Two-day natural dyeing workshops at Aranya Natural, Munnar

aranya natural

 

The first two days of “The sustainability of natural dyes” conference took place at Eastend hotel in Munnar, followed by two days of natural dyeing workshops (at an extra cost) at Aranya Natural’s HQ. Due to limited numbers, all the spaces for the workshops filled up quickly, but many conference attendees requested to stand by and watch, which subsequently overfilled the workshops on the first day.

It was hard to blame those who wanted to watch the workshops as it was a rare opportunity to learn from three leading natural dyeing experts and a group of Japanese indigo farmers and dyers. Since the process of natural dyeing involves the understanding of chemistry, many of the experts would focus more on the chemistry rather than the aesthetics. To me, this is quite valuable, as I believe it is crucial to understand the science behind it all in order to achieve the desired results.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

 

The first workshop that I attended was conducted by Michel Garcia, a world-renowned botanist, chemist, dyer, and naturalist. He is the founder of Couleur Garance (1998) in Lauris, France, and established Le Jardin Conservatoire de Plantes Tinctoriales (Botanical Garden of Dye Plants) in 2000. I have long wanted to attend a workshop by Michel, but he doesn’t seem to conduct many regular workshops, and I can only watch his videos online. In person, he is very funny, passionate and creative, you can really feel his passion for plants and natural dyeing.

In natural dyeing, a mordant is often needed to fix the dyes onto the textiles, and the most common mordant used is alum/potassium aluminium sulfate. At the workshop, Michel demonstrated how to use old tea leaves as a natural mordant, which was very interesting. However, the workshop was extremely packed, which made it difficult for us to hear and follow him properly. It was a shame that this issue was only addressed on the next day.

 

aranya natural  michel garcia

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

Screen printing workshop using natural dyes with Michel Garcia

 

The afternoon workshop was conducted by Jagada Rajappa, who is an independent textile entrepreneur/consultant on natural dyes. She demonstrated dyeing silk yarn with kapila (mellotus Phllipinces) and lac (coccous Lacca), which resulted in vibrant red and yellow. The results revealed that naturally dyed colours are not dull and muted as many would expect.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

Jagada Rajappas workshop and ceremony

 

The next day, the workshops were restricted to those who had originally enrolled, which made more sense. The first workshop was conducted by Linda LaBelle, who is a weaver and natural dyer specialising in indigo. She also runs the website The Yarn Tree that sells fair-trade indigo and other natural dyed items. After yesterday’s observational workshops, I was longing to get my hands dirty. Finally, we got to do some doodling with natural indigo on some cotton fabric that has been pre-dyed in myrobalan. It was a fun session and we got to taste some indigo tea grown by Linda.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

Indigo Doodles workshop with Linda LaBelle

 

The last session was the one I had been looking forward to since I signed up months ago. Buaisou was established in Tokushima by a collective of indigo farmers in 2015, and it is partly responsible for the revival of natural indigo worldwide in recent years. Not only it has over 44K followers on Instagram, it also collaborates frequently with other fashion and textiles companies to promote Japanese indigo and the colour ‘Japan Blue’. Buaisou is renowned for its indigo leaf farming – from cultivating the raw indigo, fermenting the indigo leaves (Sukumo), dyeing, and designing, all the way to production. Since the fermentation process takes around 10 days, Kyoko (the manager) had to arrive 2 weeks earlier to set up the vat.

 

buaisou

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop  buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

 

Since I have previously tried katagami (making paper stencils for dyeing textiles) and katazome (the Japanese method of dyeing fabrics using a resist paste applied through a stencil) with Bryan Whitehead in Japan (see my earlier post), I was quite familiar with the process. This time, I didn’t need to design and cut my own stencils as there were many beautiful and complex precut designs to choose from. We were all given a cotton bandana to work on, and after applying the paste through the stencils, we all took turns to dip the fabric into the indigo vat with some guidance.

I would say this was a taster workshop, and would love to learn more from them when I next visit Tokushima (which was supposed to happen this year but it got cancelled because of COVID-19).

 

buaisou workshop  buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

 

After the workshop, it was time to say goodbye to everyone. Over the four days, I made many new friends from around the world who share the same passion as me, and got the opportunity to chat to many experts in the field, hence the conference has exceeded all my expectations. The fact that it managed to take place just before COVID-19 became a pandemic was extremely lucky.

After exchanging contacts with many attendees, a few of us decided to walk back to town and have dinner together. It was a pleasant walk downhill and we had a fun girls’ night out – something that I haven’t done for a long time.

In the past few years, the pursue of natural dyeing has opened doors for me and enabled me to make new friends from around the world. This was completely unexpected, and it made me realise that I am on the right path.

 

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

munnar

munnar

aranya natural

munnar

munnar

 

 

Kerala Folklore Museum in Kochi

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum  kerala folklore museum

 

When I was doing my research on Kochi before my trip, I wasn’t too bothered about visiting the main attractions, but one museum was written on my to-go list. If you are interested in architecture, ethnology, history, folk arts and crafts, then don’t forgo the Kerala Folklore Museum.

