Carole Douglas is an Australian who has become deeply involved in a particular craft scene in India, the dyers and weavers of Kachchh. In 2001, her engagement has been deepened following the devastating earthquake in the region. She has now developed a project that honours these crafts and supports environmental awareness. This is her story.
|Litter: India is no different from many other countries in its use of plastic bags. It does however have an issue with litter. The products made by Tejsi Dhana will be used as a campaign to highlight the issue.||Motif: Maldhari – cattle herder by Tejsi Dhana|
New Zealand born Carole Douglas trained as an art teacher and studied textile design at Wellington Design School. During her early career she taught art and design at intermediate, secondary and tertiary institutions, worked as crafts coordinator for rural Northland and tutored in adult education. In 1980 she established her textile studio ‘Dyeversions’ from which she produced large public and private commissions and exhibition pieces. In 1981 Carole won the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts inaugural Fibre Art award. Before moving to Australia in 1986 she served two terms as vice president of the NZ Crafts Council.
In 1994 Carole returned to University where she merged her arts background with strong environmental interests and completed a master’s degree in Social Ecology. Her work since that time has been a fusion of art, environment and social advocacy. As recipient of an environmental citizen’s award Carole attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and later focused on creative usage of the waste stream.
In 1996 she travelled to Kachchh (India) in search of traditional, natural dyeing techniques and met with renowned natural dyer (late) Mohamed Siddequebai Khatri and his sons. Descended from a lineage of artisans the present generation traces their traditions back to Persia. During this and subsequent visits Carole forged strong bonds with local artisans and in 2001 following the devastating earthquake she put her efforts into raising funds to help them overcome trauma and rebuild lives and livelihoods. The exhibition ‘Resurgence – stories of an earthquake, survival and art’ was a direct outcome of these efforts. It opened at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum in 2003 and in 2006 it was acquired by the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai.
Since 2005, Carole has organized and led eight textile focused groups to Kachchh and beyond. She recently introduced carbon off-set taxes which, in conjunction with Shrujan Trust, contribute to an education and reafforestation project in remote areas. A group of Kachchhi embroiderers is currently employed to create images for a publication that will inform locals about the importance of trees.
In 2008, Carole was invited to curate an exhibition for the UNESCO conference ‘Education for Sustainability’ held in Ahmedabad. ‘New Voices New Futures’ is a collection of works by the new generation of Kachchh artisans and focuses on social and ecological sustainability. Carole also works with traditional artisans and the Victoria & Albert Museum staff to develop products based on the Museum’s collection.
|Marigold temple garlands in Bhuj, Jabbar Khatri’s main source of the flowers used to obtain vibrant yellow.||Marigold garlands are sun dried on the rooftop and stored in a dark cool place. Many blooms are required to dye one scarf but the supply is plentiful.|
|Scarf is immersed in dye bath. Up to 250 gms of dried flowers is used for one piece.||The scarf is dipped into an alum mordant to fix the colour.|
|The process is repeated until the desired depth of shade is reached.||Untied scraves dry in the Bhuj sunshine. Centre colour is the result of marigold overdyed with iron (black).|
|The surprise comes when the thousands of tiny knots are untied and the design is released. The threads are collected and used again as cleaning pads in the automotive industry.||Close up detail of the motif. Each of the white ‘dots’ represents a tied knot that resists the dye. Thousands of woman are employed througout Kachhch in this tradition. Bandhani, as this tradition is known, is the greatest source of income in the hand crafted textile industry in Kachhch. The district also supplies tied, undyed pieces for dyeing throughout India.|
Carole’s current work includes the development of a range of sustainable textiles in collaboration with Kachchh artisans. Products to date include a marigold dyed scarf by Bandhani artisan Jabbar Khatri who collects used garlands from local Hindu temples. While Jabbar’s designs are generally based on traditional motifs, Carole prefers to integrate theme and process and in this case she herself has designed the marigold flower motif.
The ethic behind my work is to create items that consider environmental responsibility, social equity and economic viability and that also observe cultural mores. I do my best not to impose my design ideals onto artisans and prefer to find ways that satisfy local and international aesthetics.
We look carefully at resource, water and energy uses; we recognize that everyone needs to be rewarded and we work out prices that cover production and what the end market will bear. Sometimes we all have to compromise.
