A long and winding road through Rajasthan

Among a new generation of idealists in Kishangarh

Among a new generation of idealists in Kishangarh

I was in Ahmedabad for ten days recently to work on the Make it New Again conference at National Institute of Design. In the enchanted city, we had a delirious range of master craftspeople, young entrepreneurs, adventurous designers, Aboriginal artists, and craft intellects gather to share ideas about the enhanced role of craft in the contemporary world.

Generally, I get a privileged view of what’s happening in world craft, filtered through the programing of events such as this conference and World Crafts Council extravaganzas. But it’s getting on the road and visiting villages where craft is still practiced that I tend to learn about what’s missing from these rosy views.

I had the opportunity after the conference of going to Kishangarh to teach a workshop at the new University of Central Rajasthan. I arrived late at night, embracing the warm night air after being confined in the freezing AC in First Class (there were no tickets available in Sleeper). Stumbling across the tracks, I found my host waiting patiently, who took me to my accommodation in the Heritage Hotel. Like many developments in Kishangarh, this mock Haveli is only two years old.

I found out soon after arrival that there was no WiFi or Internet in the rooms, but the staff lent me their hotel’s own dongle so I could get a connection during the night when they didn’t need it. This is a typical Indian exchange – disappointment with services followed by a generous gesture. Perhaps there would be more reliable Internet in Australian hotels, but they would charge you for it and would happily abandon you if there was a fault.

The motto of Central University of Rajasthan is ‘Education for Sustainable Development’. For our workshop, we focused on the concept of sustainability, to understand what it means to preserve the past, and when it might be better to let go. The students were mostly Rajasthani and quite idealistic about the negative impact of economic development. They seemed to embrace the discussions, offering critical perspectives on commodification. It was clear that this was a new generation of open-minded young Indians which offered much promise for all the new organisations and businesses that are starting up around the country.

Women from Jharkhand learning to make circuits for solar panels with Barefoot College in Thilonia

Women from Jharkhand learning to make circuits for solar panels with Barefoot College in Thilonia

After the workshop I was kindly invited by local Australian Fiona Wright and her husband to visit Thilonia, the fabled village of Barefoot College. I’d seen Bunker Roy speak about this in 2010 and found it impossibly idealistic. But seeing for myself the women from Jharkhand making circuits for solar panels, I lost any doubts about the project. It was an inspiring experience.

Wall in Thilonia where the recipients of a work subsidy are named, along with number of days and full payment. There's no escaping the truth.

Wall in Thilonia where the recipients of a work subsidy are named, along with number of days and full payment. There's no escaping the truth.

Afterwards, a person who runs a new start-up for online craft sales offered to show me some villages on the way back to Jaipur. In his little jeep, we trundled down endless bumpy roads to find a village that he has been working with to supply goods for sale.

On arrival, I found myself the object of a traditional welcome. A woman came out of the house to drape a garland of flowers around my neck and anoint my forehead with a tilak red thumbprint. I do confess to a romantic notion about traditional welcome ceremonies, so was quite overcome to be greeted like this.

Residents from the village of Kashod in Rajasthan prepare something in recognition of Sangam Project.

Residents from the village of Kashod in Rajasthan prepare something in recognition of Sangam Project.

We then went inside for a chai and sit down. During this time, various men came and went. They seemed quite distant from any craft production, and I began to wonder if I was captive to some patriarchal elite in the village. After some time, and in fading light, we eventually went to visit some of the homes were women embroidered. In what seemed an endless succession, I was invited into room after room where women stretched their fabric to work on. They eagerly demonstrated their techniques for me. I was very grateful for the contact, but the embroidery itself seemed quite elemental, particularly compared to the masters present in Make it New Again. Many of the sequins were glued onto the stretch fabric.

Being shown the embroidery set up

Being shown the embroidery set up

This in itself isn’t an issue for a village that clearly maintained a local craft production. But there were expectations attached to my presence that I could be able to take it further, perhaps opening new markets for them. It is conceivable that a designer could come to live with these women and develop a unique product that would stand out from others. They were in the business of setting up an impressive village office, that could prove a hub for this. But visiting their homes, I was quite struck by the wonderful visual sense evident in the arrangement of objects on shelves. An alternative route would be develop the design skills of the women themselves in an alternative medium, like graphics.

During the long freezing drive back to Jaipur, I worked through the experience. What to do with such great expectations? Is the one-off presence of an outsider like myself sufficient in itself as an unusual event to give honour to the local embroiderers? How can a product carry values that are part of village life? There was many questions floating around, but one definite conclusion settled in my mind. I discarded any notion that Rajasthan was saturated with craft NGOs. The region has a potent combination of need, and capacity, but the challenges should not be underestimated. I do dip my lid at those who make a fist of it.

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