India has lured me into her heartland many a time. This new frontier has always held promise of textile intrigue at every turn. I could see finished product for sale on the bustling streets of the big cities of Bombay, Delhi, Madras, & Calcutta.
But I wanted to be an eyewitness to the makings of these fine crafts. Where should I venture in this foreign land? How could I find these cloth makers and how would I speak to them once I found them?
Once in a market on the beaches of Orissa, I came upon some gorgeous cotton ikats. Wild patterns stimulated my imagination. Heart pounding, mind racing, you’d think I’d met my love match! I was supposed to jump on a plane and head back to the states in just 48 hours. Instead, I stayed on, solo, with an inspiration that just wouldn’t let go.
I sought out a government tourist agent, explaining to him my idea of making tablecloths from three particular patterns of ikat. No, I didn’t want to set up an operation in town and copy what someone else had created.
Instead, I wanted to do it the hard way by locating the village in the interior and working with the artisans directly. Mr. Mishra approved of my idea and sent me to the central government local chapter, granting me an interview with an influential bigwig. He, too, approved, and voila! I was now a sponsored guest of the Government of India!
With overnight bus rides (now you couldn’t pay me to sleep sitting up on a local bus!) and accommodations paid for, I headed out into the interior. The town is called Sambalpur, a small walkable place with yet more yummy handlooms to tempt me.
I got LOTS of stares and laughs as I walked the town, curious onlookers wondering why a western woman would walk alone. They were thinking, “Where were her husband and children?” The assumption was that I was married and had children; it always proved difficult to tell them otherwise.
The month of May produces a hot sun. It felt even hotter as I waited for my promised driver and interpreter for days on end. This special person needed to speak both English and the local dialect.
Five nights and 19 mosquito bites later, Mr. Bisi arrived. A local speaking 2 tongues and having 2 thumbs on his right hand, he was my man. We boarded an Ambassador car cut from a 1948 mold and headed down the dusty trail.
Potholes meant limited access to the outside world. We’re talking tribal rural here. We passed through one quaint village after another, waving our ikat swatches like flags as we passed through. We were pointed in every direction, zigzagging and back tracking until FINALLY we found THE VILLAGE. Everyone was a Meher.
Immediately they recognized their own traditional Meher pattern. With Mr. Bisi’s help, I explained that I wanted them to weave tablecloths, putting a special border onto the fabric they were accustomed to weaving. They needed to build extra wide looms to accommodate my dimensions, so, with a few hundred bucks, a notarized agreement, and four firm handshakes we were in business!
I now possess only a dozen pieces leftover from that particular adventure, but this experience has lead me on a lifelong adventure to constantly seek out the best of India’s textiles to feature at Serrahna…. wherever this quest may take me!