Empire dynasty in early 16th-century India.  A descendant of both Emir Timur and Chingiz Khan, his early territorial wins and losses took him back and forth across central Asia from Andijan to Samarkand and Kabul, and I went to the back issues of National Geographic (I have the CD set) looking for images of the landscapes he was traversing.  National Geographic seems to have a fascination for Afghanistan – the former king M. Zahir Shah was a noted subscriber – and several teams of authors have reported on their treks along the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of rugged terrain separating what was then the Soviet Union and Pakistan, leading up to the western tip of China.

In an earlier account published in the November 1950 issue, the authors Franc and Jean Shor describe how, having reached the limit of the effective protection of their Afghan military escort, they put themselves in the hands of a local Kirghiz clan leader Rahman Qul in order to complete the furthest stage of their trek.  In an eerie epilogue to their tale of surviving the rigours of the trail, they hear more about their guardian:
“Two years before, the mayor began, Rahman Qul and his tribe had crossed the Russian Pamirs.  There they had robbed a caravan and murdered every man in it.  Pursued by the Russians, they had fled into Chinese Turkistan and taken up residence near the border post of Mintaka.
“Rahman Qul had become a close friend of the commander of the little Chinese border garrison.  Less than a month before we met him he had invited the commander and his garrison of eight men to a lunch on a Mohammedan festival day.  While the Chinese were eating, Qul’s tribesmen had stolen into the tent behind them and murdered every man in cold blood, the mayor reported.  They had looted the garrison of guns, ammunition, horses, and supplies, and fled across the Afghan border to resume residence on the Pamir Plateau.”
Twenty years later in an April 1972 article, a different pair of authors Roland and Sabrina Michaud setting out on the same trek from Kabul described the help they received from their “friend” the tribal chieftain Rahman Qul, and showed him the photograph of himself in the earlier article.  Thinking that Rahman Qul had not only survived but perhaps also risen above his earlier reputation as a “highwayman”, I searched the web and found an article by M. Nazif Shahrani from the Spring 1984 issue of the journal Cultural Survival Quarterly, that added much to his story not only since but also before his encounters with these foreign adventurers.
His group of nomadic pastoralist Kirghiz fled their traditional homeland in one of the remotest corners of the USSR in the face of mid-1920’s efforts to enforce the Soviet policy of resettlement on collective farms.  They settled in the Wakhan Corridor, but after Soviet military cross-border raids in 1946 they shifted to Chinese territory in the Pamirs, only to return 3 years later after the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949.  This much of the story ties in with the less-sympathetic version told in the 1950 article.  Until the late 1970’s this Afghan Kirghiz community of fewer than 2000 enjoyed stability, recognition from the Afghan government, and increasing prosperity, under Rahman Qul’s strong leadership.  But after the Communist military coup and subsequent Soviet invasion in 1978-79, the Kirghiz, led by now Haji Rahman Qul, sought refuge in the northern areas of Pakistan.  There they languished for four years in the relatively hot, lowland climate, with no land base to practise their pastoral lifestyle.  Haji Rahman Qul tried to rally his scattered community and seek a more promising homeland, first in Alaska but the US was unresponsive, and finally in Turkey.  In 1981, along with a number of other ethnic-Turkic Afghan refugees, Turkey accepted the Kirghiz group, who were resettled in a village built for them in the eastern province of Van.
“The critical role of the Kirghiz khan, Haji Rahman Qul, now referred to in the modern Turkish vernacular as Agha (chief), cannot be overestimated in the continual struggle of his community for survival. Through the strong will of this remarkable traditional tribal leader, the Kirghiz have been able to preserve the integrity of their community, although in the process a way of life has vanished forever.” (M. Nazif Shahrani)
Haji Rahman Qul, as Babur would have said, went to God’s mercy, in 1990.
The history and current status of his Kirghiz community in Turkey is the subject of a good-natured documentary film “37 Uses for a Dead Sheep” (2006) by Ben Hopkins.

Once upon a time in Aleppo

•05/10/2012 • Leave a Comment

Like a four-leaf clover, I found this without looking in the grounds of the Aleppo citadel overlooking the city. I’m told it’s not particularly old or rare, so I don’t think I was raiding Syria’s cultural patrimony. For me it’s a talisman, a connection…and if it were still lying there now, what?