Upon arrival, you are likely to be intrigued by the museum’s striking traditional architecture, which comprises the reconstruction of around 25 traditional, heritage buildings dismantled from different parts of Kerala. This huge architectural installation is based on 3 architectural schools of Kerala namely Malabar architecture, Cochin & Travancore architectural schools. The whole wooded structure was completed with the help of 62 traditional carpenters over a period of 7.5 years.

 

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum  kerala folklore museum

 

It is hard to believe that the 3-storey building houses an impressive private collection of only one art dealer, George J Thaliath (1961-2018). For 35 years, Thaliath traveled around the Indian sub continent to study traditional Indian art. During this period, he also started his collection, which eventually accumulated to over 5000 artifacts spanning 10 centuries and primarily from Kerala. The vast collection includes furniture, stone, wood and bronze sculptures, ancient terracotta, Stone Age objects, pottery, jewellery, paintings, textiles, oil lamps, swords, musical instruments, tribal and folk art, wood works, utensils, masks and puppets etc.

Opened in 2009, Thaliath and his wife created this treasure trove aiming to preserve the rich heritage and traditions of South Indian culture. It also includes a theatre, antique and textiles shops and cafe. The museum attracted much public attention when architecture-lover, Prince Charles and Camilla paid a visit in 2013.

 

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum  kerala folklore museum

 

As I wandered around the museum, I was quite overwhelmed (positively) by the array of the artifacts and craftsmanship. There was so much to see here, and it was hard to absorb everything in one visit. I didn’t feel like I was inside a museum, it felt more like a massive antique/vintage shop, which made me feel at ease.

 

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum  kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum  kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum  kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

 

Since this museum is located in Ernakulam and not near other tourist attractions, it is best to order a taxi/uber to get here. However, it is really worth the time and effort as you are unlikely to find a museum like this elsewhere in Kerala.

 

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

kerala folklore museum

 

 

LCW 19: ‘Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters’

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

 

In my opinion, typography is the most underappreciated design field often neglected by the public. The term typography can be defined as the style, arrangement, and appearance of letters, numbers, and symbols; it is a means of visual communication. We are surrounded by all kinds of fonts in our daily lives, yet few people (aside from designers) take much notice of them. Before computers were imvented, engraving was one of the most important techniques used in printmaking, mapmaking, and book illustrations.

Besides printing, the craft of engraving and carving letters on metal, stone or glass also has a long and rich heritage. Hand engravings and cravings can often be seen on functional, decorative and commemorative objects – from signage, clocks and jewellery to trophies and coins.

 

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters  Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

 

The exhibition at The Goldsmiths’ Centre “Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letterspresents an interesting selection of artists’ work, alongside loans from the Goldsmiths’ Company and other collections, to provide a unique insight into the processes used by contemporary craftspeople to design, craft and carve text. The display reveals the precision needed for this craftsmanship – not only do you need patience, the right pressure but also good eye sight.

During the Lonodn Craft week, workshops, demonstrations and walk were organised to accompany the exhibition. I attended the ‘Text in the City’ walk which focused on urban typography that we often miss while rushing around the city (see my next entry).

 

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters  Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters  Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters  Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

 

 

 

 

London Craft Week 19: Contemporary Japanese craft

BUAISOU indigo hands

Indigo Hands installation at Coal Drops Yard

 

At the London Craft week this year, many Japanese craftsmen and artisans were invited to take part and showcase their exquisite craftsmanship. Although Japanese craft is highly regarded worldwide, the future of many traditional Japanese crafts is still uncertain due to the lack of younger people entering these fields. In the past, traditional craftsmanship is passed down from generation to generation within artisan families. However, due to dwindling demand, urbanisation, change of lifestyle and taste in Japan, few young people would want to dedicate their lives learning and perfecting an ‘old-fashioned’ craft. In order to preserve these crafts, artisans have to constantly evolve, collaborate, and innovate.

In recent years, the revival of natural and indigo dyeing proves that there is no such thing as an ‘old fashioned’ craft. After computer and mobile technology took over our lives for the past two decades, many people are now finding comfort and joy in making tactile craft again. 

 

BUAISOU indigo hands  BUAISOU indigo hands

 

Eastablished in 2015, BUAISOU is a young team of Japanese indigo farmers and artisans responsible for the revival of sukumo – dried and fermented indigo leaves – in Tokushima, the hometown of Ai Zome (natural indigo dye). Tokushima was the top producer of Ai Zome garments in Japan in the 19th century with around 4,000 aishi (sukumo farmers), but due to the introduction of synthetic indigo and other various factors, now only six are left.

At LCW, Coal Drops Yard commissioned BUAISOU to produce a series of handmade and hand dyed flags, and the team conducted several onsite dyeing workshops in KIOSK N1C. Unfortunately, I missed the workshops, but I do hope to visit their studio in Tokushima in the future.

At Heal’s, the Japanese Craft Market showcased ceramics, Mino washi, blades, and wood craft produced by thirteen exhibitors from the Gifu prefecture. I visited Mino and Takayama in the Gifu prefecture last year, so seeing the crafts brough back memories for me.

