Five husbands in one day in Ahmedabad
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
I knew I was in India when I saw a young girl of about eight (probably 15) at a chaotic major intersection performing circus like gymnastics – pulling herself along the ground through a tiny loop of rope while her young brother collected rupees from the waiting cars, when a white robed Jain man carefully carries three dead rats in a lime green kitchen pan to place them somewhere respectful. Everything is sacred to the Jains including mosquitoes.
I land in a refined, restored heritage villa in Delhi owned by Ashok and Ein Lall, both who studied architecture at Cambridge University, the house was bought by Ashok’s grandfather after it was auctioned off to the locals after the British left India. Giant mango and Pipal trees hang from every autocratic word spoken from those British times of decadence. Three streets away from this oasis the Delhi machine is in action, rusty as hell in parts and smooth as oil in others. Desperate as hell in parts, yet woven of the finest silk in others, and exhausting – if one does not recognise that the battering is taking effect. I must learn to retire from the streets and recharge at times. I can’t help but tred onto and into structures of crumbling beauty which led to enjoying a fine cup of tea in a victorian floral teacup with Biresh Kishore – a bachelor living with his spinster sister in a nearly empty mansion once owned by the british and inherited from his high court judge father. Biresh’s aristocratic father could never find suitors good enough for them to marry so here they are sharing this space with neglected carved teak furniture, and mattress stuffing all over the floor. After tea, and after some time, it is the Ahmedabad Express train (haha) that I board to reach Ahmedabad in 17 hours time. With the next train booking I shall not inadvertently choose upper cattle class…cramped up high in a three tier bunk bed made it pretty tricky to climb the ladder down to the asphyxiating squat hole in the floor. On the opposite bunk an exquisite young muslim women lay, or rather hid behind her black burka – looking stunned and maudlin she is the newly married third harem wife of the elderly man on the lower bunk. It’s good to back with a mission once again – this time travelling to Gujurat – the Manchester of the East, where I shall commission the wood block carvers of Pethapur to carve my illustrations and cartoons onto recycled teak wood, The wood used comes from the demolished 200/300 year old havelis of Ahmedabad – still flecked with the pale green and blue paint used to decorate these intricately carved houses. “tell me what you think” Gurmeet asks (how do you make ideas in your head?) – it’s a tough question and one that is always difficult to verbally answer. I met Gurmeet online – through my research into wood block carvers, he’s a graduate of the Kerala State Institute of Design, an enthusiastic educator and entrepreneur and has written a book on the woodblock carvers of Pethapur – he is the perfect creative companion and guide. We spent the day in Pethapur – a dusty noisy small town on the outskirts Ahmedabad, if you can have an ‘outskirts’ in India. Concrete construction in all directions, dense, overwhelming chaos, a churning machine of humanity is India. I’ve now commissioned three sets of carvers to carve my blocks and must now discipline myself to sit and draw more images to make the final story work. The street beckons you see. On the way to find hand spun, hand loomed cotton and silk on which to print the blocks I am held up and asked on five occasions ‘where is your husband? what is his name? Peter, Richard, John, David and Stuart were my husbands – all very 50’s names that popped up. Indians feel very sad for you if you don’t have a husband (well the men do!) On my way to visit the Mata ni Pachedi traditional painters and cloth printers my auto rickshaw flew by a huge brick building of curious shape – aha I thought, this Le Corbusiers City Gallery building, and then right next door was Doshi’s huge cultural centre building – both I recognised from photos that my architecture student children have shown me. ‘I’ll stop by there on the way back I thought. I’m shown rusted iron and jaggery (sugar) left to age in a ceramic pot for weeks to create a dense black printing ink which I will need to print the block images then the printed cloth is boiled with tamarisk to fix the colour. I plan to cart all my blocks to the desert region of Dhamadkar, Kutch – where within a small muslim town of 25,000 inhabitants I shall employ natural dye printers. I’m looking forward to being in a small village with goats, sparkly stars and sweet buffalo milk.