I remember once, there were two of us waiting to catch a train from Aleppo to Baghdad – this was in 1973, ancient history.  It was winter, so it was freezing cold, and in the evening, and the train was going to be delayed for hours.  We were knocking around the deserted streets looking for somewhere we could get another hot meal before two days on the train.  About all we could find was tea and backgammon, but we met this young guy who offered to open a can of beans or something, you know what I mean, nothing fancy, back at his place, so we did that.   Traditional ethic of hospitality meets one-world, back-street travellers, right?  You could tell that we were stretching his resources but it wasn’t serious.  We were just sitting around – he was a Palestinian, a university student – it was interesting talking for a while.  Then it was getting late and my friend kind of suddenly mentioned he was thinking of heading back to the train station, and I could stay there longer if I wanted.  The only thing that went through my mind was, it was the middle of the night, I think I know how to get back to the station, when is the train going to be ready to go, what would happen to my checked knapsack if it went without me?  No, I was ready to go, and we left.  Later he said to me, that the student was trying to pick me up, and he thought I might have wanted him to go by himself.  All this was news to me, that’s how naïve I was.  Probably I wouldn’t have done anything different, and playing stupid was the best move all round; for actually not seeing it happening, I get no points.
Anyway, back at the train station, there wasn’t going to be a train anytime soon, and we wound up sitting in the stationmaster’s office because it was the only enclosed space and there was one of those little kerosene stoves where you could watch it drip, drip, drip into the burner.  We were always so grateful to be around one of those in that part of the trip, so we sat and drank little glasses of tea, smoked (everybody did), didn’t get much more to eat, and just talked and talked, about that, and a million-and-one things, all night long.  It was special, and I’ve always remembered it, although the whole trip was full of things like that, not because I almost got seduced, but because I didn’t, and went on from there to have a bottomless kind of intimacy, just talking, that doesn’t happen nearly so often.  Any two people can do that, they just have to be ready and open to it, and it’s nobody else’s business if they do.  It’s such a gift, and it shows how boxed-in we are in society that it’s so rare.

How to identify your paisley shawl

•03/08/2012 • 3 Comments

18th c. Kashmiri tapestry shawl detail

The best way to tell if a shawl is tapestrywoven, Jacquard-woven, or embroidered, is to take a close-up look at the back.  If it’s tapestry, there will be little ridges at the boundaries of colour areas where the neighbouring wefts interlock and turn back on themselves (along with some floats in different directions and tag ends).  If it’s Jacquard or loom-woven, there will be a lot of parallel weft-wise floats where the coloured wefts skip from one detail to the next (these floats may be trimmed off, leaving tufts of cut ends).  If it’s embroidered, it will be covered with floats going every-which-way.
In all three cases, the warp threads will be one continuous colour, or stripes, unless the shawl is composed of patchwork pieces, either according to the original design, or reassembled from salvaged strips and fragments.
Tapestry, the original technique of the Kashmir shawl, implies “discontinuous wefts”, threads of the required colour that are woven back and forth in the area where the design requires the colour, and that join with neighbouring wefts to form the fabric as a whole.  “Discontinuous” means there are no wefts that pass from selvedge to selvedge of the whole width.  On the back of the cloth there will be slight bumps and ridges where the two neighbouring colours loop around each other.  Designs for tapestry technique can feature distinct areas of any number of colours, because each is a separate weft thread.  Because it is a hand-controlled process depending on the skill and patience of the weaver, very few “paisley” shawls were tapestry-woven in the West.
When the fashion for Kashmir shawls took hold in the West at the beginning of the 19th century, the manufacture of shawls there was based on loom-controlled weave structures that copied and adapted the appearance of Kashmir shawls.  It was just at this time that the Jacquard mechanism was invented.  Instead of weaving-in each different-coloured weft step by step across the width of the fabric, all the warps controlling design details of a certain colour are lifted at once and a shuttle inserting that colour weft is passed from edge to edge.  Where that colour doesn’t appear on the front, it is carried across the back in floats.  If the shawl design calls for many colours, a mass of floats will build up on the back of the cloth, that may be sheared off in the finishing process.  The limitations of this loom-controlled process led to designs using as few colours as possible, appearing in as many details as possible.  Loom-controlled shawls tend to show designs with a limited palette of colours and a homogenous distribution of small details (which as a tapestryweaver I have taken repeated pleasure in referring to as “soupy overall harmony”).  Unfortunately, the popularizing of these design characteristics in Western markets prompted Kashmiri tapestry shawl weavers to adopt stripped-down palettes and proliferating details, even though they were not subject to the same technical limitations.  Even the term “paisley” applied to shawls of this style, was the place name of a weaving town in Scotland, now part of metropolitan Glasgow.
Highly skilled embroidery has played a variety of roles in Kashmir shawls.  Requiring almost no tools, it can be done anywhere by any number of workers.  On plain-coloured cloth, embroidery has a natural affinity for the fluid, painterly designs typical of Kashmir shawls.  Tapestrywoven shawls with background colours roughly blocked in can be intended to be finished with embroidered detail.  In the finest examples of these, embroidery covers the tapestry weft joins so that the back of the shawl is as presentable as the front, or diagonal rows of tiny stitches fill areas to imitate the traditional twill weave structure.  Fully tapestrywoven shawls may still have some embroidery added to outline, emphasize, or correct parts of the design.  Stitchery is used to invisibly join the separately-woven, coordinated pieces of patchwork shawls, or to recycle fragments of damaged or unfashionable shawls into new assemblages.  And the embroiderer’s services were regularly used to repair the wear and tear noticed when shawls were brought out at the onset of the winter season.  Whether it’s crudely obvious on the back of the fabric or not, to the eyes of a weaver the distinctive character of stitchery is that it’s not limited by the perpendicular logic of warp and weft.


