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Updated: November 14, 2013 20:00 IST

Beads of adventure

Saraswathy Nagarajan
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Medha Bhatt Ganguly Photo: S. Mahinsha
THE HINDU Medha Bhatt Ganguly Photo: S. Mahinsha

Designer and entrepreneur Medha Bhatt Ganguly’s fascination for beads has set her on a unique mission

Medha Bhatt Ganguly is stringing a story, bead by bead. A tale of intrepid sailors and traders who roamed the high seas in search of ware and trade; of women who live across oceans but follow comparable customs and beliefs; of a community that keeps alive a legacy that traces its roots to Africa and the 12th century. And it all began with Medha’s fascination for beads.

City-based designer and entrepreneur Medha has always wanted to study anthropology and archaeology. While one studied the material culture of the past, the other delved into the material science of the present. So Medha, a graduate from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, enrolled for a Sociology B.A. under the Indira Gandhi National Open University. When an opening came for a research assistant for the Pattanam excavations (Season VI) being carried out under the supervision of the Kerala Council of Historical Research (KCHR), she wasted no time in applying for the post.

“I was present there during the excavation and that is when the beads (glass and stone) of different kinds were found. Imagine my surprise when I found that the beads resembled the ones found in my hometown in Bhavnagar in Gujarat. And some of those beads resemble the ones found in digs in Africa!" Medha exclaims.

She was intrigued by the beads and wondered about the people who might have bought those beads to Indian shores. While Cambay was the centre of stone bead-making in Gujarat, Arikamedu was the centre in the southern India. While the glass beads excavated at Pattanam had a close resemblance to Indo-Pacific beads, the glass beads used in the craft of beadwork of Saurashtra were sourced from Murano, Italy.

“How did these beads from Italy come to Gujarat? And in Africa? Some communities in Africa give beads an important place in the rites of passage of a girl’s life. Similarly it also formed part of her dowry; a system that is still practised in some communities in Gujarat,” explains Medha.

She adds: “Bead embroidery and thread embroidery are a part of every girl’s life in Kutch and Saurashtra. It’s also part of her rites of passage as a woman. She learns sewing at the age of six or seven and from then on she begins making various household things for her dowry and for her trousseau. Wall hangings, bedspreads, mats and even covers for the betelnut, coconut and so on that would be used during her wedding. Every girl in Kutch has a needle and thread in her school bag. It is a tradition in every household,” says Medha.

Although Medha grew up in Pune, she spent school vacations in Bhavnagar, exploring villages in Saurashtra and Kathiawar in Gujarat where bead embroidery is still a living tradition. The beads at the Pattanam digs opened a new route in her voyage as she began her research anew.

The libraries in Kerala could not help her navigate her voyage. So she got in touch with experts at KCHR, Victoria and Albert Museum in the United Kingdom and a curator of South East Asian textiles at Yale University. They put her in touch with others in the field and suggested their own perspectives on the subject.

In the meantime, Medha visited the Barton Museum in Bhavnagar, where an entire hall has been devoted to the bead-work textiles of the region. “I found it closed. It is one of its kind in India! Bhavnagar has become a city of the aged with many in the younger generation leaving the area for greener pastures. As such, the threads to their tradition and customs are getting frayed. That has resulted in the neglect of the museum with its precious heirloom of work done by generations of women.

“The thread in many of the works begin disintegrating. Those pieces would be in urgent need of conservation,” she says. She hopes the grant would eventually help her reach out to people who might help in reopening the museum. The best course, she feels, would be for private sponsors to take over the museum and preserve the legacy of the region, one that is unique to it.

She is not only documenting textiles from museum and personal collections, but also studying rituals, folklore and folksongs of Saurashtra to understand the significance of bead-work in the lives of women who create them.

In fact, the only thing Medha demanded that her mother give her for her trousseau was a beaded bag made by her great-great grandmother. She remembers her grandmother who used to sob even at the age of 80 when she recalled how she left her natal house with her father’s words ringing in her ears: ‘No matter how difficult it is, don’t come back. That is your home from now on.’

“Those beaded articles, made along with women in the family, were, perhaps, their only bonds to their natal homes once the women got married,” says Medha.

These threads of tradition might have become worn and broken but Medha is determined to see that they do not disappear from our part of the world. She hopes that her work will help in unravelling the string of tales the beads enclose.

Honour roll

In November, 2012, she presented a paper ‘Voyage of a Bead, The role of gender socialisation in the craft of beadwork of Saurashtra’, at the Craft and People Conference at the British Museum, in the United Kingdom (U.K.)

Recently, Medha was awarded the INTACH-UK Project Grant to carry forward her research on the voyage of a bead.

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