We examined the patterns of woven cloth used by various tribes in a display at Bhubaneswar’s Tribal Museum. The Family confirmed my impression. Many of these patterns are in wide use today. How did that happen? I remembered conversations with a grandaunt. She was an artist who’d turned to textile design while she was in art school. Textiles were very political in her time, when opposition to colonial rule involved renouncing textiles made in England. I know that she travelled extensively in Odisha and got to know local artists and learnt their art. Given the politics of her time, she may not have been alone. Such people were possibly the conduit through which tribal designs seeped into the general culture even before they became trendy.

But why did tribes stick to particular designs? I have no idea, but a scholarly paper pointed out that this is not unusual at all. That set me thinking of Scottish clan tartans. And that led me to wonder whether some of these tribal designs are derived from each other. I was so engrossed in the designs that I forgot to take photos which identify each piece. So now I’m left with questions and no way of answering them. All I can ask you is to enjoy the sight of these weaves.

Little villages in the desert

Each village in the Rann of Kutch seems to have a craft that it is known for. Since we decided to skip lunch on our day of arrival, we decided to visit a nearby village that The Family had marked down as a place of interest. This was the village of Bhujoda, and it was known for its woven woolens. The craft is very traditional and utilizes hand looms. The looms are made in a different village.

Each family has its own “factory”. This is a large courtyard where women card and dye the yarn (see the featured photo). Traditionally only earth and vegetable colours were used. We were told that the bright colours that people prefer today started to be used about a generation ago. The Family was enchanted by the traditional weaves: whites, browns, earth reds, black. The men work at the looms. A painstaking job. At one end of the courtyard was the family’s residence. A young girl offered us tea, and we were glad to accept.

Some of the things on display had Kutchi mirrorwork. That is done is yet another village which specializes in it. The cloth from this village is sent there, and the two families involved share the profits. I’ve seen villages specialize in crafts before in other parts of the country. But I hadn’t had the time to ask whether they have the same level of specialization.

In a completely different part of Kutch, deep in the Rann, we came to a village called Bhirandiara. It’s speciality is mawa, made from milk obtained from nomadic herders. These herders are perhaps the oldest inhabitants of this desert. The colourful mirrored cloth which Kutch is known for is their normal dress. We stopped in this village for a chai after spotting the marbled duck, and tasted this famous mawa, surrounded by crowds of the herders. I wished I had the time to travel through the Rann. Perhaps we’ll do that some other time.

Angora shawls

When you ask someone what you can do in Munsiyari apart from walking through the hillsides, people will often recommend a visit to Darkot village. Women of this village raise Angora rabbits, and weave their wool into the wonderfully soft stoles, shawls, and caps which you can see in high-end stores in cities. The heavy smoke in the air meant we couldn’t possibly do any long walks. So off we went to Darkot.

I was beginning to get used to these gateways into apparent emptiness next to highways. They tell you where to find a steep path leading down to a village. This was the gateway to Darkot. As we walked down from here, a lady asked us whether we wanted to see Angora shawls. We did, and were glad to be invited into her house.

The lady who invited us in to see her products asked whether we would like to watch the weaving. I was hoping she would ask, and I jumped at the opportunity. An older lady was in an inside room, at a hand loom next to a window. The light was wonderful, and I took out my camera. She was absorbed in her work, but willing to talk as she worked. There would be a rush of words as she worked, and then, when she had to concentrate, the explanations would dry out, until she began to talk again. She was happy to talk me through the process that you can see in the video above. This is the last stage, she explained. The wool is sheared from the animal, the yarn is mixed with wool at home, and then woven.

She lived here with her son, daughter in law, and grandchildren. The whole family was involved in the business. Shawls were not the only thing they made, stoles and caps were also available. I inspected the caps, warm, with the halo which Angora wool has. The only colours they had were white and gray. Price? They would give it to us at the same price which they got from the cooperative. What does the cooperative do? They sell it to on to Delhi, but also have a showroom in Munsiyari.

I went out to look at wildflowers around the village. When I came back later, the older lady had taken a break from weaving, and was busy rocking the youngest grandchild to sleep. I waved, and she smiled at me.

Lotus farming

This lady extracts lotus silk from its stems

Life on lake Inle in the Shan state of Myanmar is different. As you can imagine, living in houses suspended above the water can change the way you live. One of the most interesting developments is that silk is extracted from lotus. The lady whose photo you see alongside showed us how. You break the stem and slowly pull apart the broken edges. You see strings of sap joining the ends. These are rolled together to produce the fiber. You can see a tray at her feet which contains these fibers. It is a long and laborious process. She knew little English, so I could not ask her the questions which came to my mind. How long does she work every day? How much fiber does she get each day? In the same workshop I saw an old man at a spinning wheel, spinning the fiber into yarn. There was an amazing look of concentration on his face which you can see in the photo. Another few steps down the corridor the yarn was being woven into cloth. The dyeing of the yarn seemed to take place in an upper floor. The colours were lovely muted browns and greens, a touch of earthy red, and the colour of raw yarn.

Farms of lotus on lake Inle

As our boat made its way through the village to the workshop, we’d passed a lotus farm. I went back there to look at it. A walkway surrounded a fair acreage given over to growing lotus. As I looked at it I wondered about the economics of this process. In other places I’ve seen bees fertilize the flowers. Where would bees hive here? is the ferilization done by hand? Is there enough money in the trade to keep villages occupied in growing lotus, extracting fibre, spinning yarn, dyeing and weaving it?

Some of the answers came indirectly. I learnt that the fabric woven from lotus silk was once reserved for the use of kings. Now you can buy it in a shop adjoining the workshop. The Family looked at a little stole. They were beautiful, but a single stole cost about USD 100. The turnover is small, but the costs are large. There is clearly enough income from it to support families at the same level of income as their neighbours who work at other things. But this way of life could disappear soon as surrounding areas grow more prosperous.