•25/06/2012 • Leave a Comment

Tooti Chowk, Paharganj, Delhi

For me the biggest advantage of transitioning (whether I wanted to or not) to a digital camera, is being able to see immediately if the photo I just took is successful, or how to make the next one better.  This is especially true in low-light situations – shots I would have thought in the past were hopeless.  I just have to remember to hold the camera steady.










Photos from the car window of wild elephants browsing at the roadside in the Wayanad Hills of south India, were still marginal at best.  I wasn’t using flash, to avoid startling the elephant, and so once the headlight beams had gone past the elephant, I was on my own.  It’s more vivid in my memory.

















Weaving from Kashmir shawl talim, four picks or two?

•08/06/2012 • 1 Comment

A question that has dogged me from the beginning of my study of shawl “talim” (the instructions in text form that convey design information to the weaver) is how many picks of weaving are made according to each line of the instructions.  On my recent trip to Kashmir, I associated other people’s dissatisfaction over the jagged appearance of woven motifs with the prevailing practice of four picks per talim line, and tried to make the key part of my message to shawlweavers my argument for two picks per talim line.  It is a technical subject, where analysis of the resolution of the design in the weave structure guides workable routines of the weaver’s practice to produce the best results, typical of the historical standard, from which contemporary practice has slipped.

The traditional Kashmir shawl is woven using a combination of twill weave structure, and tapestry-style selection of different-coloured wefts according to the requirements of the design.  The twill structure is one of the simplest, described as a 2/2 straight twill, where each weft thread passes over two warp threads, under two warp threads, and repeat.  In the next pick the warp threads that the weft passes over two and under two, shift one thread to the right.  After four such steps, the weft thread is again passing over and under the same pairs of warp threads as in the first step.  So one “weave unit”, the smallest identical set of threads in the weave structure, involves four warps and four wefts.

In practice, the harness of the weaver’s loom raises two and lowers two out of each four warp threads – each raised pair called a “nal” – creating the “shed” or space that the weft is passed through.  (The weaving is done with the back side of the fabric uppermost on the loom, so the front is face down.)  Each nal that the weft passes under produces one stitch of weft colour in the design on the front of the fabric.  The number of stitches, or nals – or pixels in other words – in the width of the design will be one quarter the number of warp threads.  It is extremely difficult, but not impossible, to produce any more detail in the width of the design than the number of nals allows.

