From the banks of Indus

 A carved antique doorway led into an exquisite interior, an oasis of serenity and beauty.

The boutique was filled with rare fabrics, garments  pottery and furniture, displayed in a manner to match the minimalist zen-like architecture. My treasured buys at KOEL were indigo-dyed fabric, a box of terracotta replicas of the Mohenjodaro–Harappa seals and a book Sindh Jo Ajrak, cloth from the banks of the river Indus, a documentation by Noorjehan Bilgrami of the complex processing of the hand-block printed ajrak, a traditional Sindhi textile.

Meeting soft spoken and gracious Noorjehan Bilgrami, was a pleasure. She is an artist, textile designer and researcher. Her interest in traditional crafts led to the establishment of KOEL in 1978, a workshop that pioneered the revival of hand-block printed fabrics in Pakistan. She is one of the founders of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. Handloom weaving and natural dyes are now her major interest and she was awarded the Japan Foundation Fellowship in 2001-02 to pursue research on natural indigo in Japan.

Noorjehan curated the exhibition, ‘Tana Bana: The Woven Soul of Pakistan’ in collaboration with Jonathan Mark Kenoyer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1998. Research into crafts led to the publication of Clay, Cloth, Wood, Metal, Stone: The Craft Traditions of Pakistan, with an accompanying documentary.
Sindh, with the Indus river coursing through its centre has been the centre of a rich tradition of arts and crafts, that had its origins in the Mohenjodaro–Harappa civilizations that developed on its banks 5000 years ago. This region has been a center for printing and resist dyeing of textiles for centuries. The trade in patterned cotton textiles with the Middle East is believed to have taken place from as early as the first century AD. But the earliest specimens of patterned cloth were found in Fustat, the old harbour of Cairo and date back to the 15th century, which can be traced to this region. 

Ajrak cloth is used as shawls, turbans, dupattas, bed covers and in important life cycle rituals. The making of an ajrak is a labour-intensive, complex, painstaking process. The raw fabric length comes to life after having been dunked in the river several times, beaten, steamed, mordanted, printed with resist mud pastes, covered with powdered camel dung, dyed in deep madder and indigo and Voila! — Ajrak, a jewel like fabric is created. Whilst working in the ajrak centres, Noorjehan found that many short cuts were being taken in the ajrak process. Chemical dyes were being used instead of natural dyes and  mass-scale screen printing of textiles was in practice. This motivated her to spread the knowledge and use of natural dyes, and inspired her own work and research in this area.

Rallis or quilts are a common craft of Sindh. The hand sewing of rallis is associated with Sufism as the reuse of old cloth denotes humility. A common sight at the shrine of the Sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai at Bhit Shah is rallis spread out by devotees as bedding.

Khes is a variety of handloom that is woven in Khairpur in upper Sind which is a traditional patterned bedspread. Susi is a thin striped cotton and silk cloth, woven in the Nusserpur region of Sindh. KOEL is involved in a project to revive natural dyed Susi fabric. The Bandhano (tie-dye tradition) is also a popular craft in Sindh. Farasis, colourful rugs are woven in the Badin District of Sind. Embroidery also embellishes the shawls, veils and skirts worn by the Sindhis, whilst reflecting the colours of the environement. 

Noorjehan  Bilgrami will present a talk on ‘The Living Textile Traditions of Sindh’ on November 15, held under the aegis of Marg Publications and Sindhi Culture Foundation at 6 pm at Fortune Park on  Race Course Road in Bangalore.

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