 

img_4539-min

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

 

There are several towns in the Gifu prefecture that are famous for ceramics, including Mino, Toki, and Tajimi. In Tajima, there is Ceramics Park Mino, a ceramic museum and park that showcases Japanese ceramics. The town also holds an annual ceramic festival during the second weekend of April which attracts thousands of visitors to this area. The region has a lot of small and large scale producers making tiles and ceramic wares including household items, crockery, sculptures etc. as well as huge furnaces and other equipments for industrial purposes.

 

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

Heals Japanese craft market   Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

 

The ancient town of Mino is famous for Washi (Japanese paper), which is used for shoji doors, umbrella, fans, lanterns and stationery. The high quality and durable handmade paper uses pristine water from the Nagara river and is considered as natioanl treasure in Japan. You can learn more from my previous entry on Mino here.

 

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

 

As soon as I arrived at Hida Takayama in the Gifu Prefecture, a glass showcase of wood crafted furniture at the railway station caught my eye. The wood-abundant Hida has maintained a woodworking tradition for over 1,300 years. This region is famous for its skilled woodworkers and beautiful handcrafted furniture, and its minimalist aesthetic is similar to Scandinavian design.

I think the exhibition was a good introduction to those who are unfamiliar with Japan’s regional craft and design. I hope the Toyama prefecture will be next on the list.

 

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

Heals Japanese craft market Gifu  Heals Japanese craft market Gifu

 

At the Spanish luxury fashion house Loewe in Mayfair, California-based mother and daughter team Shizu Designs demonstrated traditional Japanese basketry weaving techniques that transform rocks into art. Rattan or cane is used to wrap and tie the rocks with ornamental knots used in Japanese ikebana basketry. Shizu Okino and Karen Okino also contributed to the LOEWE Baskets accessories collection which features their signature style.

It was mesmerising to watch the two artisans working side by side. Basketry is another traditional craft that is being revived today, and I believe these collaborations are likely to make people appreciate traditional craftsmanship and see it in a different light.

 

shizu design

shizu design

shizu design

shizu design

shizu design

shizu design

shizu design  loewe

shizu design

 

To be continued…

 

‘Living Colours: Kasane’ – an exhibition on Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop

Living Colours: Kasane

 

When I returned from Asia, I managed to book myself onto the curator’s tour of the “Living Colours: Kasane – the Language of Japanese Colour Combinations” exhibition at Japan House. The exhibition explores the natural dyed textile work of the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop in Kyoto. Due to my interest in natural dyeing, it prompted me to pay a visit to Yoshioka‘s small shop Somenotsukasa Yoshioka in Kyoto last year (see photos at the bottom), hence I was particularly keen to see this exhibition.

 

Living Colours: Kasane

Living Colours: Kasane   Living Colours: Kasane

 

The exhibition focused on the ancient art of kasane, the creation of Japanese colour combinations based on the changing seasons in Japan, using natural dye techniques. Master Sachio Yoshioka is the 5th-generation dyer of the 200-year old family-run company, while his daughter Sarasa also co-runs the workshop.

Kasane is the layering of colours seen in formal kimonos worn by the aristocratic women of the courts during the Heian period in Japan (794-1185 CE). The hand and plant-dyed silk kimonos were made up of three, five, or up to eight layers, with each layer reflecting the colours of the natural world around them, such as cherry blossom, or an important occasion or the wearer’s rank.

Japan’s oldest record of natural dyeing was also compiled during this period in early 10th century in books called Engishiki, which describe royal rituals, customs, and clothing, including dye ingredients used for particular colors.

 

Living Colours: Kasane

Living Colours: Kasane

Living Colours: Kasane

 

With the help of pre-19th century historical documents and textile samples, Yoshioka was able to recreate the palette of the Japanese court and revived this an anicent craft from the brink of extinction.

When I did the indigo textiles dyeing workshop in Japan last year, I learned that the traditional kimono industry is rapidly declining, and craftsmen working in the industry are struggling to preserve their important heritage and craftsmanship. Hence, what Yoshioka doing is not only reviving an ancient craft, but an industry that is in crisis.

 

img_4836

Living Colours: Kasane   Living Colours: Kasane

img_4847

 

Aside from textiles, Kasane was also used in paper. Members of the Heian court often wrote and exchanged poems between lovers on dyed fans or several sheets of seasonally coloured paper.

The most famous Japanese literature from the Heian period is “The Tale of Genji”, which is often referred to as the world’s first novel. Written by a noble women from the 11th century, the novel depicts the lives of courtiers during the time. Inspired by the novel, special dyed washi revealed how the layering concept applied to paper as well.

 

img_4843  Living Colours: Kasane

 

For over 40 years, Yoshioka has been taking part in the the thousand-year-old Shuni-e Buddhist ceremony held every March at the famous Todai-ji temple in Nara. Washi paper flowers dyed in red with benibana (safflower) and yellow with kuchinashi (gardenia) are offered to the Kannon (the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) for harvest and protection for the nation. A five-coloured cord made of dyed silk yarn was also recreated at the consecration ceremony of the Great Buddha at the temple in 2002.