The warp threads of the fabric will likely all be the same colour – or possibly arranged in stripes – which will contribute somewhat to the background colour of the design.  It is really the placement of the different-coloured wefts that define the design.  In each pick the talim prescribes a series of steps in which a weft of one colour passes under a given number of nals, then is exchanged for another weft colour which passes under the next number of nals, and so on, until the pick is complete from one selvedge to the other.

twill line comparison

Now the question: for the next pick, is the same – or a new – line of instructions to be followed?  There are three reasonable possibilities.  In the first case, it would be logical to follow the same line of instructions for four picks, the complete weave unit; that would provide the same design resolution lengthwise as widthwise, and the next set of four stitches comprising a pixel would be directly above the previous set.  The design could be mapped on a square grid for shawlweaving just as it is for hand-knotted carpets.  Following this logic in its simplest form, the four stitches would line up in one diagonal row as the nals shift by one warp thread in each of the four picks [on the left in the illustration “twill line comparison”].  These little diagonal rows have the most jagged appearance and disruptive effect on the small details of the design.  Because of this, a refinement has been developed in which one nal is deducted at the beginning of the third pick, so that the third and fourth stitches appear more directly above the first two, instead of continuing in that diagonal row [at the center in “twill line comparison”].  This tactic tends to balance and reduce the effect of the four-step twill diagonal progression on the design, and is the widely-adopted shawlweaver’s practice today.

Jumping to the third possibility, the weaver could have a different set of instructions for every single pick.  I haven’t seen this in written form, but in a large, continuous design the weaver would need a way to keep track of which pick out of the four in each weave unit is being worked on, before resetting the starting point at the beginning of the next weave unit.  Memorization plays a big part in weaving repeated motifs, and I can accept that the weaver may have memorized pick-by-pick adjustments to make perfect all the details of small repeated motifs.

In the second possibility, the weaver would follow a line of talim instructions for two picks of weaving, so there would be two lines of instructions for each weave unit.  After treadling for the first pick, each weft is inserted in sequence from left to right, as the talim text appears to be written.  The next shed is treadled and each weft is inserted from right to left, by reading the same talim line steps in reverse order.  Each weft is returned to approximately its starting point at the previous pick, except for the shift of two warp threads caused by the two treadlings.  Advantages to this are: it confirms that the counting of the instructions was followed correctly; it facilitates the snug double-interlock of weft threads (that doesn’t need to be discussed here); and it provides a familiar starting point for each weft for the next line of instructions, which will probably be mostly similar to the previous line.

My argument that the second case was the basis for shawlweaving practice during its golden era, is threefold: the evidence for it is there to see in antique shawl fabrics; surviving shawl talims mark the alternate lines of talim text to establish their relationship within each weave unit; and it enables superior resolution, grace, and detail in shawl designs.

On two illustrations of antique shawl fabrics, both from the late 19th century, I’ve noted some examples of stitches appearing in multiples of 2’s and 6’s, not just 4’s as current practice would dictate.  Though the style of the designs differ, they are both relatively large-scale, beyond the scope of memorization, and so, dependent on recorded instructions.  I have seen one claim reported by E. G. Marin in 1933 that the talim system was invented in the 18th century.  In another shawl fragment dated to the early 18th century at the latest, a mistake in the design between two identical motifs suggests written instructions were being imperfectly followed, and also shows some details in multiples of 2’s.

Each line of a page of talim text, whether it covers the full width of a smaller repeated design, or a section of a larger continuous design, spans a consistent number of warp threads – the total number of nals in each line will be the same.  But if the instructions in the following line have shifted by two warp threads, those two threads may appear to be unaccounted-for.  In the case of the current practice where one nal is subtracted at the start of the third pick, that is only necessary at the selvedge because subsequent repeats or continuations follow the correction automatically.  Where the instructions change for each two picks, every alternate line, to account for the orphaned warp threads, will show a “half” nal at the beginning and end of the line of text, which together with one less “complete” nal will add up to the same total number of nals in each line.  This feature can be seen in the illustrations of older shawl talim text – a half nal is written as a straight vertical stroke, or a horizontal tick added to the number symbol it is combined with.  Each half nal in this position will typically be the same colour as the next adjoining half nal, and will be woven as one.

four picks at left and center; two picks at right

This arrangement of rows of nals with half nals at the ends of alternate rows, to represent the off-set of the twill treadlings, can be helpfully visualized as a “brick” grid, where each brick represents one nal and two weft stitches.  The height of two bricks (four wefts) would be the same as the width of a brick (four warps), and the corresponding bricks in the next two rows would be positioned directly above.  So to create designs on a brick grid of these proportions would be very similar to designing on a square grid (where each square represents four wefts and four warps) but it would provide a closer representation of the diagonal twill weave structure, increased resolution, smaller details, more delicate and responsive curved lines, and other subtle optical illusions familiar to tapestryweavers.  To fully explore these possibilities and other refinements such as actually weaving half nals, goes beyond the scope of this article, and requires designing informed by the weaver’s experience of what’s practicable and how it will appear in the finished fabric.  Not all of the legacy of shawlweavers’ skills can be captured in a few lines of instructions.

