Along the Silk Route...

Vijaya and Prema from the Crafts Council of India are perhaps the first Chennai-duo to travel across the four Silk Route countries. Read on to find out their experiences...

IN ANCIENT times, caravans loaded with silks, cottons, gems and jewellery traversed the southern parts of India across the northern plains to Samarkand and Bokhara, to join the historical trade route from China to Europe: the fabled Silk Route.

Recently, two women from Chennai, Vijaya Rajan and Prema Paranthaman, chairperson and honorary secretary, Crafts Council of India traced the same route (loaded with `theplas', `papads' and pickles!). And actually walked parts of the Silk Route stretching from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan to Khyrgystan!

On a tour at the invitation of Aid to Artisans, an American funding agency that helps needy craft groups worldwide, Vijaya and Prema are perhaps the first Chennai-ites to travel across the four Silk Route countries. The region has a wealth of traditional culture comprising dance, music, art, architecture and craft, all of which are now witnessing a revival.

Along the Silk Route...

As craft activist and enthusiasts, both Vijaya and Prema were struck by the unique handicrafts of the Central Asian Republics, and their remarkable similarity with some Indian craft skills. Excerpts from an interview.

First of all how did it really feel to walk the Silk Route?

Vijaya and Prema: Well, we traced the Silk Route by walking it briefly, but mostly in the comfort of our bus! It was an exhilarating experience. We felt we were a part of history, of romance. We could actually visualise dusty caravans trundling along, loaded with tantalising merchandise...

Vijaya: Especially when we saw the beautifully blue domed Caravan Serais in Uzbekistan, dating back to medieval times, where the caravans must have rested.

Are the four countries rich in indigenous craft?

Along the Silk Route...

Prema: Very. Basically carpet weaving, embroidery, felt making and blue pottery are the region's crafts, but each country has its own craft specialty.

And the country with the richest repertoire of craft is...?

Prema: Uzbekistan. It has beautiful old cities like Bokhara and Samarkand with some of the most exquisite examples of Islamic architecture such as mosques, mausoleums etc. Bokhara silk and wool carpets are a metaphor in carpet excellence, silk ikkat weaving, blue pottery, wood carving, miniature painting on paper and lacquered boxes. Sozani embroidery is another widely practiced craft skill.

Is the embroidery done by women?

Vijaya: Yes. The women do the embroidery on large pieces of handmade fabric called `matha'. A large piece of Sozani embroidery is done by a group of women who might take 2-3 years over it. A small portion of the Sozani was traditionally left unfinished symbolising `never ending marriage, never ending life and never ending joy...' Uzbek embroidery is also done on skullcaps, making them very colourful and appealing.

Apart from Uzbekistan, are carpets woven in other regions as well?

Prema: Turkmenistan has a tradition of carpet and kilim weaving as well, apart from embroidery and silver jewellery craft. The jewellery is made in silver set with turquoise, cornelian and agate. Khyrgystan has a lot of felting craft. People wear felt hats and clothing and entire houses, supported by wooden beams are made of felt walls, roofing, flooring and so on.

Are crafts part of lifestyle in the Central Asian Republics?

Vijaya: Definitely. One sees men wearing felt caps, embroidered headgear etc. on the streets. Embroidery is done on traditional garments and therefore worn only on ceremonial occasions. Carpets, of course, are used by all who can afford them. We visited the house of a ceramic mastercraftsperson and his Sozani embroiderer wife and had tea out of typical blue pottery mugs. We also met Irina a felting craftswoman and enjoyed the ambience in her home of a living heritage. In Samarkand we visited a carpet-weaving unit. The looms and techniques of weaving are exactly like ours.

There are definite and striking similarities between many Indian and Central Asian crafts...

Vijaya: The interaction must have been largely through the Trade Route. Ikkat went from India to Indonesia and thence via China to Uzbekistan where they make beautiful silk ikkats.

Carpet weaving came to India from Central Asia during Mughal rule and blue pottery from Persia. Our `Suzni' embroidery has the same meaning as `Sozani' meaning needle.

Any present craft interactions between the four Central Asian Republics and India?

Prema: Some two years ago embroidery crafts persons from Bokhara came to Hyderabad to be trained in the techniques of vegetable dyeing. And there are other cultural interactions too. They love Hindi films and film stars!


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