By Deborah Needleman
Nov 24, 2020
IN THE PAST FEW YEARS, my passion for craft has transformed how I travel. Without calling attention to itself in the way of art or architecture, craft quietly sits at the nexus of everything unique to a place: its landscape, notions of beauty and ritual, its history, its sufferings, and its hope. While craft is born of necessity—the making of the things we need to survive—almost every culture has also devised ways to make these things beautiful and delightful. Craft, I believe, is an expression of our common humanity, and yet it manifests in exquisitely varied and ingenious ways.
Few places are as rich in this heritage as the Indian city of Jaipur. In the 18th century, its ruler Sawai Jai Singh II brought artisans from all over the subcontinent to adorn his court. Despite myriad setbacks over the past 300 years, Jaipur forged a legacy as a center of crafts, from massive geometric rugs to delicate brass statuettes.
So when David Prior, a friend and journalist turned travel planner, asked me to host an intimate, 10-day craft-based tour for his club, Prior (membership from US$2,500), I immediately chose India, with Jaipur as our starting point. Since I am crazy for Indian fabrics—from fine silk saris to sturdy cotton lehngas, or skirts—we focused our 72 hours in Jaipur on textiles.
I wanted to introduce our group of 12, among them an Italian writer and an American garden designer, to the best artisans in a few select techniques. For block printing, we headed to Bagru, a suburb half an hour outside Jaipur where makers have been engaged in block carving, hand printing, and indigo vat dyeing for centuries. The village is like a company town in which each household plays a role in the industry, and we saw different members of the community doing their prescribed part in the complex process of making a single fabric.
We strolled past carvers in their street-front studios, father and son working side by side, chiseling patterns into the slabs of wood that would be used for printing. We were often beckoned into the home studios of printers who use fermented mud mixtures, or dabu. The men sift the mud with their feet; their wives block-print the dabu onto fabric so that some areas resist the dye. Nearby were blue-stained men crouching to tend belowground indigo vats and women standing waist-deep in large basins, where they wash the fabrics before and after they are dyed.
Our hosts in town were Avinash Maurya and Kriti Gupta, the delightful young couple behind WabiSabi Project. Though the name nods to the Japanese concept of embracing imperfection, the duo is dedicated to researching and teaching block-printing traditions in Bagru. At their studio, each of us printed and dyed our own set of four cotton napkins to get a sense of the process— and to make a nice souvenir for our tables at home.
For a glimpse into leheriya, the tie-dye method unique to Jaipur and used mainly for ceremonial saris, we enjoyed a private visit to the home workshop of a fourth-generation master. These fabrics have soft and complex wave or check patterns—elegant in all the ways retro-hippie tie-dye is not. Ikramuddin Sabir Neelgar, head of the last family still doing this work within the old city walls, maintains a brightly lit studio where the interior is delightfully splattered with red and pink dyes.
After the sons and nephews comprising the fifth generation welcomed us, they led us to a room in which tiny, elderly women sat on the floor, knotting rolled fabric into sausage-like links of various lengths and thicknesses at a mind-bogglingly rapid clip. One at a time, we situated ourselves beside them and were patiently instructed, though none of us quite succeeded in mimicking their elegant, decisive movements. With help from the younger Neelgars, we mixed buckets of dye, dipped our knotted fabric into them, and hung our attempts at leheriya to dry. Later, removing the strings revealed lovely scarves with sinuous patterns moving diagonally across the sheer cotton fabric.
To go from these homes into the impeccably restored 1930s mansion that is Nila House is to step into another century. Painstakingly renovated by the architecture firm Studio Mumbai, the bungalow is a marriage of ancient techniques and an elegantly modern Eileen Gray/Le Corbusier–like aesthetic.
The center’s purpose is perhaps even more impressive. Founded by English philanthropist Lady Carole Bamford, it hosts exhibits of antique textiles, live demonstrations, even a blog offering online how-tos—and, of course, there’s a retail space selling handmade clothing and decorative objects. Each year, Nila’s Indian design team focuses on a different method and collaborates with a designer, often a Westerner, to create a collection. When we were there, the shop showcased indigo work created with the English designer Anna Valentine.
Across from Nila House is the main branch of Anokhi, one of my favorite spots for affordable block-printed clothing and kantha-embroidered home textiles sourced from workshops throughout Rajasthan. If ever I were to turn up in India having packed nothing but underwear, this is where I’d stock up on essentials. Back in the city center, the highlight is Ridhi Sidhi, a hard-core experience for those who love towering stacks of Bengali kantha quilts, tablecloths, and the like. Try to encourage Braj Badaya, or one of the other gracious family members who run the business, to invite you to their warehouse—a treasure trove of old and new textiles. And don’t miss the company’s sunny demonstration studio to see how the multihued fabrics are printed.
This type of trip lingers long after you return home, in memories and in mementos. I think of the artisans and our group each time I wear my very-flattering-for-a-muumuu Ridhi Sidhi block- printed dresses, which I bought in every color.