 

img_4853

img_4840

img_4846

  

Based on traditional dyeing methods, Yoshioka uses 30 kinds of dyeing materials, including indigo (ai), benibana petals, murasaki-gusa (purple gromwell) roots, akane (madder) roots, acorn nuts, and leaves and stalks of kariyasu (rice grass). Meanwhile, silk, hemp, and cotton are commonly used in their work.

 

Living Colours: Kasane

Living Colours: Kasane

Living Colours: Kasane

 

The Japanese are a nation particularly sensitive to the changing seasons, and their appreciation for this is reflected in their culture, habits, arts and craft.

Simon, the curator of the exhibition told us that Yoshioka wanted to show that Japanese aesthetics are not just about wabi sabi (the beauty of the transience and imperfection), and the art of kasane demonstrates an aesthetic that is vastly different.

 

Living Colours: Kasane  img_4848

img_4849

Living Colours: Kasane   Living Colours: Kasane

 

It is encouraging to see that natural dyeing is becoming more popular in recent years, and this exhibition showcased the vivid and sensual colour palette that can be created from plants. It is time for us to reflect on the sustainability of synthetic dyes and its damaging impact on the environment.

 

Living Colours: Kasane   Living Colours: Kasane

Living Colours: Kasane

Living Colours: Kasane   Living Colours: Kasane

Living Colours: Kasane

Living Colours: Kasane

 

If you missed the exhibition, you can watch this beautiful video “In Search of Forgotten Colours” on the Somenotsukasa Yoshioka dye workshop made by the V & A, which was accompanied by a small exhibition at the museum.

 

 

yoshioka workshop

yoshioka workshop

The “In Search of Forgotten Colours” display at the V & A museum

 

Higashiyama-ku

Somenotsukasa Yoshioka

Somenotsukasa Yoshioka’s shop is located at 206-1 Nishinocho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto

 

 

Kutch textiles: Tangalia & Patola weaving

 Surendranagar village

Surendranagar

 

After days of visiting numerous textiles artisans from different tribal communities in Kutch, I was feeling quite overwhelmed. I am no expert on Indian textiles, and after arriving in Kutch, I was surprised by the variety of textiles traditions being practised in just one region. From embroidery to weaving, blockprinting and natural dyeing… every tribal community specialises in one particular (or more) tradition that has been passed down the generations. Many small villages are somehow well-known for an ancient craft or textiles-related tradition, which is quite incredible in this day and age. When you visit these villages, you almost feel like you are entering a time warp… and you can imagine how life used to be hundreds of years ago. The people we encountered in these villages are not rich, but they seem happier (and friendlier) than the inhabitants in big cities; life in these villages is slow and relaxed.

 

 Surendranagar

 Surendranagar

 Surendranagar

 Surendranagar

 Surendranagar

 Surendranagar

 Surendranagar

 Surendranagar

 

In Kutch’s Surendranagar district, there is a rare 700-year-old indigenous craft native to the region. Tangalia (Tangaliya/Tangalio) is a weave technique practised by the Dangasia community. Surendranagar district has one of the largest handloom clusters in Gujarat, and tangalia can be seen in Bajana, Wadhwan, Sayla, and other villages in this region.

The Tangalia weavers are adept at adding extra knots on the weft which create motifs and figures in a dotted pattern on the woven fabric. Besides dots, other geometric patterns like circles, straight lines, hyperbolic or parabolic designs etc are often seen on these woven textiles. Using this technique, artisans weave shawls, stoles and wraparound skirts worn by women of the Bharwad shepherd community. The single Ikat done at various places in this district, including Somasar and Sayla, creates a less expensive version of the ultra-rich double Ikat Patolas of Patan. Traditionally, black sheep and camel wool is used as the raw material, though cotton and other materials were later introduced for the contemporary market.

 

Tangalia weaving

Tangalia weaving

Tangalia weaving  Tangalia weaving

Tangalia weaving

Tangalia weaving  Tangalia weaving

Tangalia weaving

Dahyabhai Motibhai Parmar’s studio

 

In Bajana, we visited the studio of a Tangalia weaver, Dahyabhai Motibhai Parmar, who has been practising this craft for over 30 years. We learned that Dahyabhai’s family has been weaving tangalia textiles for Bharvad Shepherds for the last 2-3 centuries. However, Dahyabhai did not have any finished woven Tangalia shawl to show us at his studio, so we wandered around the village, and soon found a home/shop that selling Tangalia shawls in various colours and designs. The prices of these shawls are extremely reasonable, and I doubt you could find handmade woven pieces at these prices outside of these villahes.

 

Tangalia weaving

weaving

weaving

Woven Tangalia shawls

 

In the nearby Patan, the medieval capital of Gujarat, it is famous not only for Rani ki vav (an UNESCO World Heritage Site), but also for its Patola weaving technique. Patola is an ancient double Ikat weave (meaning there is no reverse side to it, and can be worn from both sides) that involves intricate and complex process of tie-dyeing on the warp and weft before weaving. Patola saris (made of silk) used to be worn only by royalty and aristocracy, so they were (are) seen as luxury items. The weaving technique is a closely guarded family tradition, and there are only three families left in Patan that can weave these beautiful and expensive double ikat saris, which can take six months to one year to make.

