What’s a namdha?

I met Sunrise Arifa for the first time when I stopped to admire the handmade namdha rugs she had on display at the Dastkar Nature Bazaar.  Since our first meeting, we’ve stayed in touch, and I now admire Sunrise’s determination and resolve as much as the namdhas she sells.

Sunrise is a young entrepreneur from Srinagar, Kashmir, who is working to revive the craft of namdhas, laboriously hand-felted and intricately designed wool floor mats.  Sunrise is well qualified for the job.  She studied Craft Management & Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Craft Development Institute of Srinigar, and there developed the professional skills to succeed in starting her own business.  She now employs craftsmen who manufacture her designs, and she travels between Srinagar and other Indian cities to sell her rugs.

While her skills may enhance her success, it is her heritage that ensures her passion for the business.  Growing up in Kashmir, home to internationally popular crafts like fine paper mache and embroidered pashmina shawls, Sunrise saw many of these crafts diminish and dilute over time.  Markets inundated with machine-made “pashminas” masquerading as hand embroidered.  Exploitative middlemen buying paper mache from artisans at bare minimum prices and selling the products at an enormous mark-up.  Inexpensive synthetic rugs replacing namdhas among local consumers. Efforts, such as the Geographical Indicator certification of authenticity, are underway in Kashmir to protect these endangered crafts.  But in the meantime, entrepreneurs like Sunrise are taking matters into their own hands, starting businesses to bring Kashmiri crafts to a wider audience.Though being Kashmiri may have inspired Sunrise to start her own business, running a company in Kashmir, particularly as a female entrepreneur, comes with challenges.  Eight month waiting periods to obtain scoured wool from the government’s fleece processing unit.  An exorbitantly high and “unofficial” government fee to obtain the quality control certification required for an export license.  A community concerned that Sunrise will slowly lose her religious and cultural values as she becomes more successful.  A curfew that prevents her from leaving the house to go to her production unit.  The risk of being hit by a stray stone, pelted when skirmishes break out in town.

But Sunrise is determined.  “It’s dangerous, but I have to go to do my work,” she explains.  Her father supports her aspiration, but during her weeks on the road, traveling to sell namdhas, she tells the rest of her family that she is doing a school internship.  While friends say that running a business will change her, she disagrees.  “I love my tradition,” she professes.  And the 12-hour workdays she logs, the bodily risks she takes, and her commitment to reviving Kashmir’s craft traditions proves her deep dedication to her heritage and its crafts.

Want to own your very own Craftmark certified namdha?  I can send you a namdha directly from India. 

Check out The Red Thread’s Shop page or email me!

The Contrast Between Camels and Cars

While driving in Bhuj, Brian and I came upon three Rabari nomads leading their colorfully adorned camels and goats along the highway.  The jarring traffic noise was juxtaposed against the peaceful rhythm of their procession.  The slow, silent footsteps of the camels; the jangling of bells and harnesses; the occasional punctuating bleat of a baby goat.  The man and two women carried their possessions upon the backs of their camels; their belongings had been lovingly and creatively handmade.  The camels were outfitted with embroidered, appliqued blankets and tasseled reins.  The goats rode high atop trampoline-like saddles that, once removed from the camels’ backs, flipped over to become beds.

It was a beautiful and somewhat unsettling contrast, watching these traditionally dressed nomadic people tread slowly along the highway, bordered by car dealerships and even a wind turbine manufacturing plant.  On the surface, they appeared unfazed and unchanged by the modernity all around us.  We felt we had been given a brief glimpse into a past way of life that had snuck into the present.

We pulled over to the side of the road and spoke with the Rabaris, thanks to our translating tour guide.  We asked whether we might take a few photos.  They said their goodbyes, and we watched quietly as they processed away down the highway and flatbed trucks laden with machinery rattled by.

 

Happy Place

If only Dastkar’s Nature Bazaar could go on forever.  I may have to make a special trip back to India next October just to revisit the show.  Here are more pictures of the crafts on display.

 

 

This wooden furniture was all intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

 

Many of the textiles at the show are naturally dyed, giving them these absolutely saturated and rich hues.

 

Grrrrr!!  Roar!!!

 

Artisans from Kala Raksha design their own products, including the most endearing cloth “board” games.  Women fashion game boards out of patchwork and embroidered fabric.  The pieces are leather or cloth figurines.  I should have bought “Chutes and Ladders.”  These games were among the most creative products I saw at Dastkar.

