Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001

Aqua craft

Kausalya Santhanam

"On the verandas of the big mansions were to be seen artistic planks set with emeralds and diamonds whereon stood coral pillars. At the entrance of these mansions were suspended ornamental hangings having the shape of the makara fish from whose teeth (horns) carved with symbols representing auspicious things... hung strings of pearls in series".

- The Cilappathikaram

Leheriya print from a cotton turban, early 20th century.

Just as the graceful flow of water and the surging might of the river have incited the poet to song, they have brought out the poet in the craftsman. The Indian sculptor, artisan and weaver have given shape and form to the waters and her teeming life in stone, wood, metal and cloth. The waves, the fish, the swan, the lily and even the crocodile have found representation in a continual thread from the Indus Valley civilisation to the present. The great rivers that traverse the length and breadth of the land weave their way through men's imagination as surely as they weave through the deep gorges and wide plains bringing fertility and providing sustenance.

Ganga, the life-giving mother, the Ganga Maiyya of boatman and band, stands statuesque and lovely along with her companions, the Yamuna and Annapurna in the Gangotri valley, the place of her birth.

Far away in the 7th Century cave temple of Mahendra Pallava at Tiruchirapalli in the South, she is portrayed as being received by Siva in his matted locks as she descends to earth.

In the famed monolithic sculpture at Mamallapuram near Chennai, the ambience of a riverside shrine is created while an ascetic, perhaps sage Bhagiratha, is in penance to bring the daughter of Himavan to earth so that the sins of mortals can be washed away. The celestial dance of Siva frozen forever in the perfect Chola bronzes shows the young Ganga imprisoned in his tresses to break the impact of her fall lest life be destroyed when she rushes down.

Amr Vastra Kosh
Hamsa, Kalamkari.

No less revered is Cauvery, the Ponni (golden one) who deposits golden silt on her banks making them rich and radiant with crops. From her birth in the Kodagu hills to her merging with the ocean at the historic town of Poompuhar, she is venerated and loved along her course. Enshrined as a goddess in Talakaveri, where she originates, she is depicted on a wooden panel at Srirangapatnam. Her waters are shown parting to make way for the onward journey of King Cheraman Perumal and Saint Sundaramurti Nayanar at the Airavateshwara Temple of the 13th Century at Darasuram. Her birth from sage Agastya's overturned pot is depicted in the painted ceiling of the Kapardeshwara temple at Tiruvalanjuzhi near Kumbakonam.

If the river personified as a beautiful female form is portrayed on stone by the sculptor, the undulation of her waves has inspired the weaver and craftsman. Chief among these is the lovely design of the leheria (waves), of the Rajasthani textile idiom. Favoured as monsoon wear in the desert region, they bring memories of cool dancing streams at all times to minds weary of a parched landscape. Using the wrap resist tie and dye technique and traditional fugitive colours, the Leheria is made up of broad or narrow stripes flowing diagonally across the material in a carefully orchestrated colour scheme.

Shiva-Parvati bathing in a river, Pahari miniature, early 1st century.

Poems have been sung in praise of this flowing linear design, symbolising love, which is much sought after in turbans, saris and odhnis. When worn around the head in the layers of the astoundingly draped Rajasthani turban, the lines crisscross and converge in patterns that make for sheer linear lyricism.

Typical of Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaipur, the Leheria's traditional blend of colours are five - Pancharanga - or seven - Satranga. So specialised is the art of the Leheria that a whole month would be lavished in the past to make a muslin turban comprising nine hues. Headwear fit for royalty! And it was truly a prized item in the wardrobe of Rajput princes.

Stripes that owe their origin to the river are also found in tribal weaves. In Assam and Manipur, the loom is wielded with such an unerring eye for symmetry and impact, that white and red or maroon alternate in striking patterns on the wool and cotton. Weave and embroidery complement each other in the designs of the phanyeks or lungis which the women wear. The stunning black borders are embellished with embroidered fish, circles and flowers.

