I have been told by friends and clients ad nauseum that I really should have a blog documenting my meanderings through the Indian subcontinent. Although I always bring some sort of computing device with me when I travel, the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is stare at a blinking screen. Rest assured, I respond to urgent work matters while on the road. The more I travel, however, the more I want to be fully present in the journey. Add to that underwhelming wifi connectivity, intermittent electrical power, and back muscles that after ten hours in a car are best served by lying flat and you can see how a girl's social media style could get cramped.
Nonetheless, I do want to share some of the gems I have uncovered during my frequent explorations of the region. Sometimes I am visiting new places to do research for an upcoming tour, while other times it is to satisfy a personal interest in a particular subject. Whenever possible, I drag along Subhamay "Alo" Banerjee for moral and logistical support - he has walked and talked us in to many places that otherwise would have been difficult for me to find or access on my own. And so welcome to Hunting for Treasure...postcards from the road (written from the comfort of my Philadelphia office because I didn't want to wait in line at an Indian post office for stamps)...
Khurja, Uttar Pradesh, September 2014 - The town of Khurja supplies a large portion of the household and industrial ceramics used in India. As such, it is often called The Ceramics City of India. Khurja’s first commercial ceramic unit was established during World War II to supply ceramic ware for the country’s hospitals. Since that time, ceramic production in the region has grown exponentially, and today Khurja is home to almost 500 factories producing tableware, bathroom fixtures, electrical components, laboratory supplies, beads, abrasives and decorative objects.
We visited two factories, Chhatwal Ceramic Industry and Silico & Chemico Porcelain Works, which export large quantities of crockery and laboratory porcelain, respectively. Khurja is also home to a branch of the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute, which conducts ceramic-related research and offers testing services and central kiln facilities to ceramic producers in various regions of India.
Pratapgarh, Rajasthan, September 2014 - I recently finished Oppi Untracht's seminal book, Traditional Jewelry of India. This remarkable survey is the result of over 35 years of research by Untracht on the 5,000-year history of body adornment in India. One art form that caught my eye is thewa, and it involves fusing a sheet of pierced and etched 24-karat gold foil to colored glass. Thewa art is said to have been created in 1707 by Nathu Lal Soni of Pratapgarh (Soni indicates a goldsmith). Seventy years later, Maharaja Samant Singh began patronizing this art form, and granted a jagir (a type of feudal land grant) to the family, bestowing the surname RajSoni on all descendants of Nathu Lal.
Thewa was immensely popular with European women during the Victorian era, and several outstanding pieces can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is still practiced only by men of the RajSoni dynasty in Pratapgarh. Thewa motifs are typically religious (Hindu deities) or secular (animals and flowers), though contemporary pieces are sometimes done, such as the interesting homage to cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar shown below. Thewa pieces are often paired with precious stones and pearls or made into cuff-links; however, pairing them with colored glass beads also produces a striking (and more affordable) piece of jewelry.
Molela, Rajasthan, September 2014 - The specialty of Molela potters are murtis, or idols of Hindu gods and goddesses. The red clay of Molela village is said to have a special quality that makes it impervious to breakage. Each January, tribal groups from northern India come to Molela, along with a temple priest, to procure murtis for the upcoming year. Some are painted with brightly-colored vegetable dyes, while others are left in their original state. Lately, the artists of Molela have begun experimenting with secular designs, and their work is now being used to decorate the walls of urban Indian homes and offices.
We met with two of Molela’s finest potters - Shyam Lal Khumar and Dr. Gagan Bihari Dadhich. Shyam Lal, born and raised in Molela, has led numerous terracotta workshops throughout India, and in 2011 he represented India at The International Ceramic Festival in Hastingues, France. Dr. Gagan hails from Ajmer, and currently teaches painting to post-graduate students at the Government College in Nathdwara. He is the founder of Studio 25 in Molela, and he is known for his intriguing plates and lingam-like objects which blend painting and sculpture with traditional Indian terracotta techniques.
Dahanu, Maharashtra, January 2015 - Warli painting is a tribal art form practiced in the Sahyadri mountains of Maharasthra. These paintings were traditionally done by women on the walls of their huts as part of rituals such as marriages or harvest festivals. White paint, made from rice paste and gum, is the sole color used; walls made from earth and cow dung create a rich ocher brown background. Motifs focus on day-to-day village life, such as hunting, fishing, farming, dancing and celebrations. Stylized trees, field crops and animals such as monkeys, snakes, birds and cattle feature prominently. The mother goddess, symbolizing fertility, and other protective deities often make an appearance. Repetitive shapes and patterns - circles, squares and triangles - are used to create a feeling of movement and energy.
In the 1970s, Shri Jivya Soma Mashe (seated, below right) from Dahanu began experimenting with traditional designs on paper and canvas. Today he is widely credited with bringing Warli tribal painting to international attention. Shri Mashe still uses cow dung to create a brown background, but typically uses white poster paint for his designs. His paintings are intricate and whimsical, illustrating his love and reverence for the natural world. Shri Mashe received the Shilp Guru award from the Indian government in 2009. He has exhibited extensively in India and abroad, including at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea in Milan. Shri Mashe's sons, Sadashiv and Balu, and his grandson, Kishore, have all followed in his footsteps, developing their own visual vocabulary and identifiable brushstrokes. Indeed, the paintings shown above right and below left are by Kishore and have found their way into my office!
Nasik, Maharasthra, January 2015 - Nasik and its environs are one of India's holiest regions. The city itself has over 200 shrines and is one of the sites of the notorious Kumbh Mela. Nearby, one can find 1st and 2nd century B.C. Buddhist caves, as well as Trimbakeshwar Temple, one of Shiva's twelve jyotirlingas (places where Shiva appeared as an infinite column of light). South of Nasik is Shirdi, the temple complex of Shirdi Sai Baba, a popular spiritual leader who died in 1918.
Our pilgrimage to Nasik, however, was more hedonistic in nature. We were here to explore its emerging status as The Napa Valley of India.
The farms of Nasik have long been a source of excellent produce and ornamental plants, and in recent years a number of wineries have been founded here. Master winemakers were brought in from Australia, France, Italy and California to tutor a growing group of young Indian winemakers. Today there are over 50 wineries in and around Nasik, some of the promient ones being Sula, Grover Zampa, York, Chateau d'Ori and Fratelli. A wide variety of wines are made, from sparkling whites and reds to Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Due to the lack of transport vehicles and retail outlets having proper temperature control, most of these wines are meant to be drunk within a year or two, though this is slowly starting to change. To quote the young tour guide who showed us around the Sula vineyard, "Ladies and gentleman, Sula red wines are meant to be drunk at room temperature. And by that I mean European room temperature. Not Indian room temperature."
It it is unlikely that wine will ever surpass ubiquitous and cheap local toddy as the alcoholic beverage of choice for Indians. Nonetheless, India is an agricultural powerhouse abounding with entrepreneurs and consumers - a growing middle-class (as well many of my clients) appreciate a beverage that goes well with Indian cuisine and has the potential one day to make its presence felt in the international wine community.....Chateau Montelena anyone?