Sunday, November 08, 2009


I am in India again. All around us the rhythms of the country lilt and rock, in a gentle swinging rhythm that is soft and sweet, like rolling in honey.

There is an amazing sense of contrasts - hot and spicy, rich and earthy foods and smooth and delicate sugary and densely milky desserts. The dryness and earth colours of Rajasthan with the odd butterfly brightness of the women in fantastic saris – raspberry and fuchsia and cyclamen and saffron and chartreuse and ochre and orange – all wrapped and edged with gold. Desert and thorn trees, and a moving dusty cloud which shifts to reveal herds of creamy horned cattle, tall lean men in white dhotis and tunics and deep crimson turbans as herds are moved south in a desperate attempt to dodge the drought.

We visited a tiny village near Udaipur where people who used to be called untouchables have built their houses in found stone and thatching. Their lives are probably poor and bleak, dependent on what they can grow but we were greeted with glee and a sense of welcome. I had taken photographs in May and delivered them to those who recognized themselves. The contrast between that tiny village in the beautiful hilly area where they nestled with the rich and extraordinarily beautiful lake city of Udaipur with its three white palaces and three man made lakes was humbling.

We have watched block printing with long padded tables lined with cotton which goes through three processes before it is even put on the table. We watched block printing, resist printing with mud and straw, dye dipping in natural colours and indigo vats with their oily green slick on the surface. Some fabrics went through eight processes and still sold for less per metre than a cappuccino in Canberra.

We visited a home where the family was tying tiny rhythmic points into silks to dye it – and we tried popping those tiny knots off the dyed fabric to reveal little white squares with colour in the centres. The fabrics made this way were beautiful and incredibly time-enriched, and they held the rippling shapes of the tying so they hug shoulders and curve over bodies.

We visited the tiny walled town of Patan to see Patong weaving – double ikat, mind-bogglingly complicated. On the way we went across a bridge over a long and dry river bed – to see a river of people pouring downstream, climbing over the edges of the bridge and down the banks to join a huge and brightly coloured crowd in the far distance. It was a cattle market and explained the large herds of lean and bony cattle we had been seeing all morning, steadily plodding towards the same destination.

We are now in Chennai and have arrived with the second monsoon – which is devastating for me as we have booked beautiful resorts for the next four days. I had imagined quiet relaxing hours on beaches after sightseeing. I had planned to visit dyeing workshops –which will not be dyeing in the torrential rain. I had hoped that they would see the French colony of Pondicherry in sunshine with the sea washing against the city walls, and the ashram full of flowers and their sun-warm scent.

Instead every road is a river, brown and fast flowing- to somewhere else. People are staying home, and those on the streets look dark and somber in heavy wet-weather plastics. Men move around with trousers rolled to their knees, or just give up and wade calf-deep in the water. Cars move slowly with a wake like a battle ship which rocks the water heavily against the tiny shops that edge Pondicherry Market – which – oddly enough – is in Chennai.

I looked to BBC weather for reassurance and hope – but it predicts heavy rain for the next five days. Our plans may have to change - but it looks as if we might have time to go to tailors to have fabrics turned to clothes, and to post offices to relieve impossibly heavy suitcases. It is a country used to resilience and change, and we can take our cues from the Indians.

All will be well as India is never ever boring.
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