The advent of computer-assisted design has been a big improvement over designing on grid paper, facilitating corrections and alterations, and generating the line-by-line instructions convenient for weavers.  In Kashmir, professional-quality software is available for the hand-knotted carpet industry that provides talim-style instructions using the “shawl alphabet”, the same shorthand symbols for numbers and colours developed for shawlweavers, but based on the square grid suitable for carpet where the knots line up in rows and columns.  (It was pointed out that in some carpet designs every line of instructions may indeed end in a half unit, but this is only meant to show that, in the case of mirror-repeat designs, the column that the design turns on is not repeated.)  That this software is considered adequate for contemporary shawlweavers, encourages the less satisfactory practice of four picks per talim line.  Fortunately, from early in my studies I had a CAD program called Stitch Painter, that provided the brick grid used to design for a type of bead weaving, but it only produces line-by-line instructions using cumbersome Western letters and numbers.  What’s needed is a program that uses the brick grid and familiar shawl-alphabet characters.  Shawlweavers will recognize that it more accurately reflects the progression of threads on their looms, and appropriate design instructions will prompt them to reach finer results.

From Srinagar to Jammu

•30/05/2012 • Leave a Comment

waterside shop, Srinagar

There was a guy I kept bumping into on the Boulevard who managed a houseboat – toward the end of my stay I was trying to arrange my road trip from Srinagar to Jammu to connect with my train reservation back to Delhi.  I managed to get mixed up with this guy, and a “brother” of my friend the shikara boatman, who was promoting the car trip I needed, showed me a fancy, locked SUV in a parking lot and said this is your seat, just pay me a deposit, I’ll pick you up Sunday morning.  Meanwhile from the sidelines my guy was giving me the wink to say, don’t do it.  I couldn’t extricate myself without giving up a couple hundred rupees deposit and we all parted.  Twenty minutes later I’m walking along and there’s my man, sitting there in my path grinning, like my guardian angel.  I sat down, we agreed the other fellow would never show up, and it would be so late I’d miss my train.  So we proceeded to make our OWN arrangement, to meet at 6:30 instead of 8:30 Sunday morning, and I ended up, over tea in the kitchen behind his weatherbeaten houseboat, giving HIM a deposit – I walked back to my hotel thinking, what have I learned, really?  But Sunday morning there he was coming along the path behind me.  Out on the street he hailed a shared-taxi-style SUV that came along, he spoke to the driver, but it was to my man that I gave the balance of my fare.  Added to the usual mix of spectacular views from the cliff-edge roadway, the local short-haul passengers we picked up along the way who had had time to eat breakfast and promptly puked it up on the floor, the lengthy jams where the waves of northbound and southbound traffic meet at midday, the busy roadside eatery with grubby atmosphere and surprisingly good food, was my wondering when the driver, a big aggressive type, would say, I don’t know who your friend was, you owe me Rs. 1000 for the fare.  In the end, we got to Jammu in plenty of time, everyone unloaded, I gave the surprised and cheered driver a well-earned Rs. 100 tip, and I was on my way.  Next time in Srinagar, I know whose houseboat to stay at.

From my journal:
The road trip was spectacular from a distance, more depressing up close.  The predawn twilight was bleak and grey at this season.  The most noticeable activity was the military foot patrols lining the road every few kilometres, usually with a sniffer dog.  For some distance we followed the left bank of the Jhelum – though I didn’t notice, we were probably moving upstream.  The road was lined narrowly with strip development – unfinished houses and businesses thrown up in response to the increased traffic of recent years.  As I recall in 1985 the most noticeable traffic obstacle was flocks of goats – hard to imagine that now.

