While I soak in the sunshine on a pleasantly cool Ahmedabad winter day I read that the big Arctic chill has hit North America and Europe. It’s cold, cold, cold! News reports show how the blanket of snow has brought life to a standstill, and people are being interviewed to share how they are coping.
I remember a poem that wonders how the Snow itself must feel.
Snow on top
must feel chilly
the cold moonlight piercing it.
Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.
Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.
The poem was written in the 1920s by a young Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko. “Teru” as she was called, was born in 1903 in a family of booksellers in a small fishing village in western Japan. The book-loving child was encouraged to study by her mother and grandmother, and she stayed in school until she was 18, a rare achievement for Japanese girls at the time. She began writing poetry at age 20, and signed her work “Misuzu”, in an allusion to classical Japanese literature meaning “where the bamboo is reaped.”
In her poetry, Misuzu would share her sense of curiosity and wonder–What does snow feel in a drift? Where does day end and night begin? Why don’t adults ask the questions children do? “To Misuzu, everything was alive and had its own feelings—plants, rocks, even telephone poles! She felt the loneliness of whale calves orphaned after a hunt. She felt the night-time chill of cicadas who had shed their old shells. And she felt the tearful sadness of a flower wet with dew.”
Sadly her personal life was tragic and she committed suicide when she was only 27 years old. Kaneko and her work were forgotten for the next 50 years. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family. It is only in the 1980s that another Japanese poet Setsuo Yazaki, recovered her poetry manuscripts and these were published.
Today, almost a 100 years later, Kaneko’s poems remain as fresh and moving with their innocent sense of wonder.
I wonder why
the rain that falls from black clouds
shines like silver.
I wonder why
the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves
is so white.
I wonder why
the moonflower that no one tends
blooms on its own.
I wonder why
everyone I ask
about these things
laughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”
If only we could all retain that magical sense of wonder rather than simply accepting “That’s just how it is.”
2019 has been declared as The International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) by UNESCO. The official launch of IYIL was held on 28 January 2019. The aim of IYIL is to “draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages around the world”.
Of the 6000-7000 languages in the world today, about 97% of the world’s population speaks only 4 % of these languages, while only 3% of the world speak 96% of all remaining languages. A great majority of those languages are spoken mainly by indigenous peoples.
India is one of four countries, along with Nigeria, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, with the largest number of living languages. A mammoth project to conduct a comprehensive survey of Indian languages was launched in 2010. Initiated by Prof. G.N. Devy, founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Vadodara, and undertaken by a large team of scholars, the project called the People’s Linguistic Survey Of India (PLSI) set out to document and preserve 780 languages which are being spoken in India today. These are being published in the multi-volume People’s Linguistic Survey of India, towards providing an overview of the extant and dying languages of India, as evolved till 2011, and as perceived by their speakers. The volumes chronicle the evolution of these languages in all their socio-political and linguistic dimensions, and encapsulate the worldview of their speakers. PLSI proposes to complete its task of publishing 92 volumes by 2020.
In the last couple of years, I have had the enriching opportunity to learn about some of the indigenous people of the north east of India and a glimpse of not just the incredibly rich traditions of textiles in the region, but equally the close ties between language of the people and the language of their textiles. Not only does every tribe have their own dialect, but each dialect has wonderfully nuanced words to describe every textile that they weave, and even every motif that is woven on these.
Names of textiles of the tribes have references to the history and geography of the tribe, as well as names that literally relate to colour, size, on which part of the body they are worn, as well as referring to age and status of the wearer. There are specific shawls for elder men or women, for those who have special social status (as in the Naga the Feast of Merit shawl), for a new bride to wear to her marital home, and for covering the deceased.
As Ganesh Devy puts it “in every manner without any exception, the language we learn or use is the absolute condition of our narrative of the world and the way we see the world.”