 

Patel Handlooms produces Maheshwari sarees in Madhya Pradesh, the region south of Delhi where I will be conducting my field research.  My first trip will be in a week or two!

 

The Nature Bazaar’s theme this year was the Camel.  “Be like a camel — carrying sweets but dining on thorns.” – Indian proverb

 

The art form of Kalamkari painting has existed in India for generations.  The name is derived from the Persian words kalam (pen) and kari (craftsmanship).

 

Kashmiri crafts seem to have had the most widespread success in international markets.  I have seen boxes like this for sale in the States for years.

 

Block-printers create beautiful fabrics, but I never considered the blocks themselves to be works of art — until I saw Mr. Tahir’s and his award-winning father Mr. Mohammad Ayyub’s masterpieces.  This block measured a foot and a half across, and its lace-like design was carved using metal tools as fine as dentists’ picks.  As I lingered over the blocks for sale, I chatted with Mr. Tahir the carver, a man about my age who provided me with a steaming cup of chai.  His family members have been carving wood blocks since the 1700s!

 

Swoon.

 

It’s high time I explained why, specifically, I have come to India.  But this explanation will have to wait until the morning.  It is 12:30am, and I am ready to be lulled to sleep by the artillery of pre-Diwali firecrackers outside my window…

Devin in Paradise

Slowly but surely, my Fulbright research is ramping up.  Each day, after three hours of Hindi class, a brief lunch, and wrangling with rickshaw drivers, I’ve been sneaking in research “field trips.”  Last week, I went to Dastkar’s Nature Bazaar — twice.Dastkar is an Indian “society for crafts and craftspeople…that aims at improving the economic status of craftspeople, thereby promoting the survival of traditional crafts.”  The organization annually hosts the largest craft show in India, the Nature Bazaar – just in time for Diwali shopping!

Dastkar brings together the widest array of high quality handcraft products and techniques that I have come across in one location.  If only the fair happened more than once a year!  To make up for this loss, I’ve been going as often as possible – twice so far last week and plans to go at least twice again before the fair ends.  (For research purposes, of course!)  The Nature Bazaar is both a direct-to-consumer retail opportunity for craftspeople, hailing from every corner of India, as well as essentially a tradeshow venue.  Buyers from all over the world travel to Dastkar to examine what innovative, creative items have been developed over the past year.  I spent my time at Dastkar ogling and petting every piece of cloth in sight and talking with as many artisans as possible.  I was surprised to discover that some of the vendors already sell at or have relationships with big American brands.  I talked with a weaver from Rajasthan (northwest India) who sells his gorgeous handwoven, naturally dyed shawls at ABC Carpet & Home in NYC (a drool-worthy store, to say the least), as well as Archana Kumari, a charming embroidery designer whose products may be appearing in Anthropologie this year.  (Fingers crossed!)  The Dastkar bazaar is my happy place.

Dastkar was hosted at the National Craft Museum.

Block printed & woven dhurrie carpets

Hand-stiched chappals (sandals) and slippers

New York, New York! Archana's embroidery may be featured in Anthropologie.

Yak Adventures in Middlebury sold similar pottery!

Pottery demonstration! Totally different than the wheels used in America.

Namdhas are unique felted floor mats from Kashmir.

In addition to the endless array of crafts, the Nature Bazaar features food and performances from all over India.  During my two visits, I treated myself to pyaz kachori (sort of like a fried pita pocket filled with onion and spiced deliciousness), stick kulfi (tall, thin, pyramid-shaped, cashew-flavored ice cream on a stick), and methi parantha with raita (fenugreek-spiced, bready pancake served with yogurt sauce).  I also watched and attempted to film traditional Rajasthani dance performances.  (You’ll figure out from the video that this is my first attempt to film live-action with my camera.  The film gives you an idea of what the dance and music was like, if you can manage to avoid getting motion sickness.  Future films will be better – I promise!)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTrtj9fuSE4]

Dastkar also features different types products that promote culture and more "organic" lifestyles. Loved these "seeds of wonder" from the Himalays.

Vegetables just taste better here.

I’ve been in India for a month now, yet I have to keep pinching myself to make sure this is all actually happening.