The mountains closed in as we climbed toward the tunnel at Banihal.  Eventually there were remnants of accumulated snow on the uphill side of the road, until at the tunnel we seemed to disappear into a deeply-snowcovered slope.  On the Jammu side, the snow quickly receded and the landscape seemed warmer but much more dry.  The ride was still thrilling as we snaked our way along the shoulders of deep, narrow gorges of the Chenab River – confusingly we were moving upriver for a stretch.  We stopped for lunch at a busy, grubby but respectable dhaba perched on the edge of the precipice.  Out the back door it was a hard left turn, after pausing to admire the view, to the toilet cubicle tacked on the back of the building.

Chenab River gorge

Irrespective of distance, we reached the half-way point when we negotiated our way through the flush of early morning northbound traffic – innumerable lorries and a Sunday contribution of vacationing family carloads.  Toward the end of our drive, the northbound traffic dwindled as there would be no place to reach before dark.

Our driver was experienced, knew every inch of the route, moderately daring and aggressive, and critical of other drivers’ idiocies.  I could see that he was alert to oncoming traffic further ahead, so his passes on blind curves were carefully calculated – something I could detachedly understand, but never imitate.  The conventions of Indian driving, applied to mountain roads, are unnerving.  Meeting an oncoming vehicle, you steer for his nearside fender and hope there’s enough of a gap or margin of pavement, when you round it.  If not, you brake, and let what’s in front of you sort itself out.  Trucks, especially tanker trucks, are the bullies of the road – nose to nose, everything smaller must yield or stop.  Trucks will pull over for a rest stop, nevermind that it creates a one-lane bottleneck and tedious backup in both directions.  When traffic is blocked, the lane beside you will fill up with opportunists trying to slip by the nose-to-tail traffic jam, so it takes forever for alternate parts of the line-up to get clear.

Shawlweaving in Kashmir

•15/05/2012 • 1 Comment

In Kashmir in mid-April, I can imagine the apple blossoms in orchards and on hopeful new plantings in people’s back gardens.  A month ago, a country-person estimated it was three weeks to blossom time, in spite of their “coldest winter in 16 years”, and I answered that ours in central Ontario would be a couple of weeks later, nevermind the mild winter here.  The climate, the range of the seasons, the trees and flowers, seem all very similar, especially after the flat roofs and sub-tropical dryness of India.

kani shawl weaving demonstration at School of Designs, Srinagar, March 2012

I was in Srinagar for two weeks, for the first time since 1985, after soliciting an invitation from the University of Kashmir, to offer a workshop on computer-assisted-design applications for the traditional tapestrywoven Kashmir shawl.  It’s a subject I have studied independently for more than 20 years, based on published photos of spectacular antique fabrics, and a tapestryweaver’s understanding of what’s required.  Shawlweaving has been observed with fascination and documented in the past and present, but usually with only the vaguest notion of what goes on in the weaving.  Myself, I was riveted by the shawlweaver’s daily challenge of weaving from a text of line-by-line instructions to reproduce dependably a subtle and detailed design with seemingly no stylistic restrictions.  The advent of the computer has contributed a lot, not only to our contemporary understanding of digital images, but to the reconstruction of old designs and preparation of new ones in Kashmir’s continuing knotted-carpet and shawlweaving industries.

