Forts, palaces, and temples are all well and good but sometimes you need to consider more earthly things. So today Stuart and I thought we’d dig a little deeper into earthbound domestic Indian life. Specifically we thought we’d try and find out a bit more about two things in particular - Indian clothes and Indian food. Firstly, we thought we’d try and discover how some of the amazingly colourful designs on the shirts, scarves, and sarees we have seen on our trip are created. And secondly, maybe try and find out how some of scrumpy food we have been eating in India is prepared. And maybe even have a go at it ourselves. I mean, how hard can it be? [Spoiler Alert: Very!]
So in the morning we set off in search of the famous Bagru village near Jaipur to investigate how the beautiful fabric dying and block printing is done. And in the evening we were to find a family who graciously said they needed some help preparing, chopping and stirring the Saturday night family dinner. Lucky them!
As I mentioned, Bagru is well renowned for its hand printed clothing industry, with simple designs using uncomplicated techniques and earthy shades of natural dye. Chippa Mohalla, or printer's quarter, at Bagru turned out to be the ideal place to watch the block printers at work and see the hand block printing process up close, from the making of natural dyes and printing inks, to the finished fabrics drying in the sun.
The first place we came to, a boy was perched on a stool. We watched as the fifteen year old boy under the tutorage of his father chisel away at a block of wood - teak - to produce a unique block design. He had it look so easy but one slip and he would have to start afresh. Sometimes the designs are traditional ones. Sometimes they are new ones, send by email and the JPG files printed out. The chiselling certainly looked like artistic yet laborious and time consuming work. The block the boy was working on was about 9” by 4”, would take two days to carve, and, so his father said, was the basis of a repeating pattern destined for a saree. Such skill. Such patience.
Then we visited the dying sheds. Various colourful concoctions were brewing away in vats and tubs - indigo flowers from Australia for the purples, old iron horseshoes mixed with molasses for the blacks, and when the sugar beet yellow was mixed with the blacks and alum powder a vibrant red was produced. Ferrous oxide, ferric oxide, memories of colour chemistry from my school years came rolling back. First a mud mixture was used to screen areas on the silks and cottons, then the wooden blocks were used to print the repeated designs, the cloth was soaked in the vibrant dyes to colour the fabric background, and finally the whole lot was fixed using pomegranate flowers in boiling water. Then the finished product was dried for 4 hours in the sun.
Repeated printing, soaking, boiling, fixing, and drying in the sun added more and more layers of colour until the desired finish was produced. Beautiful.
It was great to witness the process from start to finish, the marriage of art and craft, and to see the finished products display so much beauty. This tradition is certainly still alive and healthy in India. In this village alone 150 families practice it.
We had a bit of a go at block printing ourselves too but of course made a complete horlicks of it. We joked afterwards, “your job is safe from us!” The head printer smiled sweetly. He knew it was.
Then it was time for food. In the evening we found a local family who were patient and trusting enough of us to let us into their home to show us how they cooked a family meal. There English was good enough so they could intervene at the right points so we didn’t completely screw things up and poison the entire household.
Cooking is a great way to interact with people and we first spent some time getting to know our hosts before they allowed us near their dinner. Luckily the weather was good so the cooking was all al fresco.
It was quite exciting as they showed us various preparation techniques and we learned which spices and ingredients go into making some of the best and most popular Indian dishes. By the end of night we had picked up a few cooking tips to take home. And learned that there is no such thing as ‘just a little curry’.
After the prep and cooking we relaxed as our hosts served our creations as a thali so we could all enjoy an Indian meal together. We even we offered some Old Mink rum to wash it down.
They were super nice and very complimentary about our contribution to the cooking. “Not as good as yours,” we said. “Your job as head cook is safe!” The lady of the house smiled sweetly. She knew it was.
Great day. Great fun. But from now on, we will leave it to the experts.
My block printing is haphazard at best. And my cooking? Well, my cooking is normally in three phases.
1. Prepare the food
2. Serve the food
3. Bury the dead
(Thank you Dorothy Parker)