Saturday, June 4, 2016

Of Tribes And Tribal Carpets

I recently read a very well written article in the New York Times (sent by a friend, Danny, who wanders about, collecting tribal carpets that are woven in central Asia and neighbouring regions).  It was about how the original art of making Persian rugs may not survive much longer.

This is unfortunately true of many tribal products and, in fact, their very way of life.  While some tribes manage to adapt to a changing world successfully, many end up being exploited and some slowly die out for lack of options.

When we were in Delhi last winter, we visited Dilli Haat, a large area set up by the government to promote the sale of crafts directly by craftsmen.  Over the years, we have been seeing more and more stalls which obviously have no craftsmen, just middle men, and this year we saw a large outlet selling cheap carpets.  The carpets looked quite attractive (not masterpieces of any kind but very nice and good value for money) - they were so incredibly cheap that we wondered how they were made.  They were obviously not handmade, the salesperson said they came from a kind of factory.  He was very keen to sell us some and even said we could take them home, roll them out and return them if we did not like them.  He made it so simple and accessible for customers that I knew that tribal (or any handwoven) carpets wouldn't stand a chance against these.

Here is what Danny said, when I mentioned this to him:

"The fact of the matter is that there are really no mysterious bargains to be you rightly pointed out, the carpets you saw in Delhi were modern reproductions of old material....they do not "knot" them, they "tuft" them and back them up with glue...a process that takes a tiny fraction of time and very little manual effort (and no creativity).  

What is funny is that many of these modern things are actually being made in China...the bazaars in Turkey and Morocco are full of Chinese production of imitations made to copy Central Asian products.  They jokingly refer to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul as the Chinese Bazaar.  We are truly becoming a global culture!

But in a way one cannot blame the old artisans to look for more efficient means of livelihood and creature comforts that a nomadic life does not easily provide for. "

We have been witnessing the erosion of tribal lifestyles in many places during our travel, within India (Kutch, Nagaland, the Andamans) and outside the country as well (Burma, Borneo, America and many other countries) - the tales are too numerous to narrate.  What can we do about it?  Sadly, not much.  Tribal lives are governed by modern politics, economics and the exploitation of natural resources by urban dwellers.  I think all we can do is to be sensitive to the needs of tribals and respect their ways of living (Just to illustrate - I have seen people talk about and treat some tribals in the Andamans as if they were an inferior kind of animal.  Many years ago, the government decided to 'uplift' their living conditions by building concrete toilets in the thick of these beautiful islands, which the tribals had no idea what to do with).  To step gently into their areas, if at all.  And not to endorse products which involve exploitation of the tribals or their natural resources.  Specifically, in the case of carpets - if one has the resources, it would be good to buy one original handwoven carpet rather than lots of cheap ones.

We did buy a rug from Dilli Haat, as a mat for my little son to play on (as this can be easily washed and dried).  It's a very cheerful one - pale yellow with big flowers that are attractive in a nursery setting (and there were several identical ones, in different colours so we knew we were not buying anything unique!).  In the same room, beside this rug, I have kept a tribal rug, for my son to lie upon when he's sleepy.  The contrast between the two is enormous, when seen side by side.  The machine made rug is pleasant, extremely cheerful and functional.  It looks very much in place in an urban setting.  The tribal rug is wonderfully soft and comfortable.  Its colours reflect in some way the beauty of the natural world.  It is clearly an individual's creation - varying shades are used in an asymmetric manner that results in a rugged and timeless beauty.  My son looks at the colours, patterns and shapes of both rugs.  But when it comes to nose rubbing (a high accolade), it's the tribal one that he always chooses.

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