Of the numerous examples of this, is that of a textile of the Bodo Kachari tr
ibe of Assam.The multi-use decorative textile called Aronai is characterised by a zig-zag motif called Hawjagor (hill pattern) in the Bodo dialect. This pattern is inspired by the hills which form an important part of the history as well as the geography of the Bodo people who settled by the foothills, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam.
It is in the names of motifs that women weave onto the textiles that the symbiosis between life, nature and culture is most evident. The names not just reflect how nature inspires form, but also reveal a keen eye for subtle detail and the richness of language to reflect this.
A common triangular motif on wrap skirts of the women of a small Naga tribe is called impeak bam. The word Impeak translates to ‘stretching out/extending/ spreading out’ and bam means ‘wings’; and the motif symbolises a flying Hornbill. While a similar but smaller triangular motif is named to mean the wings of the bird called a Swift.
Some of the motifs of the Liangmai Naga tribe in Manipur are named literally to represent elements such as fish bone (kakhara thua), cow’s teeth (kabuihu), and ripples in a lake (kazai kapai). There is even a woven line stitch line called matiang kang meaning ‘group of ants.’ These are only the tip of the iceberg of detail, as it were.
One of the traditional shawls of a small Naga tribe of the Manipur Naga Hills has a motif called inchitatpi that translates to ‘head of a long worm’ found in the woods. Another has a pattern representing cucumber seed called angi thei ru. Getting into even more minute detail, another tribe has a popular motif called aphinamik which literally means the ‘eye of a dove’.
There are patterns representing frog’s feet called sangkang nou ban and grasshoppers’ egg called changkow gum, and even a stitch called kabi n’dui where kabi translates to ‘good’ and ndui translates to ‘egg’, relating to the arrangement of eggs on a paddy plant!
What evocative words and how beautifully they capture richness of life lived in synergy with one’s environment. These are only a tiny sprinkling of the vocabulary of a tiny segment of indigenous people and languages.
Sadly with ‘modernisation’ comes homogenisation. A lot of the local weaving traditions are being replaced with mass-produced machine-made garments, and with it are lost not just the textiles and motifs but also the language that represented these.
According to UNESCO, approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century, and they continue to disappear at a rate of one language every two weeks. Up to 90 perccent of the world’s languages are likely to disappear before the end of this century if current trends are allowed to continue.
And Ganesh Devy expresses the Domino Effect that this has—“When a language dies, its speakers decide to migrate. First, they migrate to another language and then they physically start migrating to another region. The second thing that happens is that their traditional livelihood patterns go down. They may have some special skills and that disappears. Thirdly, a unique way of looking at the world disappears.”
A dramatic 6’x4’ acrylic on canvas by Mahadeva Shetty
The first Sunday of January is marked down in every Bangalorean’s calendar as Chitra Santhe Day, the day when the busy Kumara Krupa Road is taken over by artists exhibiting and selling their works.
The Sunday just gone by was the 16th edition of the Chitra Santhe. About 1500 artists from 16 states of India were there, and 400,000 people visited!
As a regular visitor to the Santhe, it is something I look forward to. More than the art even, the festive atmosphere, people taking the time to look at paintings and talk about them, mothers and fathers discussing art with their children….
Grateful to the organizers and the city for this opportunity. And since it is about art, less words and some pics this time!
25 years ago, our friend Darshan Shah began a journey—a journey called Weavers Studio, a business set up with the aim of supporting and contemporising textile-based handcrafts in India. Today, as it celebrates its Silver Jubilee, it is an iconic brand.
But even more important than Darshan’s success as an entrepreneur, may be her contribution to the knowledge and skill revival in India’s textile traditions, and the promotion of arts and crafts. Weaver Studio Archives are one of the finest collection of old Indian textiles, housing over 1200 rare and old samples. Their Centre for the Arts promotes performing and non-performing arts, and presents over a 100 events every year.
One of the significant contributions of Weavers Studio has been to the revival of interest in Baluchari. Baluchari saris (and shawls and textiles) take their name from the village of Baluchar, from the Murshidabad region of Bengal. The village itself no longer exists. Probably washed away in some flood at some time. The weaving of these special saris is thought to have flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, and was generally done on silk, though cotton Balucharis were also woven. They are known to have been exhibited in the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London.