contemporary shawlweaving at 4 treadlings per line of instructions

I am conscious of the need to be modest about what I could possibly teach to traditional weavers, but I had a particular point to try to get across, based on my observations of historical material, that isn’t being practised today: designs should be prepared so that there is a change of the weaver’s instructions for every two treadlings, not every four treadlings as is currently done.  The amount of weaving is the same, the instructions change twice as often, and the resulting woven imagery is more detailed and graceful, as it was in the past.  The technical nature of my proposal and its implications for the weaver’s work routine, had major influence on the planning of the workshop and the variety of meetings I had with designers and weavers.
My invitation was from the Information Technology and Support Systems Directorate, a project-oriented department responsible for integrating new computer resources into the University’s activities.  I had gotten my encouragement to inquire from an earlier project titled “Graphic Designing for Kashmiri Handicrafts”, and framed my proposal as being intended for designers and students, to take place in a computer-lab setting I expected the University would have.  There was a Fine Arts Department at an off-campus location, but no applied-arts program related to textile design.  I was reluctant to approach individual businesses, for fear of getting caught up in rivalries among competitors that I didn’t know well enough to choose between.
I arrived in Kashmir a week before the workshop was to start, just as my hosts were considering the question of who we could expect to attend.  The student world of the University, here as anywhere, is somewhat isolated from the larger community.  Because Kashmir is a cause celebre in India, and formerly gained much of its prosperity from its handicraft industries and tourism, there are numerous government departments and institutions at the central and state levels, whose mandate is to support these sectors.  The University chose to work through these institutional contacts – the Craft Development Institute, the Indian Institute of Carpet Technology, the School of Designs – and I visited several of their directors myself to describe my project and the kind of participants I hoped to attract.  In our conversations and subsequent defaults, I accumulated a picture of bureaucratic priorities, limited mandates and resources, and discouragement at their inability to remodel their constituencies in new and modern ways or even to really engage with them productively.
At the introductory, lecture-based session of the workshop, we started with about 30 individuals, some I recognized or assume had been attracted by word-of-mouth, then the doors opened and another 50 young students trooped in under escort, from the Gov’t Polytechnic for Women, who had been assigned to attend, papering the house and requiring redoubled supplies of chicken patties for the refreshments following.
In the subsequent sessions in the computer lab, attendance was divided between the Polytechnic students who sat dutifully at the computer workstations, and visits from designers wanting to engage me in their own conversations.  Naively thinking that I could get around to everyone in due time, I didn’t manage the classroom situation very well.  The visitors came and went; the students experimented using the Stitch Painter program as intended, but either recoiled shyly at my approach or sailed out purposefully when it was time for a break.  I was grateful to their teacher for convening group discussions a couple of times, but by the last day of the workshop the commitment from the Polytechnic had already ended, and I was left talking to one or two stragglers as the clock ran out.  I think my talk during the introductory session went well, but the University’s assessment of the workshop itself ought to be so disappointed I should just be glad they were too polite to tell me.
As a framework for my two weeks in Kashmir, the program at the University did provide me with wide-ranging introductions to the stakeholders in the shawlweaving industry.  Shawl designers and weavers are often characterized as two separate groups, the designers computer-literate, younger, isolated and frustrated by lack of employment, and the weavers poorly-paid and exploited, lacking the education and opportunities to improve their situations.  The history of Kashmir’s exploitation extends back long before it became symbolic of the enmity between India and Pakistan, before partition, before it became a favourite summer resort of the British colonizers, to the 16th century when it was annexed by the Mughals, then later usurped by Afghans and Sikhs, largely because of the shawlweaving production they coveted, fostered, controlled, and taxed.  European observers reported, with vicarious indignation, the conditions of captive servitude and meagre rice rations earned by the weavers.  Shawl designers were a class apart from the weavers, fewer in number and priviledged by their talent, like the painters who worked in court ateliers.  The process itself of preparing and transmitting the designs, left weavers passively following instructions and interchangeable on the order of their employers.  But even today people point to certain neighbourhoods of Srinagar having concentrations of weavers with shawl looms in their homes.  This relic of a former economy sounds like a wonderland to an artist-weaver from the West, where handweaving as an economic activity is already extinct.  The same economic imperative prompts the fashionable cynicism alike of the nostalgic and of the progressive, that tapestry shawl weaving is bound to dwindle and give way to more profitable, modern livelihoods.  I’m not so sure.
Call it the wishful thinking of an older person still in the grip of his favourite anachronisms and lost causes, but I’m more hopeful that shawlweaving will survive, and be recognized for its importance to the history of Kashmir.  The craft process from artist’s drawing to fine tapestrywoven fabric is technologically brilliant, showing a deep understanding of the digital nature of woven imagery.  It was advanced for its time, developed into full flower supporting tens of thousands of workers, and still has its advocates today.  Every Kashmiri I meet connected with the shawl industry now is young, enthusiastic, and dedicated, some of them engaged in reviving the family businesses last run by their grandfathers.  And already the connection between shawl designs and computer imaging is obvious enough to be employed by some weavers.
Because of the upsurge of militancy in the last twenty years, there may have been a lost generation of casualties and emigrants, and one might well fear an irrevocable break with the past.  But perhaps the stone-throwing has subsided in favour of a more habitable determination to reassert Kashmir’s cultural distinction and heritage.  When I first started to mention my interest in shawlweaving and the pieces of talim I had collected in the 1990’s, I was surprised that every Kashmiri I met in the diaspora could recognize and read the talim, probably from time spent in childhood apprenticeship to carpet weaving, which perpetuated the technology of the talim text when shawls went out of fashion in the 19th century.  While the talim is part of their common heritage, they are frankly incredulous that anyone outside the tradition, such as I, can read it.  There is a very strong sense of pride, proprietorship, and exclusivity that I think will motivate the survival of shawlweaving, a harmless, arduous, but closely self-identified, dedicated, and ultimately rewarding activity, just as much as Kashmiri self-determination has prompted more dangerous and costly gestures of resistance.
I have long felt there is a social dimension of my own quiet tapestryweaving activity, a nonconformist resistance to the haste and opportunism of the present era.  I would love it if a variety of the work that has become my vocation, continues to signify and reward the pride of its people, and if I, even as an outsider, could contribute to that by my study of what made the best surviving examples of shawlweaving’s golden age.  That pride is probably why it seems so difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to get a hearing, with my unconventional loom, coarse woollen threads, unfamiliar concepts, and critique of current practice – argue as I may that the differences are superficial.  It’s not about modernization or productivity, but all about restoring and upholding the tradition.