About 900 years ago in 1143 A.D., around 700 craftsmen from the Salvi community in Karnataka and Maharashtra were brought by king Kumarpal of the Solanki dynasty (who then ruled Gujarat, parts of Rajasthan and Malwa) to his court in Patan. These craftsmen lived in Jalna, situated in southern Maharashtra, and were considered to be the finest craftsmen of Patola.

 

patola museum

patola weave  patola weave 

patola weave

patola weave

 

In 2014, the Patan Patola Museum, a private museum run by Patan’s Salvi family opened its doors to the public. The three-storey museum documents the history of the Patan Patola, which combines techniques of tyeing, dyeing and weaving. Here, you can watch demonstrations by master weavers, and see rare ikat collection from India, Japan, Guatemala, Bali and Kalimantan. And if you want to splash out, you can also find a small shop on the top floor selling patola saris.

 

 

Nirona village: Rogan art, copper bell & lacquer craft

Nirona

 

Kutch is a fascinating place; besides textiles, there are various other arts and crafts being practised in the region. Located around 35 km north of Bhuj, Nirona village is a small village famous for Rogan art, a rare traditional art form originated from Persia/Sindh, which almost disappeared until efforts to revive it in recent years. For over three centuries, one Khatri (Muslim) family called Abdul Gafur in Nirona has kept this traditional art form from vanishing completely.

There are only about 5000 people living in this quiet village, and there is nothing particularly appealing as you walk through the village, though I do like the bright colours and geometric patterns on the facades of the buildings.

 

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona  Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

 

It is hard to believe that only one family in this world has managed to keep the Rogan art alive. The reason for this is because traditionally the art form was passed on only to the male members of the Khatri family. (Many ancient art and craft forms around the world have died out because of family secrecies, which is a big shame.) Today, Khatri Abdul Gafoor Daud and Khatri Sumar Daud along with five other artists, including a woman are the practitioners at their studio in the village. Abdul Gafoor Daud has also been teaching the art to local women in collaboration with a non-profit organisation as a way of reviving the art.

The family has been presented with the Padma Shri Award (2019), an International Designer award, 5 National award, 8 State award and 3 National Merit certificates over the last four decades. In 2014, Rogan art became internationally known when it was presented to Barack Obama (the then President of the United States of America) by Narendra Modi during his visit to the US.

Traditionally, the Rogan art was painted on bridal clothing of the regional tribes, and on ghagras, odhanis and bed spreads. Nowadays, though, more people used them as wall pieces and ‘Rogan kaam’ has gained immense popularity.

 

Nirona  rogan art

rogan art

 

The word rogan means oil or oil-based in Persian. Paint made from thick brightly coloured castor seed oil is used to paint on fabric. Castor is a crop commonly grown in the Kutch region of Gujarat and the artists source it from the local farmers.

To prepare the paint, castor oil is heated in a vessel and continuously stirred for more than 12 hours till it catches fire. The paint-maker has to take extreme care to ensure it doesn’t get burnt. The residue is then mixed with cold water until it thickens into a sticky elastic paste called rogan. This paste is then mixed with stone pigments to lend it different hues. Next, the artisan uses a six-inch metal stick to paint with a fine thread of rogan on cloth.

During our short visit, a young artisan demonstrated his skills and it was jawdropping to watch him apply paint onto the fabric with such precision and focus. If he makes one mistake, he would have to start all over again because there is nowhere to hide the mistakes. It is no wonder this art form is being so highly regarded in India and globally.

 

rogan art  rogan art

rogan art

rogan art  rogan art

 

After the visit, we went to the studio of a copper bell maker, Mr Husen Luhar, who has been making bell-making since the age of 12. The Lohar community is originally from Sindh, and Mr Luhar‘s family has been making copper bells for at least 7 generations. I have never seen a bell being made before, and I was captivated by Mr Luhar‘s skills and speed. Within 15 minutes of cutting and hammering continuously, he somehow turned a piece of copper into a bell that produces a crisp sound – it was like magic! Besides bells, he also makes wind Chimes, Xylophone and Jhumar etc. I have never given much thought on the different sounds produce by bells or other metal materials, but the visit to Mr Luhar‘s studio has opened my eyes and made me appreciate the craft of bell-making.

 

Mr Husen Luhar

Mr Husen Luhar  copper bell art

copper bell art

copper bell art

copper bell art

copper bell art

 

Our final stop in the village was to meet the artisans of lacquer art practiced a semi-nomadic tribe called Vadha. Traditionally, artists used to obtain the lac resin from insects found in the forests. Nowadays, lac is readily available in the market.

The resin is mixed with different colours and applied onto carved wooden objects such as wooden spoons, bread rolling pins, containers, toys and utensils etc. The tools to make these objects are very basic: a manual lathe, a hammer and chisels, but it is the bright zigzag patterns that distinguish them from other lacquerware.

