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GO INDIA, NO. 1: OF GODS AND GUJARAT

As anyone who follows me on Instagram or Facebook knows all too well, I’ve recently been in India.  I work with block printers and embroiderers in Gujarat, so technically this is a business trip, but I also love the excuse to escape to a totally different culture and climate.

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As always when I’m in India, my ignorance and my curiosity are staggering.  The imagery, the architecture, the mini shrines everywhere, the cows and the monkeys, the gods and goddesses, the myths, the history, the politics.  This time, in order to start chipping away at my totally superficial knowledge of Ganesh and Shiva and Hanuman, I shamefacedly slipped into a bookstore, went to the Religion & Philosophy section, and picked out Gods and Goddesses of India, a book with a very cheesy cover, and individual little books about Ganesh, Kali, Hanuman, and Krishna, that lady killer.  I swear the clerk at the register gave a sweet little snicker when he saw me: another Western tourist seeking enlightenment in India. No matter. Knowledge and Understanding, come to me!

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At a Crosswords bookstore, I also bought Amit Chaudhuri’s latest collection of selected writings, mostly from his column in Calcutta’s Telegraph.  Reading them on the plane, I thought how fascinating it is to read English as a foreign language, I mean, it is a foreign language to me in that is describes a different culture, history, reality, philosophy, urbanity, politics, everything, but paradoxically, amazingly, I can also understand (almost) every word.

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Last year, I went to Gujarat for the first time on what I told myself would be at best a reconnaissance tour.  A friend in Istanbul (an established textile designer) had a local contact (a bespoke wedding invitation designer), who had contacts of her own.  I ended up with a collection of hand-printed kimonos and sarongs and another collection of hand-embroidered pillows.  This year, I went back for more.

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Travel feels so easy, so out of body: you get on a plane, and then, just hours later, you arrive in an alternative reality.  The same seems to be true for wanting to make something or do something. You ask people, people give you clues or phone numbers or contacts.  A friend of a friend of a friend later and I am offering my crude paintings and the crooked, self-sewn samples to producers, praying that they can help me translate my kooky ideas into decent and proper designs. It feels like a pilgrimage; there is a lot of embarrassment and hope and desperation and gratitude involved.

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Block printing is a nerve-wrecking business.  It is both very slow and very fast.  It is slow for a block carver to carve each block for each color.  You have to wait for the colors you’ve picked from a dog-eared pigment manufacturer’s brochure to be mixed so the printers can try out the blocks and I – ostensibly a designer who is supposed to know what she is doing- can choose the final colors for my design. It is relatively slow for each motif to be printed, for the design to slowly emerge fragment by colored fragment.

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But it is fast to see that I’ve made a terrible miscalculation, a sinking, cold feeling quickly spreading over my body: Oh my god. Why did I pick that color? Those colors, together?!? Why on earth did I have them dye the ground that awful pink? Well, maybe if I just try the first block.  Oh god, terrible. Well maybe if the second color goes with it, it will balance out. Print print. Block block. Even worse.  A third color. Block. Print. Digging my designer’s grave even deeper: I’m an idiot and everyone’s watching, all the printers and block-carvers and the master and the manager, knows it and they’re waiting for my next move to fix it.  Why did I think I could do this? What the hell am I doing? Panic sets in. Fast.

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Embroidery is an entirely different beast. As soon as you realize a color isn’t working, you can just snip out the stitches and pull out the evidence.  You can do it a million times until you find the right combination.  But printing is different: The evidence is permanent, splayed out on the printing table, the pigments drying into an even worse combination- as if that was possible- in full, cringing view of everyone.  What’s in your head exists only in your head; making a design that works is a much more mysterious process of stabbing at a shade of green that will redeem yourself in your own eyes. Or maybe I should just abandon the design altogether; it takes courage to walk away, right?  On the other hand, when I actually hit on a combination of shape and colors that works, I rejoice! Look at that! I’m an absolute genius! A design mastermind! But the truth is it’s just as much an accident of trial and error as the failures.

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For every success, countless failures. Countless translations from imagination to reality that didn’t even remotely work.  That were shockingly and astoundingly terrible.

The plane from Istanbul to Mumbai is half Indian diaspora from Europe or North America going back for a visit, printed kurta and dupatta and cushy sneakers, and half European tourists, blond – yes they are always blond- Germans or Russians with dreads and handloom Nehru-collar tunics and minimal, handmade leather sandals, fading red strings around their wrists.  We’ve all been here before – another reconnaissance tour, maybe this time we’ll get it just right.

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Clare Frost is an American kimono and fabric designer who lives in Istanbul. She works with an array of talented artists and craftspeople in Afghanistan, India and Turkey to produce quality hand-made goods and original designs. To contact Clare or learn more about her products, please visit her website or Facebook page.