The distinguishing feature of Baluchari is the quirkiness of the motifs. Imagine having a hookah-smoking sahib reclining in an armchair on your pallu! Or an elephant bearing an Englishman and his wife walking across it. Or men on a steamer floating across it. Or a courtesan in a dance pose. You could also have scenes from Ramayana or Mahabharata of course.
Balucharis are fun, quirky and works of art. They are an invaluable part of our craft and textile tradition. Buy a Baluchari, own a treasure!
I am the proud possessor of a Baluchari which I bought in a Bengal State Emporium about 25 years ago (in pic). But it was a rare and lucky find, because when I went out again looking for another such, I could, for almost two decades not find one.
I love textiles. Over the years I have enjoyed wearing, and finding out about fabrics, designs, and unique characteristics of these. Living in a country with its incredible and rich variety of textiles means that the journey of exploring and discovering never ends.
The journey has been further enriched in the past few years when I have had the opportunity to learn about the textile traditions of the Northeast of India. Weaving is such an integral and important part of every tribe here; each part of their life and culture is closely interwoven with the fabrics they weave. Traditionally every girl learnt how to weave as naturally as she learned to walk and talk and carry out the daily life functions. No house would be without a loom, and the women wove all the garments for the family. The threads were not just the intermeshing of warp and weft, but carried in them a wonderful repertoire of narratives.
The folklore of every tribe has a wealth of tales around weaving. A tale from one of the tribes in Assam relates this to the web-spinning spider.
Once upon a time, there was a competition between the women from heaven and the women from earth. The women from earth were very
confident of their weaving skills, and accepted the challenge. When both the teams were ready, the women from heaven came down to the earth and the competition began. With their great wonderful skills, the women from earth won the contest. After weaving the fabric of required length, the Earth women began to fill bobbins by moving the spinning wheel and clearing the knots in between. The women from heaven could not accept their loss and cursed the ladies of the earth, “From now your life shall always be tangled between yarns and forever you shall be busy spinning them for yourself.” It is believed that as a result of this curse the ladies were transformed into spiders that keep weaving cobwebs around themselves.
Many of these tales are still passed on through the oral tradition, but there is an urgent need to document and share these before they are lost with the tradition of loom weaving itself. A recent book has done just this. Banyan Tree’s new book The World of the Weaver –Five Stories and a Prayer compiles some of the stories from different parts of the country. As the jacket says they are ‘Tales of imagination woven around the weaver’s looms. Though they are fables, the stories highlight the value of hand weaving in a harmonious society.’
The beautifully illustrated book is available in Hindi, English and Telugu. For more contact firstname.lastname@example.org>
The Haiku is a 17 syllable poetic form that has been written in Japan for three hundred years. Haiku poets have, over generations, celebrated the changing seasons, and also the mystical relationship between non-related subjects. Most of the poets reflected the Zen Buddhists doctrine that all things and creatures in this world are part of the universal and interconnected brotherhood of creation.
Today the cycle of seasons is not what it used to be. The world is apprehending, rather than celebrating Climate Change. Reports predict the dire consequences of the 1.5 degree rise in temperature, for all living things, interconnected as they are in the intricate web of life.
Among the scientists too there are poets! Some of them have tried to interpret the consequences of Climate Change in Haiku!
Interesting indeed to compare the Haikus from then and now.
Snow is melting…
Far in the misted
A caw cawing crow
Big, fast carbon surge
Oceans heat and rise
Air warms by decades
Icicles and water
Drip down together
Seas rise as they warm
Melting ice joins in
Even the ocean
Rising and falling
Sighing green like trees.
Maybe much higher.
Could wake sleeping giants.
Warming is bad news
For many species.
We can’t bring them back
The Then Haikus are from compilations of haiku by some of the best loved Japanese poets—Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.