Phulia April 16 2019, 0 Comments
I was told some months ago that a few hours drive outside of Calcutta exists a community of weavers who specialize in handloom, particularly jamdani, which is an incredible technique of weaving muslin. The excitement of meeting new artisans comes second only to the discovery of hidden treasure. It was not long after I was told that I found myself on small windy roads headed in the direction of a village named Phulia.
The Bengal countryside is a magical dream, particularly for those who have the luxury to choose not to live there. It is a mix of driving through a romantic scene from Kipling's Junglebook and the harsh realities of rural India. A lush and destitute jungle that time and the government have forgotten. But that is a completely different subject.
Four hours into the drive the dusty road begins to resemble a relatively normal one and fabric stores begin to line the street. Enthusiastic hand-painted signs indicate your arrival to Phulia. The shops sell meterage of beautiful handloom muslin which are either leftover pieces from private production or pieces the artisans chose to develop themselves, which either follow current trends or are one of a kind masterpieces. Apparently, this is usually where visiting dealers stop to accumulate meterage of fabric that they then take back to the city to sell.
Prashant, our contact in Phulia, met us at the side of the road and lead the way into the village where we would arrive to his beautiful family house. We were met by his proud father and excited family members. We didn't have much time to spare so Prashant took us through the village, where you could see abandoned miniature looms on the terraces of the modest houses. He showed us to a small brick hut hidden in a banana plantation, where his sister in law spools thread by hand. A process which is difficult to believe or understand unless you have seen it with your own eyes. This lady spends hours a day alone in a room concentrating so deeply on her craft that I can only imagine transforms her into a meditative state. Working with an invisible thread that only she can see. I felt like I was in a fairy tale and was being made to imagine something that wasn't actually happening. I couldn't see a thread at all but at times when her fingers worked particularly fast I could catch a glimpse of a sheen, not unlike catching a glimpse of a spider's web in the sunlight. I had never seen this process in real life before.
We left her and continued to walk through the plantation, encompassed by moist, earthy air, to soon reach another hut. I could hear the sound of the slow rhythm of the shuttle. I love the sounds of handicraft. Inside we found an elderly gentleman who was using a handloom, three times his size. He smiles at us quietly but isn't alarmed or disturbed by our presence. He continues avidly weaving. His hut is small and moist which keeps him and the threads cool. He has a little God corner, as they all do, with several photos of different deities, who have been offered their daily flower garlands and sweets. Nothing else, nothing else is really needed. The room is sparse and to the point, only the artisans and his tools. No radio, no T.V or phone. Oh! Except for a small broken mirror and a comb where he occasionally brushes his tiny tuft of hair while taking his chai break.
Prashant explains to us the sadly common story, 'This is my uncle, he is one of the last handloom weavers still working, the only reason he hasn't bought a power loom is that he finds he is too old and won't last long enough to reap its benefits. His son is not interested in weaving.' 'My father takes pride in his work so he keeps his loom but my other uncles have collectively invested in power looms'. He then begins to explain the mechanism of the looms and the intricate details at which point his uncle breaks from his meditative state and looks up to take part in the conversation.
I can not contain my excitement. I feel alive again! I want to move to Phulia and live with the weavers and reawaken the World to the beauty of Handloom. But of course, I know this feeling all too well. I've had it many times before. I end up doing only what I am capable of, I give Prashant a design that we work on together to translate it for the loom. I choose the colors and prepare to go back to the city. But before I go I ask Prashant what I always ask artisans, which piece is his favorite. He pulls out a piece of fabric that is no larger than a kitchen towel. There is no designed pattern except for what appears to be a mishmash of wildly colored threads. Not what I was expecting him to pull out at all, with barrels of such sophisticated weaves. 'This one is my favorite, I collect leftover threads from all the weaving production we do for these famous designers and eventually I weave them into one piece that I own. A piece of all the different designers in one.'
(Images courtesy of Nur Kaoukji)