It is incredible that such a small village can produce such an interesting variety of arts and crafts. I think all visitors who come to Kutch have to explore beyond the cities to appreciate all the hidden treasures in this region.

 

lacquar  lacquer

nirona village

lacquer  lacquer

 

 

Mandvi beach & the ancient craft of shipbuilding

Mandvi

 

I don’t know if Martin Parr has ever visited the historic seaport town Mandvi in Gujarat before, but if he has, he surely would be clicking away on the beach capturing the rather surreal beach scenes. Mandvi beach faces the Arabican sea, and was extensively used by ship merchants in the 18th century due to maritime trade. Now the beach is recreational but does not get overcrowded.

 

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

 

There are several interesting points about Mandvi beach that differs vastly from non-Indian beaches: there is a windfarm on the beach (I have never seen this before elsewhere); there are camels and horses everywhere (for rides); the oddest, though, is that there are no sunbathers nor swimmers! Perhaps it is due to religious and cultural reasons, but all the men and women I saw on the beach were fully clothed, while a hand full of people would go into the water to take selfies. Most of the activities took place on the beach, and few in the sea, which I found intriguing.

 

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

mandvi beach

Mandvi

mandvi beach

Mandvi

Mandvi

 

After spending some time walking barefoot on the sandy beach, we headed towards the shipbuilding yard to see Mandvi’s 400-year-old dhow-making tradition.

Founded by Maharao Khengarji I in 1580, Mandvi was a gateway to West Asia and Africa, as it was located at the intersection of the spice route and the camel caravan route. The Kharva community of both Hindus and Muslims became experts in building ships (or dhows) for the thriving maritime trade.

Amazingly, these ships are still being built today – by hand – using sal wood imported from Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and locally from Gujarat’s babool trees. The shipbuilders are mostly from the carpenter community who learned their skills from their fathers and grandfathers. Yet this is another dying craft as the issue of priracy in Somalia and Yemen is affecting the cargo trade, and fewer ships are being made now.

 

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

 

I have never been inside a handmade wooden ship before, and what came to my mind was ‘Naoh’s ark’ when I stepped in – undoubtedly the sturdy-looking ship can carry many animals, people and withstand a storm. I felt like I was in a time warp. There are hundreds of screws, nuts and bolts being used, and you can truly appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty when you are inside.

 

shipbuilding mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

Mandvi

 

Yet how can we preserve this ancient and dying craft if the demand for handmade cargo ships is dwindling? Can the craftsmen apply their skills to another trade? I don’t have the answers, but I think it would be a great shame to lose this craftsmanship, and only see this ship in a museum/virtual museum in the future.

 

Natural dyeing & blockprinting workshop in Kutch, India

Somaiya Kala Vidya  india

 

After my 10-day textiles workshop in Japan last year, I wanted to learn more about natural and indigo dyeing, so I did the Natural dyeing course for two terms at Morley College in London. The more I learnt about the subject, the more I realised that India had to be my next textile desintation. Despite wanting to visit India for years, it was textiles that made me set foot on Indian soil for the first time.

 

kutch

 

Since I had never visited India before, I was quite anxious about travelling alone, hence I decided to look for a group tour and workshop that focused on textiles. The task turned out to be harder than I imagined… many textiles-themed tours are either extremely pricey (and outrageously so), or the dates didn’t work for me, or they were already full. My original plan was to visit Rajasthan (like most first-timers), but somehow ended up spending more than three weeks in Kutch/Gujarat instead. Yet I had the most amazing time exploring this less-touristy region of India. I can also say that this region’s textiles are diverse and rich, which was an eye-opening experience for me.

 

textiles  bandhani

textiles workshop

 

As I was searching for a practical textiles course in India, I came across Somaiya Kala Vidyaan educational institute/NGO that supports local traditioanl artisans in Kutch founded by an American lady, Judy Frater. There wasn’t a great of info/review about the workshops for foreigners, but I contacted them anyway. Unlike other textiles workshops, the institute does not host regular workshops, so they would cater for each individual’s requests and invite the specialised artisan to the school to teach the workshop. Strictly speaking, the campus is not catered for foreign students and it lacks the proper facilities, but I thoroughly enjoyed my 5-day textiles workshop and learned a lot from the two wonderful Kutch artisans.

Due to limited time, I decided to focus on natural dyeing and bandhani (Indian tie-dyeing technique), though I was hoping that I could try Ajrakh block printing as well. Luckily, a week before my arrival, I found out that I would be joined by an American author who had traveled to India to do research for her forthcoming book on the history of textiles. She had requested to learn block printing, hence it meant that we could learn both techniques during the workshop.