•25/02/2012 • 1 Comment

Two topics I want to address are litter and dogs:
The Indian instinct is to litter, to immediately drop, toss, jettison, spit, or relieve themselves where they stand, sit, or see an opening.  Get rid of the useless and the unclean.  The view from a train passing by people’s backyards is illustrative: where there is a wall to pitch stuff over, there is inevitably a built-up scree of multicoloured packaging.  The catering on the railway system is itself a major offender: the cleaner who sweeps the aisle pushes all the empty plastic water bottles and other rubbish into the vestibule between carriages and straight out the door of the moving train.  I’ve witnessed the steward of our carriage, a smart and in some ways conscientious worker, casually empty a food tray of its bits of foil and paper, over the side.
By the end of the day, the way is strewn confetti-like with empty packets.  Plastic bags drift among the waterlilies on ponds like jellyfish.  There is nothing to prevent a midden of bottlecaps to build up below the terrace of a restaurant whose raison d’etre is a scenic view, as I recall from an earlier visit to Udaipur – no inhibition, no mental connection.  You would think in a country with as long a history and rich associations of sacred lore with the landscape, there would be a sense of responsibility.  There are whole classes of people, sweepers and garbage-pickers, whose job it is to sweep up and carry stuff away, from city streets and designated areas – the sobering implication is that the carpet of litter you’re looking at is just today’s contribution.
It was all very well when the debris was organic, biodegradable – food service packaging of stitched-together leaves, or even paper.  In the bad old days, railway meals came uncovered on reuseable stainless-steel trays.  But now that plastic carrier bags are reflexively given out with every purchase, and modern products rely on elaborate packaging to validate their status and appeal, what could formerly be counted upon to decay away, now drifts and washes up everywhere accumulating.
Medical advice is that rabies is endemic among dogs in India, and from my Canadian experience I dread encounters with unsocialized, irritated, aggressive dogs, but there haven’t been any.  There are more street dogs than one thinks a poor country would support, but they are probably a tacit part of the predilection to littering and the recycling of garbage, picking over food scraps deliberately left at the roadside and market refuse, like the cattle that are noticeably more active foraging at the end of the market day.
It’s not an easy life, but few dogs look underfed, however worn and scruffy in a climate never cold enough to knock back fleas and other parasites.  Many dogs have a lame foot, the price of learning to negotiate traffic.  But they all nonchalantly curl up in any sunny spot, including the curb lane of city streets, and traffic goes around them.  Among all kinds of vehicles, barrows, pedestrians, and itinerant livestock, moving or paused, like small children they are looked-out-for.  I haven’t seen anyone petting or showing affection, nor abuse.  Very few show any sign of an individual relationship at the end of a leash.  Somewhat more of them sport a cardigan or blanket in this winter season.  They don’t solicit friendly attention, expect to be petted.  I have hardly ever seen a tail wag.  It seems a pathetic, withdrawn, parallel world.  Among themselves, they have a careful, local, structured society – trespass is dealt with vocally, sometimes stridently.  In the night there can be terrible rows and grievous yelping, but from anything I’ve actually seen, it seems mainly theatrical.  In the end I’ve grown not to fear them but to pity their sad, separate existence underfoot, the most companionable domestic animal left to its own devices.