Vivid Phulkari embroidery on headcloths or shawls is the treasured possession of a Punjabi bride. On the bright red cloth stand out the resplendantly embroidered designs that encompass nature and our day to day life with such a robust integrated feel that peacocks and locomotives belching smoke, elephants and the village shopkeeper weighing the goods, exist in perfect harmony. Among the designs in the typical darn stitch is the Leheria, or waves.

From the river's form to the river's riches is but a step away. The fish that darts and leaps, glides and circles around in the stream is a constantly recurring image in the craft idiom.

Madhubani painting by Ganga Devi.

The earliest incarnation of the Lord in Hindu religious belief is logically from the waters where life began. As He rose from it to save the first man, Manu, from the Deluge, he chose to take the form of the Matsya, the fish, one of the eight iconographic symbols in India that represents prosperity, good fortune and fertility. The auspicious Matsya brings progeny, riches and food.

The curving form of the fish floated proudly on the flags and pennants of powerful kings such as the Pandyas. Sangam literature speaks of the Matsya yazh, the harp shaped like a fish. Goddess Meenakshi takes her name from her beautiful fish shaped eyes while the Chola stapathi was advised to follow the shape of the fish to obtain the perfectly shaped eyebrow on his bronze icon. As an early numismatic motif it is seen in the coins of 550-350 B.C. while the seals of Mohenje-daro are imprinted with this image. It is an ever recurring motif in medallions and sculptures, whether in the Chalukya temples or at Khajuraho. The fish swims on the walls and ceilings of the temples built by the Satavahanas of Andhra and the architectural marvels of the Cholas. Patterns depicting scales and filigree like bones also appear in palaces and Moghul buildings.

On textiles across the country the motif is worked on cotton, silk and wool. In the coastal areas such as Orissa and Bengal, the fish is a much loved design. The ikkat weave of Orissa employs it in the pallus and borders of the Sambalpur and Paripada saris and in the sari text as well. So too in Bengal, where the Dhonekhali can have rows of fish running across in horizontal stripes throughout the text.

In Andhra Pradesh, the fish worked as gold motifs surface on the pallus of the fine cotton Venkatagiris and the Molakaalammoru silk sari pallus of Karnataka are delicately adorned with tiny zari fishes.

The Patola of Gujarat has an unrivalled place in the ikkat and tie and dye form of craftmanship. No trousseau is complete without the dazzling patterns on rich red or off-white - elephants with stately gait, peacocks with outspread plumage and fish swim happily on the silken background.

The popularity of the aqua symbol is not confined to the coasts. In interior North Bihar, thrifty rural women sew together discarded saris into quilts. Then with needle and thread, they create magical embroidery called the Sujuni on the cloth which makes it vibrantly new. Flowers and trees, birds and bees spring up and so too the curved form of the fish looking out at the world with keen embroidered eyes. In the Kantha embroidery of Bengal too in which old saris get a new look the fish is found again and again boldly outlined in chain-stitch.

The Madhubani paintings of Mithila, Bihar and the sikki grass objects made in the rural areas of the State as part of the bride's dowry feature this auspicious symbol of prosperity.

Among items of jewellery, the Neli of Tamil Nadu is striking. Shaped like the open mouth of a fish, it hugs delicate fingers in a tight embrace. Madhavi, the lovely dancer in the Cilappathikaram is said to have adorned herself with just such a ring when she accompanied Kovalan to the seaside.

A multitude of fish sometimes makes up the traditional kolam of the South. The dots can link up in the most complicated ways to complete fin and scale resulting in stunning geometrical motifs to welcome Goddess Lakshmi into the home.

Like the figures on Keats', "Ode to a Grecian Urn" are the fish that chase one another for eternity in the carved thorans in old doorways in Gujarat.

Amr Vastra Kosh
Ikkat sari.