 

textiles workshop  myrobalan

img_7297  natural dyeing workshop

Top right: myrobalan: botton left: pomegranite skin

 

Over the five days, we prepared dye baths with the following: walnut, madder, rhubarb, eupatorium (flowers), lac (extract from the scale insect Laccifer lacca), annatto (seeds of the achiote tree), marigold flowers and indigo. In order to prepare the dye, we had to let it simmer with water for at least one hour. Usually a mordant (a substance used to set the dyes on fabrics) is needed for natural dyeing (except for indigo), and alum (Aluminium sulfate) is the most commonly used. In India, however, an extra mordant is used and it is called myrobalan (Terminalia chebula), which is fruit of a deciduous tree that is native to S.Asia. The fruit is rich in tannin, and produces butter yellow colour, which is often used as a primary component for cotton dyeing in India. I have never come across this dye before, so I was very intrigued by it.

One of the joys of natural dyeing is that you can play around with the tie-dye technique by first dyeing the fabric in one colour, and then overdyeing part of the fabric in another dye to create overlapping patterns and colours. The possibiilities are endless, and it can bring some pleasant surprises.

 

marigold flowers

annetto

natural dyeing

madder

Top: marigold flowers, 2nd row: annetto seeds

 

In Kutch, bandhani (meaning ‘to tie’) is a technique practiced by the Muslim and Hindu Khatri communities. It was brought to Kutch in the 16th century by craftsmen from Sindh (now Pakistan). Kutch is a well-known region for bandhani production, and you can often see women’s outfits featuring the tiny dotted patterns. Traditionally, Khatri women would do the tie-dye, while men would dye the fabrics (cotton/wool/silk) in natural dyes. Unfortunately, due to mass production these days, the cheaper textiles are synthetically dyed, and are causing much environmental damage.

 

natural dyeing

natural dyeing

natural dyeing  natural dyeing

natural dyeing

natural dyeing  natural dyeing

natural dyeing

 

After experimenting on cotton and silk fabrics in different dye baths, I decided to dye my final long silk scarf in natural indigo. Since the bandhani technique was too difficult to master in a few days, I used other shibori techniques (there were still a lot of stitching and pulling) and the piece was dyed about 6/7 times. I would have preferred it to be darker, but due to time constraint, it was just not feasible.

 

shibori

indigo dyeing

bandhani  bandhani

indigo dyeing

indigo dyeing

Indigo on silk

 

Ajrakh is a form of block printing on natural-dyed textiles that is also originated from Sindh. Historians believe that Ajrakh block printing’s orgins could be traced back to more than 4000 years ago. It is believed that the Khatri communities brought this skill/practice with them to Kutch around the 15th century. The cloth is usually dyed on both sides, and the complex and labour intensive process may involve up to 14 steps. It is traditionally dyed in indigo (blue) and madder or alizarin (red); while the patterns are often symmetrical with borders featuring five different patterns. As for the blocks, they are hand carved in teak wood by either the Khatri printers or sometimes block makers.

 

blockprinting

blockprinting  blockprinting

blockprinting

blockprinting  blockprinting

blockprinting

blockprinting

blockprinting

 

To be honest, I had underestimated the challenge of doing block printing before I tried it – it is much harder than it looks! Not only you have to line everything up precisely (especially it you are doing lines), it also hurts your hand whe you bang it onto the block over and over again. Full concentration is required during the process, and even though I am sure it would get easier with practice, it would still take a long time to master the skills (like most craft).

The whole pringing process is very complicated because of the application of resist paste (gum arabic and lime), alum and colours need to be in the right order. Thanks to the guidance and help from the blockprinting master (who also designed and carved the blocks), I managed to produce two long pieces, as well as a simple one with leaves that I found in the garden.

 

blockprinting

blockprinting

blockprinting

blockprinting

buckets

 

While we were busy working in the back courtyard, the two female cooks were also busy preparing daily breakfasts and lunches for us. It was really interesting to watch them cook and the homemade vegetarian meals were always delicious.

 

Indian cooking

Indian cooking

indian cooking

Indian meal

Indian cooking

cooking utencils

 

The 5-day workshop was quite intense, but I was satisfied with what I learned in such a short time and it gave me some basic understanding of Kutch’s textiles. I am also grateful to Judy, who is passionate and knowledgable about Indian textiles, and has generously dedicated her time and effort to support the local artisans. I hope that the Kutch artisans would benefit from the courses at the institute and continue to pass on their heritage and practice.

 

indian garden

garden

flowers

flowers

indian garden  indian flowers

indian garden

An Indian garden

 

Boro textiles at Amuse museum (closed in 2019)

amuse museum Boro – real astonishment exhibition

Boro – real astonishment exhibition

 

After spending so much time in the rural countryside, I found it hard to cope with the hustle and bustle back in Tokyo, and felt slightly dazy and detached from reality. My original Airbnb booking was cancelled by a host in Tokyo at the last minute, (the 2nd Tokyo cancellation on this trip), and at the last minute, I found an apt hotel in Asakusa, which turned out to be excellent and very reasonable.

I usually avoid going to Asakusa whenever I visit Tokyo because it is always packed and very touristy. This time, however, I thought it might be fun to explore an area that I am not familiar with especially while I was staying minutes away from the famous Senso-ji.

One day, I walked past an old building and saw the name Amuse Museum with a shop at the front. It was the poster and indigo textiles that drew me inside. I had never heard of this museum before and had no idea what was exhibiting inside, but seeing the textiles compelled me to purchase an entry ticket. And once inside, I was completely blown away… I couldn’t believe that I stumbled upon this museum right after my Japanese textiles workshop! Serendipity, perhaps?!

