Friday, July 19, 2013

The way we live : A house by the sea

Society  has produced  the housing it needs, naturally and indigenously... this is not habitat that an outsider has to come in and `design'; rather it is the end product of a process that is organic to society, like flowers that bloom in a meadow
~ Charles Correa 

The homes built in the vernacular of  coastal Maharashtra are hardly for iconic or grandiose architecture. Yet driving past any residential cluster, it is hard to resist their trademark bright colors and individual quirks.

On a muggy monsoon morning, plying the back roads of a sleepy hamlet a few hundred kilometers outside Mumbai, I keep noticing the cottage style houses with simple mud and brick exteriors and thatched roofs. Until a bright crimson door  into a equally vibrant blue coloured squat adobe construction completely stops me in my tracks.

Walking into other peoples homes unannounced, just like that is never without a risk of rejection and embarrassment. This time as in the past, I just go ahead and take that chance anyway..
Inside, an elderly lady has just sit down to her lunch on a simple yet sturdy jhoola swinging from the roof.  I could not have chosen a worse hour to walk in, unannounced.

Luckily for me, home owner- Sailesh Kamath, does not seem to mind. Mr Kamath owns a sweet shop around the corner in Revdanda. He lives in the house with his aged mother and younger brother. Without much ado I am  invited  into his family home with the same warm hospitality I have experienced in countless homes in the region.

The structure,  bright and beautiful on the outside is astounding from the inside. Almost 150 years old I am told!   Its adobe and brick walls painted a vivid sea green are  sturdy and unscathed by time. Various generations have used the houses says Mr Kamat. Not so long ago,  an extended family of 17 would live in that space until demands of livelyhoods and education scattered them within the region and other parts of the country, he adds.

The old matriarch of the house- the gentleman's mother- quietly follows me on my explorations through the interiors. Offering, little nuggets  of information about the space and the family.  The decor, mostly functional and very simple has changed over  the years she says. Her younger son's political leanings and love for 1950's bollywood reflects in bright coloured bazar prints framed and hung as display in the  central foyer and elsewhere in the  house.

The fact that the house goes back years and  has changed hands many times during its history is evident in the way the orientation of the different living spaces is completely mixed up.  What used to be the main door is now permanently barred, and one of the original side entrances  is used for the purpose instead. A  separate cooking area and aangan has been turned into outhouse, segregated from the main structure. I try to take  in as much about the house and its people in the brief time I have inside the little blue house.

A jhoola encountered earlier,  in the kitchen also serves as an informal seating at meal times along with various coloured chowkis stacked neatly against the house.  All rooms have built in shelves and niches in the walls which serve both functional and decorative purposes.

The flooring of the house is made of hard baked clay to which   a coating  of dung fine straw and earth is applied  with the hands once a week. Although tiles would be far more convenient,  (which is why dung floors are vanishing fast across homes such as this every where) the owners say they prefer the old floor to cheap ceramic tiles.

Having taken a lot of the family's time, I take their  leave with a promise of stopping by when I am in these parts next.

  Getting back to the quote by Charles Correa I started the post with - One  thinks about  Mumbai and its built environment. Not so long ago, there was much to choose for the migrant into the city, bungalows, waadis , chawls even village style living . The city's  settlements dating back to the colonial times -( Khotachiwadi) or even  most of Bandra's quaint fishing villages boast structures built in various permutations available within the  Konkan coastal vernacular  mixed with  Portuguese and east Indian styles of housebuilding.  
Unfortunately for us city dwellers, residential architecture is being increasingly governed by singular ideologies of  development that generate high rise vertical housing as Mumbai's colonial diversity and heritage housing festers.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Workshop at Anokhi museum

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

American poet novelist and social activist Marge Piercy says so  while writer philosopher and Robert M Pirsig  dedicates  a whole book to it. The virtue of using your hands. A case for respecting physical labour  has been made again again in the context of hyper mechanised time such as ours.
Deeper psychological motivations for creating  and submitting ones senses to materials and manual processes aside, I am always one for using my hands. Provided  it is not too complex, there is plenty of help at hand and nobody is judging the misadventures that usually result in trying some thing entirely new!
Motorcycle maintenance unfortunately does not qualify for me then.  But with a little help from the experts,  block printing my  own piece of fabric should not be as hard? I had pre booked an appointment at the Anokhi Museum workshop days in advance. Imagine being able to engage with materials and processes of an age old craft in the sunlit environs of a 14th century Rajasthani haveli?. Quite naturally I was excited !

