Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Labor of Love

Last week my advisor Scott and his partner Lera visited Ahmedabad as part of their tour of India. It was a long time coming, as Scott has supervised my research in India for 5 years but has never visited. I planned out their 3 days in Ahmedabad to maximize exposure to 3 things: Awaaz.De related people and places, historic and interesting sites in/around Ahmedabad, and the Manav Sadhna family. It worked out nicely, with their trip coinciding with a group of visitors from Teach for India coming through MS and bunch of activities including an Ekatva performance scheduled, and also a Wednesday meditation. Scott also met with DSC, which he got a big kick out of. And they had a chance to explore the old city and enjoy the company of Jagdipbhai and family at the Heritage House.

On the second day we took a rental and made a day trip towards Patan. We stopped off at the Adalaj Vav (step well), Modhera Sun Temple, and the Rani ki Vav. All were beyond expectation beautiful and worthwhile. I had all these childhood memories of boring road trips in Gujarat with my family where we'd take long car rides on crummy roads to boring temples. Maybe it's maturity or a cultivated appreciation, maybe its the crisp state expressways that now blanket the state, but I have never enjoyed a trip to an ancient site in Gujarat more than this trip. Made me feel a twinge of pride in Gujarat's cultural heritage to see the majesty of the temple and wow-invoking Vavs.

But the most underrated stop we made was at the Patan Patola Heritage shop of the Salvi brothers. Patola is a style of weaving that is intensely intricate. It entails a lengthy painstaking process of creating silk and cotton thread from scratch, then dieing it by stretching it out and tying small knots to block out colored portions. This is done one thread at a time. The design is already pre-set, so essentially they are projecting a final design onto each thread, a fraction of a millimeter at a time. This is all done by hand.

This is just to prepare the thread, weaving is a whole other process. They set up on a huge bamboo handloom that tilts down to one side. It takes two people to operate it. And they move forward, one thread-length at a time, shooting the thread in a bamboo shuttle width-wise to and fro, using the tilt of the loom to propel it. The design they had mapped onto each thread materializes as they weave all the thread tightly together.

Everything is done by hand. It takes a team of 4-5 people six months to make one sari in the Patola style. So they make about two pieces a year. They are very expensive and made-to-order. Typically they are sold to rich industrialists in Gujarat. The Salvis' masterpiece project, an elephant-adorned design with no repetition in the entire piece, took them three and a half years to make. One sari! Pieces of it sit in various museums around the world. One of the Salvi brothers proudly pointed out one certificate out of many adorning their wall. It was from the Smithsonian, which recognized the Salvis' as master craftsman and this workshop for its historically significant work.

The Salvi brothers are environmentally conscious. I was delighted to see some of the notices pinned in their workshop, it reminded my of my dad who writes similar reminders and posts them around our house. Especially the "think 100 times…" quote, that's straight out of Dad's playbook.

The result of the Patola process is beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces. But what stood out for me visiting this workshop is how much care, attention, and commitment this family of weavers put into the craft. It is truly a labor of love. Being only one of two families still doing Patola in the traditional way, these brothers really carry themselves as stewards of this ancient, multi-hundred-year-old tradition. Only the eldest brother was married, the others have abstained from family life to hone the craft. They said they couldn't use computers because it would go against the tradition. "This is a human-powered computer," a brother said gesturing to the loaded loom. Just watching them work the loom, weaving in one thread at a time with exacting precision, two brothers working in perfectly timed movements (I theorized to Scott that only brothers could work with the ESP-level synchrony they displayed), it struck me that their level of devotion was beyond anything I had seen. Toiling away in this corner of Patan producing beautiful textiles that take months to complete by tedious manual labor, all for the preservation of their ancestral craft. They seemed to recognize that part of this preservation work is sharing it with others, so despite being interrupted from their daily work they took the steady flow of (mostly foreign) visitors in stride, explaining the entire process with the same care and attention that they had given us just ten minutes earlier.

Seeing the Salvi brothers got me thinking about a person's life's work. These guys were masters of a craft, but their work is largely invisible. It's strikingly different from Dr.V's family craft where they were serving millions of patients so there is a natural spotlight cast on their eye surgery prowess. The Salvi brothers serve two customers per year. But they didn't seem driven at all by recognition (though they relish it when it comes); rather by the tradition they were passed down. But what's the point? They are training the next generation of nephews who have shown some interest, but they are also engineers and doctors. Will they be able to train the next generation? One of the Salvi brothers told me the elephant masterpiece was re-created after 150 years. When I asked him who will re-create another piece 150 years from now, he dismissively laughed. This tradition will likely be gone by then.

I don't think the Salvi brothers are so bothered by this sad fact. I don't think they are even concerned about their legacy. Or money for that matter (one of the brothers told me they still farm to make ends meet). They are doing the work they were chosen to do, and care about doing it the right way, that's it. They have excelled at it, and whatever recognition they receive from that is enough to fill them. I was inspired by their detached dedication, and walked out of the workshop wondering whether I had it in me to work in the same way.

1 comment:

  1. Funny to think I have only met you once, but feel like I know a ton about you. Love reading...keep writing!