My Adventures in Textiles: A Fulbright Experience in India

By Andrea Serrahn


In the far western reaches of India, just beside the Pakistani border, sits the tiny town of Bhuj. It is a satellite town with many of the surrounding villages specializing in textile crafts.


This was a place I’d come to know and love well during my international travels and going there had always been a kind of “homecoming” for me. Little did I know that I would return here to live and work with the local people! Here’s the story of how my adventure in textiles began.....


I remember returning home to the San Francisco Bay Area from one of my long independent journeys to India to two months of unopened mail. Bags yet unpacked, I open a letter from the Fulbright Commission informing me that I had four months to prepare for a year in my favorite faraway place.


I had been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Grant to study as an “artist at large”! Instantly, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I would return to Bhuj, India and finish some projects I had started during my travels but had been unable to complete due to lack of time and funding.


BLOCK PRINTING

One of my projects involved block printing in India’s Bhuj desert region. I designed a trilogy of repeatable patterns, quite abstract and geometric, and found an elderly block carver (see picture to left) who was reputed to be the best in the region.


This craftsman, who was in his 80s, carved my designs into mango wood so it would endure for years and sent me on my way to meet the printers. I then took my newly carved blocks by bus to the remote village of Damadka where I spent many days learning how to print my own cloth.


I'll never forget the bruises on my hands from karate chopping each block placement to ensure its imprint. Nor will I forget the challenge of registering the patterns precisely using nothing more than the naked eye. The wonderful sarpanch, the so-called mayor of this town, Khatri Mohammed Siddique Ismail, was quite generous in lending me his expertise and workshop for my curious endeavors.


By year's end, we had printed more than 700 meters of cloth in natural dyes of indigo, madder root, pomegranate, alizarin & iron. What gorgeous clothes my tailors made from this cloth!


BANDHINI

Of equal importance to me was my fascination with bandhini: the fine art of tie & dye. Under the guidance of an incredible master, Khatri Ali-Mohammed Isha (pictured on left) I spent half of every day in his workshop practicing and finessing this amazing craft. We experimented with natural dyes: marigolds, madder roots, dowry flowers, onion skins, indigo and pomegranate skins to create the most gorgeous of natural colors.


My passion for textiles truly surfaced during the time I spent mastering this craft. We worked on silk for the most part; my scarf collection was worthy of being shown on Madison Ave. courtesy of Julie's Artisans' Gallery.


The blessing of these experiences, which was only possible thanks to the Fulbright Grant I received, has deeply shaped my appreciation of India’s exotic textiles arts and, just as importantly, allowed me to develop meaningful relationships with the talented artisans who work cloth throughout India.

 

© 2012 Serrahna