 

amuse museum

amuse museum

amuse museum

 

This private museum opened in 2009 and specialises in Japanese textile and ukiyo-e. The amazing collection consists of 30,000 pieces of Boro clothing and textiles (from the 17th and 19th centuries) collected by folklorist and ethnologist Chuzaburo Tanaka, of which 786 items have been designated as Important Tangible Cultural Properties.

Derived from the Japanese boroboro, meaning something tattered or repaired, boro grew out of necessity rather than fashion. Its concept is almost the opposite of what fashion has become in the 21st century – you can even call it the precedent of ‘slow fashion’ and ‘upcycled fashion’.

There are two Japanese terms and concepts that are deeply ingrained into the Japanese culture: Mottainai meaning ‘a sense of regret concerning waste’, and Yuyonobi meaning ‘the beauty of practicality’. In the old days, impoverished rural farmimg families (especially those who live in the north like Tohoku) would mend, repair textiles (clothes and bedding) through piecing, patching and stitching to extend their use. Since the region was too cold to grow cotton, hemp became the most popular choice of material. Later, when old cotton clothing from the south made its way up to the north, scraps of indigo-dyed cotton would be used, and sewn with sashiko stitching (a type of functional embroidery) to reinforce and to quilt layers of cloth together. These ‘rags’ and garments would be handed down over generations, as the testimonies of decades of mending.

Interestingly, this concept is similiar to the robes worn by Zen Buddhist monks in ancient times, when monks used to collect rags and sew them up to create their one-of-a-kind patchwork robes.

 

amuse museum

boro textiles

amuse museum

amuse museum boro

amuse museum

 

For many centuries, Japan was a relatively poor country, and it was around the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912) that the overall living standard started to rise. This meant that much of the Boro textiles were discarded, and new clothing was bought as fixing or mending became a tradition of the past.

Thanks to the effort of one ethnologist – Chuzaburo Tanaka – we are now able to admire this intricate and fantastic ancient craft and art form, and appreciate its unqiue value.

The special 10th year anniversary exhibition: Boro – Real astonishment showcased a collection of boro textiles along with 34 photo images published by Kyoichi Tsuzuki (the photographer and author of “BORO Rags and Tatters from the Far North of Japan”). This is a touring exhibition, and will be touring until 2020, so people outside of Japan can learn about this outsider art/craft form.

 

amuse museum

amuse museum

amuse museum

 

Besides the temporary exhibition, the permanent collection also showcases a rotating collection of 1500 pieces of boro clothing and textiles, alongside with other antiques and folk arts from Mr. Tanaka’s collection.

I was particularly glad to see the indigo-dyed firefighter’s jackets hikeshi banten often mentioned by Bryan at the textiles workshop. Made in the Edo period, these reversible jackets often feature a plain side and a decorative side. Firemen would expose the plain side while fighting the fire, but after the fire had been extinguished, they would reverse their jackets to display the decorative side to a cheering crowd. Hence, many firefighter’s jackets were decorated with tsutsugaki (a resist dyeing technique that is similar to Katazome) symbolic images that were meaningful and important to the firefighters. Indigo dye was chosen for its antibacterial and flame-resistant qualities, as well as its resistant to ripping and tearing, cutting and abrasion due to impact. With roots dating back to the 1600s, indigo-dyed fabrics were worn under the armour of samurais to keep bacteria away from wounds and to repel odor and dirt. Therefore, the indigo dye was used not for aesthetic reasons but for its excellent practical properties.

 

amuse museum  amuse museum

amuse museum

amuse museum

amuse museumamuse museum

dsc_0985

amuse museum

 

Although I saw Akira Kurosawa‘s “Yume” or “Dreams” years ago, I could barely remember the costumes featured in that film (I watched it again after seeing the exhibition). It was fascinating to learn that the costumes featured in the film were lend to the director by Chuzaburo Tanaka himself. The folk clothing was beautifully showcased in the last segment of the film, Village of the Watermills, and the scene where the villagers all paraded down the village was heartfelt and memorable.

 

yume costumes kurasawa  yume costumes kurasawa

yume costumes kurasawa

The folk costumes featured in Yume/Dreams

 

The museum also has an interesting collection of woodblock prints, and it houses an indigo-dyeing studio where visitors can take part in workshops.

 

woodblock print amuse museum   woodblock print amuse museum

img_2018

Woodblock prints and Indigo-dyeing studio

 

After my inspiring tour of the museum, I went upstairs to the rooftop and spent some time admiring the panaromic view of Asakusa and watching the sun set behind Senso-ji (there was literally no other visitor there!). Spending a few hours at the museum made me forget that I was in Tokyo; while watching the sunset was the icing on the cake, it was a perfect end to my day.

 

senso-ji asakusa

 

N.B. Sadly, I learned that the Amuse Museum closed in March 2019, but hopefully it will revive again in another venue somewhere in the city. Fingers crossed.

 

 

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