Only when  in that sun dappled heaven two and a half meters of cotton mul fabric was stretched neatly onto a padded work table ahead of me did it strike. A familiar fear of blank white space ! It was going to be a long day of  effort and learning an entirely new thing.
Luckily for me, the  workshop has an unsmiling, but extremely competent and helpful master printer ready to assist  me through the afternoon's work.

Muhammed Iqbal, the no-nonsense lord of the workshop calmly drew a tray of blocks  and laid them on the table. '' You can choose a simple one or two-block pattern or make something  more intricate with more colours," he suggested.   

Having waited to try my hand at block printing  for this long, I was under tremendous pressure to create a masterwork instantly. So  no  one colour and two block set for me as I reached for a full four block pattern.  (Although I  really wanted to  see  some of my favourite Anokhi blocks,  the  Poppy flower or Imperial peony designs, none of the two were available at that time)  Rummaging through  the pile, a little too assiduously in the hope of getting my nerves together, I  arrived at a lotus Jaal pattern finally.

Iqbal, a skilled craftsman who has been in the trade since he was  a tiny 8-years-old,  walked me through the preliminaries,  cutting down all drama instantly: what to print? How many blocks and how many colours?
Prep in place, began the arduous but utterly engrossing actual printing process.

The number of printing blocks needed in a design often depends  on the number of colours desired.   To begin with the  background of the  fabric is printed onto the fabric with the help of the   Gudh  or the background block. I chose a dull  moss green colour for the same.  The  block needs to be  dabbed on the dye tray in one deft motion,  so that the right amount of pigment adheres to the pattern.  The printer then aligns it on the fabric and discharges the dye from the block with a sharp tap on  the back of the block. Care needs to be taken to match the design of the  first block so that the design falls into place for the entire length . If this sounds simple, I must add it took me a good amount  of concentration and effort to get it just about right.

Soon the workshop  filled up  with the sweet thump thump of blocks hitting the padded table. A kind of musical,  set of thumps  that transport one instantly into an absorbed, focused state. An hour into the deal - right upto the time a cup of tea materialised like a miracle, I had all but  lost myself to  the rhythmic, repetitive motions. The deep state of peace achieved actually had very little bearing on the number of mistakes I was inadvertently yet continuously making! Mercifully  Iqbal generously and deftly kept correcting after me all the time making light of my mounting sense of inadequacy . " Wait till we finish," he kept saying and I very wisely decided to take his advice.
Once the Gudh is successfully executed, the Rekh or the outline block needs to be applied. This stage  gives definition to the design and requires a lot of precision.   I watched the demo attentively. But no amount of attention can make up for the lack of experience.  In spite of my valiant efforts I continued to  go horribly off the mark in a number of places.

Barely half way through my arms throbbing with the effort and  outlines already a mess, I felt a   tremendous respect for the people who actually do this for a living. For the commercial patterns can demand way more than just four blocks. Iqbal told me of something he had printed with ten blocks!  Only before I could start ruing the decision to undertake just the four block design, he promised that the next two blocks were not going to be all that hard.  And he was right!
The remaining two blocks  Called Datta, are  essentially those that fill in colour in the outlined design. I choose bright blue and red pigments.  The design begins to emerge with each colour applied.  The final, red coloured lotus petal blocks being the crowning glory of all exertions of the day !

The day done, I chose to feel exhilarated in spite of the tiredness. The plain white fabric had been transformed  with colour and pattern. As for the imperfections and mess, I decided to love them all; after all if  there is going to be just this afternoon of printing and just these two meters of cotton mul I will take back home.  Until another such afternoon and another length of fabric that is!

Note : 
Rajasthan has been an important centre of hand printing since the 12 century.  Where at the workshop we get to work with carved wooden blocks, numerous techniques of hand printing and dyeing have been popular  in areas in and around Jaipur. Traditionally  the block prints of Jaipur  and its surrounding  villages were known not just for their quality  of printing but also for their use of natural dyes. The advent of commercial screen printing in the early  1960's bought with it new chemical colouration processes', which block printers were  fast to adapt  to their own printing styles. 
It is also possible to participate in a block carving workshop  at the museum by appointment.
For details about the workshop, timings, booking etc visit the museum website here :  Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing.


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