Saturday, 19 May 2012

Travel: Salawas ~ for a splash of Rajasthani rugs

(This article appeared in print in 2000)

The sound of cow bells on a dirt track fills the dusty landscape at dusk. The air is arid, village belles in flowing skirts, their arms studded with bone bangles, sweep their way back to the hearth with ageless grace. Flocks of grey-flecked sheep mingle with them bleating in protest at being herded away from greener pastures.

We're in a rattletrap of an Ambassador, bound out of Jodhpur on an adventure in search of the little-known crafts village of Salawas, just a half-an-hour drive from the Rajasthani city. It's a village whose dhurries or rugs have found recognition for the ir quality far and wide.

Roop Raj, who's 22, welcomes us at the entrance to a huddle of clay-daubed huts, untouched by time. His bright eyes match the pink bandhani of the turban atop his head.

``Our family has been making these dhurries for at least 300 years,'' he reveals. ``All our rugs are made of cotton, camel or goat-hair only. Traditionally, we used to weave the dhurries from only camel-hair, but the city-dwellers found these too coarse, so now we also use cotton and goat-hair.''

We watch signs of this cottage industry in progress as his uncle, Nek Chand, twists goat-hair into fine yarn in the corner of the courtyard. His eyes glint with a warm acceptance of life as his hands spin easily from years of experience, even by the flic kering light of kerosene lanterns. The family's trusted cycle leans on a wall behind him, while a goat guards the entrance to their home.

Are all their wares dyed in natural or vegetable dyes, we ask. ``No,'' Roop Raj is quick to explain. ``Vegetable dyes were used long ago. But now we only trust chemical colours, which are fast and last much longer. How can we send our rugs abroad if they fade away?''

``Aapko dekhna hai? Would you like to see some?'' asks Roop Raj. Quick as the darting of a shuttle through the loom, he begins to unfold weaves of many wonders.

There's a rug in purest pastels, zigzag-edged triangles darting into each other, edged in burnt pink. It's warm to sit on, tender on the eye. Next, he whips out a Persian-inspired dhurrie in greys and yellows, its birds, beasts and butterflies outlined i n crimson. Soon, a deep-green creation, patterned in beige and magenta, is rolled out for us. Before we know it, we're 20 rugs deep -- and our eyes are dazzled by delights.

Since Roop Raj seems of tender years, we wonder if he learnt the skill while a child. His older brother Nimi Chand clears our doubt. ``We both learnt to make dhurries only after Std. X. We were about 18 years old then.''

Has the story of their family been looped into the dhurrie story for ages? ``Of course,'' replies Nimi Chand with pride. ``Our grandfather used to present his dhurries to maharajas, noblemen, brahmins and even Jains.''

We're invited to watch Nimi Chand and his wife at work on the loom. Deftly, his shy wife -- in a brightly striped leheriya sari typical of Rajasthan -- helps Nimi Chand to weave the weft into the warp. Before our eyes, abstract birds and floral patterns emerge among the off-white strands on the loom. Pale blues and greys interlink, abstract beasts meet horn to horn, birds reveal their fancy plumage, all in tantalising minutes.
Is their work very laborious? ``It takes us about three weeks to weave a 6-foot long dhurrie,'' responds Nimi Chand. ``That's if we work for 12 to 13 hours a day.'' adds Roop Raj. ``Usually from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. with short breaks.''

Roop Raj's confidence is charming. He seems totally in command, despite his apparent youth. How do the brothers market their wares? ``Earlier, middlemen used to rob our families,'' Roop Raj says. ``But now, we get the raw materials from Jaipur and Jodhpu r, distribute it to 40 or 45 skilled weavers in our area and we sell the dhurries only from here.''

As if to demonstrate their marketing acumen, Roop Raj negotiates with a visiting couple from the US in English. Yes, he nods, they can accept money in dollars. Yes, he agrees again, the rug could be difficult to carry around India on their travels. So, h e can parcel it out to them by registered air mail post. Or make it easy for them to carry.

To our amazement, Roop Raj folds the rug into smaller and tighter squares until it's no larger than a small briefcase. Dexterously, he covers it with fine cotton cloth and ties it neatly with red yarn to hold its shape, until a small handle emerges, neat enough to tote along.

We ask Roop Raj for the price of a pastel beauty of a rug, but he asks us to be patient until the Americans have left. ``For Indian visitors like you, we have a different price,'' he explains, as he lops Rs 1,000 of the price quoted earlier. ``They can a fford to pay more, so why shouldn't they?''

As dusk fades into night, Nimi Chand's wife brings us steaming tea in brass tumblers. ``You must have something with our family,'' chime the two brothers. ``It's part of our tradition. When visitors like you grace our home, we wear a turban to honour you . It's called a pothiya in Marwari, our language.''

``Look,'' exclaims Roop Raj with pride as we prepare to leave, holding up a rug in a blaze of colours. ``Our inter-logged weaving is so tight that water takes half-an-hour to go through to the other side.''

As we wander away to briefly visit a family of block-printers further away in the hamlet, we wonder at the drive and initiative of Roop Raj and Nimi Chand that keeps their generations-old legacy of dhurries still in tune with our times.

(The Hindu Business Line 2000)

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