Another recent product was the result of discussions during the development of the UNESCO project when Carole suggested artisans look to the waste steam for potential materials. The resulting range of bags and place mats is woven from locally collected plastic waste using traditional techniques. The once-used bags are cut into strips and meticulously woven by Tejsi Dhana and his family. Each bag contains in excess of 100 discarded bags and are both beautiful and durable. Carole intends to use these products to launch an anti-litter campaign later in the year.
|Collected contaminated plastic waste is carted to Mumbai for recycling. Clean waste is collected for use.||The Artisan’s Loom: Tejsi works at his primitive loom and produces pieces of great beauty and durability.|
|Tejsi Demonstrates the technique employed for making the waste plastic bags.||Tejsi Dhana Marwada (R) master Kharad weaver with his cousin Sumar who assists in the process. Please note the vegetable dyed wools in the background used for rug weaving.|
|Motif: Ploughing. Cattle herding along with dry-land farming is the backbone of the local economy and has been practiced in the Banni area of Kachchh for several centuries.||Motif: Animals We Depend on. (detail) The people of the Banni depend on Goats for wool and milk, Camels for transport and livelihood and Buffalo (water) for Milk poducts.|
Sustainability remains a complex question in Carole’s view.
When we did the New Voices New Futures show one of the artisans gave an opening address in which he stated: “When I think about sustainability in the outside world it seems a very complicated issue. For me and my family it is very simple. Sustainability for us means two good meals a day and a change of clothes.” When I reflect on Chaman’s comment I know that if I lived as he and many others do then my life would be so much easier and my footprint so much smaller. It is food for thought. The artisans I know live simply, work creatively, interact richly and, as far as I can tell, are happy. I don’t believe that this is a romantic view although I have to be always mindful of this in India.
Carole Douglas writes about the artisan who wove from plastic bags:
Tejsi Dhana was born and raised in the small and remote border village of Kuran. The hamlet lies on the edge of the Great Rann of Kachchh and is the last inhabited place before the Pakistan border. Due to border sensitivities most foreigners are denied permission to visit. This is camel country and Tejsi’s ancestors wove udder bags, bridles and other camel trappings from local camel, goat and sheep wool. This particular style of weaving later evolved into coarse but durable floor mats for the local market and are traditionally camel (brown) and goat (black) in colour.
The 2001 earthquake destroyed ninety percent of Kuran village and when I first met Tejsi, 4 months later, he was ‘squatting’ on a hillside near the village of Kukma some 25 kilometres from Bhuj. He saw the earthquake as a “God given” opportunity to move his extended family closer to services and to outlets for his work. By that time (May 2001) the family group had built several ‘bhungas’ – typical Kachchhi round mud homes with conical thatched roofs – and he had set up his primitive Kharad loom under a thatched shelter.
It was from this hillside and on this loom that Tejsi wove his remarkable wall rug ‘From Kuran to Kukma’ for the exhibition Resurgence in which he graphically recreated his search for a new place to settle. Beginning with his original home under the lee of the legendary black hills of Kachchh Tejsi wove his journey from horror to peace at ‘lilu drasia’ (green view) his then current place of domicile. From this new vantage point he had a vista of green fields rather than the arid salt marsh that is the great Rann of Kachchh, his children attended the local school and he could get his goods to the market in Bhuj or nearby Bhujodi – the noted village of weavers. He however he knew his time at ‘lilu drasia’ was limited due to the government policy of resettling all earthquake refugees in their home villages.
Meanwhile back in Sydney, photographer friend Jenny Templin, noted for her Indian images, raised money through an exhibition at Bondi Pavilion. She later handed me $2000 to help a family in need and with an extra $500 donated by my husband it was enough to allow Tejsi to buy a large plot of land near Kukma where he could build homes and a weaving studio.
Six years later Tejsi’s studio is well established, he employs two other family members and his work has evolved significantly. While he still uses the original loom, he has become an expert in natural dyes and creates rugs of great beauty using the subtle hues that pomegranate, indigo, lac, sappan, iron and other substances yield on local sheep wool. He has extended his design vocabulary and constantly researches traditional images. His son Samat, now 21, is now also a master weaver and chooses to make rugs that explore environmental themes. His piece ‘Trees are Life’ shows the story of changes to the land through the loss of trees and to the future. The plastic bag bags and place mats, an outcome from earlier discussions about waste materials, are created by Tejsi and his cousin on a simple Kharad loom and use local packing string for the warp and handles.
Today the future of the family’s products is precarious. Economic factors play a large part in the survival of marginal crafts such as Kharad weaving. There are now only two families in the entire district who are engaged in the tradition; the goods are difficult to sell for many reasons including limited production capacity, design factors, lack of appreciation, the high cost of transport and competition from much cheaper goods. Desert Traditions is currently working on a narrative range for an exhibition (hopefully at Bondi Pavilion). This will complete a circle, promote traditional work and, at best, find an appreciative buying audience for this ancient craft.
The use of found materials, particularly recycling, is something we normally associate with craft inspired by Western modernism, as an expression of style over substance. In the case of the Indian artisans that Carole Douglas works with, it is responding to local environmental issues. Recycled art is usually in response to a local problem. Can we share these problems in a feeling of solidarity, beside not being our own problem?
Thanks to Carole Douglas for images and text. You can see these works in the World of Small Things exhibition.