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Monday Postcard #254 – Tales from West Bengal

Monday Postcard #254 – Tales from West Bengal

Monday Postcard 254 Tales of West Bengal

Touchdown Kolkata Airport. It is in the middle of the night, I am the first one clearing immigration. The arrival area is completely empty. Outside, while we wait for our airport pick-up, two dogs are sleeping. A small pastry kiosk is lit up, but nobody is inside. A huge flag of India is slowly waving in the wind. Am I really in India? It does not feel like it. India is loud, busy and full of people. Not that night, everything was so calm.

It is always strange to arrive in a new city at night. In the dark, everything looks completely different. Even though I was really tired, I was not able to fall asleep in the car – I was too excited and too curious about what is going on outside. It was about 4 am and the 40-minute-drive to the hotel goes smoothly.

My day officially started at 10 am, I killed the time working (as if an India trip was not enough, I picked one of the busiest weeks to go) and enjoyed a really nice breakfast. And when we were picked up from the hotel, the calm from the night was soon forgotten and the chaos immediately started. Our driver did not speak a word of English and he was not familiar with the area at all. Furthermore, he refused to use Google Maps and listen when I tried to navigate him using wild gestures. It reminded me of when I went to China for the first time as a student. Back then, there was no Google Maps and no Google Translate. All I had was a paper map and the name of my destination written in Chinese. What was the same was that I had to resort to funny gestures to help the taxi driver find the way.

When I gave up and told the driver to just go back to the hotel, my contact called and instructed him in Hindi. And in typical Indian driving style we went ahead – I leave this up to your imagination. When we almost reached, the driver got nervous and wanted us to tell him where to go. I tried to find the address, but when it was just too hard, I decided to leave the car and walk the last bit – I am European after all… Here we were, typical tourists, in the heat, waiting at a zebra crossing which every single car ignored, of course. I planned to apply my usual strategy: wait until somebody else crosses and then run. But, of course, right when you need someone to cross the street, there is no one. A nice police officer spotted us, stopped the traffic and helped us cross.

The streets reminded me a bit of Bangkok – maybe it was the climate, or the street vendors. But Kolkata is even busier and more chaotic than Bangkok. West Bengal is one of the most important hubs in the world for textiles, and especially embroidery. As you may assume, I was on a scouting mission for Pelagona. I was not disappointed, I got to see the most amazing fabrics and embroideries – from the intricate Zardozi embroidery made in and around Kolkata, to Kashmiri embroidery; the workmanship and colours were just incredible. (And if you do not know what I am talking about here, I am currently working on quite a few articles on Indian embroideries and fabrics; stay tuned!)

The second day was even more exciting. I insisted that I not only wanted to look for fabrics, I wanted to see how these embroideries were made. Hence, we went across the Baghirathi River and drove about two hours outside of the city to meet the “Karigars”, the artisans, who live and work in the villages. The further we drove, the more did the chaos of the mega-city decrease. Before my trip, friends and family from India told me that Kolkata was “rural”. Well, for Indian standards maybe; but when I think that more people live in Kolkata itself than in the whole of Austria, I have difficulties labelling it that way.

The closer we came to the villages, the narrower the roads became. Up until about 10 years ago, most of the roads had been mud roads. During the rainy season, it had been challenging to access the villages. Now the roads are better, but it still is quite a challenge to drive into the villages – sometimes, a cart blocks the narrow road, because its driver quickly disappeared for a smoke (or to urinate – side note: I have never seen that many men urinating at the side of the street as during that drive). The villages are organised around small lakes or ponds where the locals go wash their clothes. After we turned at one corner, one guy was fully soaped up and wrapped in a towel – we had interrupted his morning shower.

When we arrived at the first Karigar-group, I was a bit nervous. Maybe “nervous” is the wrong term, but I did not know what to expect. All the Karigars we met that day were men – which is nothing out of the ordinary in rural India, because the women stay at home with the children and run the household while the men earn the money. The groups were Muslim as well as Hindu. Nevertheless, I was not sure what everyone would think of this white woman, suddenly coming to their workshop. When I entered the room, I could tell that everyone probably felt the same as me – they did not know what to expect either. I quietly walked around, looked at their work, tried not to interrupt them, took some pictures and tried to smile – unfortunately, I do not speak any Hindi and, hence, had to rely on nonverbal communication. When we left, the man guiding us to and from the Karigar group, started talking to our contact. He thanked him for their collaboration and told him that recently, he could buy the piece of land we just walked by and that he had started building a house.

When we arrived at the second group, they probably had been briefed who was coming – they already waited for us and welcomed us with fresh coconut water. I understood and appreciated his gesture of handing us the precious coconut water, this meant a lot. The owner of the building showed us around his garden full of palm trees, next to a huge pond (where probably a few lizards and snakes lived as well). There it was again, the unexpected calm. He told us that behind the garden, he was planning to expand the building and to employ more artisans. Children came by to see who was visiting.

We went on to meet the smallest group of five Karigars that day in the next village and then back to the city. Kolkata is different from cities like Bombay, where the contrasts of old and new, rural and urban are much more obvious. Even though these may be more subtle in Kolkata, they are more than obvious.

The hustle and bustle of the city immediately welcomed us back – moving on from studio, to studio, from one showroom to the next – literally until we left and enjoyed some traffic jams which were not “rural” at all on the way to the airport. It was dark by the time we reached and only a few flights were leaving from the international terminal. I tried to write everything into my notebook, before I forget about it. But to be honest, every time I try to capture India trips, I am struggling a bit. My mind is full of impressions and new ideas. It usually takes me a few days to process. I had to stop midway just let all the experiences come back in my mind. But this Postcard was a first attempt at sorting all my thoughts, ideas and inspirations.

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