The crocodile appears in its own form or as a mythical creature in numerous temple sculpture and paintings. Lord Siva is seen wearing the makara kundala (hanging earrings) in Pallava sculpture linking the riverine creature with divinity.

Gliding on the waters of the river or lake, the swan is poetry in motion. An important symbol in Buddhist and Hindu thought, it represents purity, freedom and spiritual attainment. The vehicle of Saraswati, (who in the Rig Veda represents a river) the swan is credited with the quality of discrimination. The hamsa, or bartailed goose, makes its appearance from ancient times in textiles, paintings, literature and craft. The Kumarasambhava mentions that the heroine wore a swan patterned garment for her wedding - the swan which is believed to mate for life is associated with constancy. Lines of geese appear in diagonal lines across a garment in the Ajanta cave paintings.

The favoured crest on the brass lamps of the South is the plump swan with lotus stem held gracefully in its beak. So ubiquitous is the motif of the swan in Kanchipuram silk and cotton saris that one's wardrobe is crammed with swans smugly perched on borders and pallus and sprinkled as buttis on the bright expanse.

Swans facing each other in pearl and gold pendants and walking on beaded feet in earrings are a common feature in traditional jewellery.

Swans are done so much to death by the contemporary Indian craftsmen that you can find them anywhere - from pen and card holders to carpets and palm fibre bags - proudly raising their beaks or coyly eyeing you from down-bent heads.

The lotus is the most enduring aqua symbol in Indian philosophy and art. Synonymous with perfection, it is the peetam (pedestal) of Lakshmi, Saraswati and the Buddha. Brahma the creator appeared on the lotus, symbolising the universe, that sprouted from Vishnu's navel. Its many petals and seeds represent fertility. The lotus design is recreated on wedding saris and adorns our ears as diamond and ruby studs. Many homes are decorated with the alpona or kolam of the Padma or Kamala, its multi-petalled splendour inviting the Goddess of wealth to enter.

The lotus blooms everywhere in Indian craft - on Kalamkari, ikkat and Kanchipuram textiles. The Rajasthani bandhini, the colourful and elaborate tie-and-dye process employs this symbol of fertility. The Pomacha is an odhni with a lotus pattern to be worn by the bride or an expectant mother.

The Makara Yazh, an ancient musical instrument in the shape of a crocodile.

The river scene in India brings to mind the line of brightly dressed rural women filling up their pots at the water's edge. The river has led to a variety of water ware. From the ivory coloured Gopichandan clay pots of Gujarat to the smooth, russet ones of Kallakurichi and Manamadurai in Tamil Nadu, from the glazed blue pottery of Rajasthan to the burnished brass kodams of Swamimalai.

No riverine picture is complete without boats cruising home along the vivid orange of the setting sun. Our country with its fabulously long coastline and criss crossed by huge rivers has a long tradition of boat building. The Yuktikalpataru is an ancient treatise on the building of ships and boats. It gives details on the fashioning of various types of craft, their figureheads and fine furnishings.

Boat scenes as if fresh painted spring out of centuries old walls in Ajanta and Ellora. Pleasure boats sail through the sculptures of Amravati. The all time favourite is the scene of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana crossing the Ganga as seen in the murals at Cochin.

Apart from the conventional boats are the dazzlers such as the Kalivallangal or racing boats of Kerala that participate in the regatta at Champakullam, the competitions at Alleppey and Aranmula. Hewn out of the wood of the Anjili or the teak is the Chundan, the largest of the snakeboats that can be even 130 ft. long. It is worked on lovingly by the master craftsmen to accommodate at least 60 pairs of rowers. The Chundan's stern embellished with brass leaps to a height of 20 ft. When the snakeboats thunder through the waters, the bystanders are as riveted by the beauty of the boats as the mastery of those who man them in a perfect synchronisation of speed and skill.

As small wooden replicas complete with large brass fittings, these boats are among the many artefacts that show how the motion and the rhythm of the waters are a constant source of inspiration to the Indian craftsman.

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