Where Kashmiri carpet makers featured Durga, and Hindu craftsmen create the Muharram tazia
Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, that poetic Awadhi phrase for a distinctive, syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture, is also reflected in the many crafts and weaves — in their form, symbolism, aesthetics and spiritual connotations.
The poet-weaver Kabir’s dohas often speak of the chadariya or cloth he wove, and are soaked in the bhakti or ras of Ram naam: “Chadariya bheeni re bheeni, re Ram naam ras bheeni”. Kabir spoke of Hindus and Muslims as being the warp and weft of that chadariya. These dohas are still sung by Kabirpanthi weavers of Chhattisgarh in rhythm with the loom, as they weave wonderfully textured saris for the Bhil tribal community of the region: saris immersed in the intense red dye extracted from the roots of the ‘aal’ tree.
Rare carpets woven by early 20th century Kashmiri carpet makers featured luminous images of Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati in nuanced ‘shastric’ detail. What an inspiring narrative can be conjured up in today’s troubled Valley from these handwoven carpets, of craft scholars and naqshbandis imbibing Hindu mythology from Kashmiri Pandits and translating the learning into the structured language of the taleem or weaving code, thread by thread and knot by knot. The taleem would be read out by the naqshbandi to the weaver for the Pandit families, proof of how craft bonded communities together. Very few of these carpets survive today, except as family heirlooms.
Bonding over tradition
Likewise, the mostly Muslim weavers of Banaras and Bengal integrated the lotus motif, sacred to Hindus, into their design repertoire, and the buttie, representative of the bindu, is widely accepted by both Muslim and Hindu weavers across the country. So much so that from Banaras to Bengal, Chanderi or Mangalgiri, a sari is not considered festive unless spattered with butties.
Across India, crafts too resonate with the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb: the intricately embellished hookah, the tambool or paan-giving tradition of both cultures expressing itself in exquisite paandaans and tambool trays, the dhurries once woven in Akbar’s jails, or the zari-encrusted lac and glass bangles. Mughal miniatures were adapted to create the Rajasthani and Pahari schools of art, cool Pattamadai reed mats woven by Lebbai Muslim artisans have for generations been part of Tamil bridal trousseau, and the South Indian veshti or lungi itself was derived from the first Arab settlers in Malabar in the 7th century.
Vignettes from epics
There is a Hindu mohalla in Lucknow whose residents regularly hand craft taazias or alams for Muharram processions.
And in Chennai during Navaratri, pavements and shops are flooded with hand-crafted Kondapalli toys featuring vignettes from the epics, made by artisans of both communities. Last year, an exquisitely proportioned turmeric and blue Hanuman, crafted by 15-year-old Syed Mahmud, was a hot favourite. “My father taught me,” said Mahmud, when I asked him how he got the details so perfect. “He knows everything about Hindu gods and mythology and tells us their stories.”
My own favourite storytellers are the Patua Chitrakars of Midnapore in West Bengal with their narrative scrolls telling tales from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and folklore. They travel from village to village, unfurling their scrolls to the accompaniment of tunes composed and sung by the chitrakar himself.
I saw my first riveting performance not at a firefly illuminated village in Midnapore, but in Chennai, at a Crafts Bazaar. Bapi Chitrakar and his wife Dagar had just unrolled their 6×8 ft ‘Sita Banvas’ panel depicting a fish-eyed Sita stepping behind Rama into a lush green forest alive with birds and frolicking animals. Bapi’s voice rose and fell with the rhythm of the story, while Dagar was busy backstage, putting finishing touches to the next panel. .
A craft lover and natural wanderer, the writer has walked into remote craft pockets across the country.
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