Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Change agent

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The revered Mahatma in peaceful contemplation on the lawns at Sabarmati Ashram. 

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An ashram visitor takes a leaf out of his guru’s book.

It’s not surprising that one of the most serene places in Ahmedabad is the ashram founded by the revered Mohandas Gandhi – the Mahatama (Great Soul) or Bapu (Father). In contrast to the outside hustle and bustle, colour and commotion, the ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River opens to green lawns, sandy quadrangles, low-slung, simple, airy bungalows and shady trees. Visitors stroll at ease around the grounds and museum, taking in the so-familiar images and props of the Mahatma – his walking staff, spinning wheel and displays illuminating his innumerable familiar exhortations captured in handwriting and print.

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Bapu’s famous staff and spinning wheel. 

 

Gandhi’s desk; the view from the window.

Mohandas Gandhi was a native Gujurati, born to a middle class family. He studied law in the United Kingdom, returned to India a qualified barrister then was offered a job in South Africa. The racial prejudice he encountered in South Africa spurred him not only to return to India but develop his philosophies. Prime among these was the removal of the British from India and the non-violent methods by which this might be achieved. The peaceful atmosphere of Sabarmati Ashram, established on 17 June 2018 – 100 years ago last weekend –  was the perfect place to contemplate peaceful pathways to change. The venerated Father of the Nation and his wife Kasturba stayed at Sabarmati Ashram for over a decade. It was from here that he began his famous march across India, defied the salt tax and urged his countrymen to spin their own simple “khadi” cloth to sideline the need for British  manufactured textiles.

 

India gained its independence from Britain in August 1947 but, within a year, the beloved Gandhi was dead, cruelly assassinated by a Hindu devotee who was wrongly convinced that the Mahatma was to blame for the partition of the new nation into (roughly) Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan. Relations between the neighbours – and once peaceful co-inhabiters of the one country – have grown increasingly hostile with each passing decade. Hardly the kind of change that Gandhi had envisaged.

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Words of the Guru. 

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Ashram signage (left); Gandhi’s signature in numerous languages.


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The city that Ahmed built

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Ahmed Shah I tomb.

The locale suffix abad attaches itself to cities across Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent. It’s a strong reminder of the influence that the ancient superpower of Persia had on its neighbours. -Abad derives from the Persian meaning “cultivated place” and, according to that go-to source Wikipedia, commonly is added to the name of a city’s founder or patron. Such is the case with the old capital, and largest city, of Gujarat State, Ahmedabad. Or Amdavad as it’s known in the local dialect. The suffix emphasises an essential aspect of Ahmedabad’s personality:  it’s Moghul and Muslim roots.

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Ahmed Shah I Mosque. 

Ahmedabad was established in 1411 by an early Muzaffarid Sultan of Gujarat, Ahmed Shah I. He chose a site along the banks of the impressive Sabarmati River which begins life in the hills of Rajasthan then meanders across Gujarat for about 400 kms, feeding on monsoon waters until it reaches the Arabian Gulf. He named the city for himself,  his spiritual advisor, and two other worthy Ahmeds of his acquaintance. During the almost-200-year Muzaffarid reign, Ahmedabad blossomed into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, graced with a distinctive architectural style encouraged by the sultans that blended Islamic elements with Gujarat’s indigenous Hindu and Jain traditions. Gujarat’s Islamic style was the forerunner of  elements found in Mughal architecture including ornate mihrabs and minarets, perforated screens  of carved stone and cupola-topped pavilions. Many centuries later the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad were to become the site of one of the Mahatma Gandhi’s ashrams.

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Ahmedabad’s elegant Stock Exchange, India’s second oldest. 

Ahmedabad assumed  the capital mantle of Gujarat State when the new nation of India was created in 1948. Then in 1970 the honours went to Gandinagar further up the Sabarmati, though the High Court remained in Ahmedabad.  But significant immovable reminders remain including Ahmed Shah’s mosque, built in 1414, the oldest in the city, and his tomb.  The latter also houses the tombs of his son, Muhammed Shah II and grandson Qutub-ud-din.

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From little things…… Ahmedabad is now a city of over 7 million and makes it onto lists of the 20 fastest-growing cities in the world. Being close to Mumbai, the old Bombay, the city benefitted from its early commercial significance. The decorative Stock Exchange, built in the mid-1800s, is India’s second oldest. As India’s sixth largest city it is an important industrial and economic hub, houses many educational and research institutions, and flourishing heavy and chemical industries. The name Adani, as instantly recognised in Ahmedabad as Australia, has its corporate headquarters there.

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For all its bustling modernity one of the most charming parts of Ahmedabad is Ahmed Shah’s old city.  Tourists happily avail themselves of early-morning walks around the area before the tumult of the day overtakes. Reminders of an ornate and more elegant past can be gleaned from the tumble-down backstreets where the influence of British architecture also survives. Happily, as in other cities around the world, past beauty is being restored in many places.

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Young Jain nuns going to early morning devotions. 

Beautiful Jain temple.

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Shaken and stirred

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The Royal Chhatardis site in Bhuj. 

Those who have lived in an earthquake zone know the terror invoked by a sizeable shake.  Even more modest ones – in the four to six Richter Scale range – are unsettling. So imagine the distress of Gujuratis on January 26, 2001 when they were jolted by a quake of almost eight on the Richter scale and lasting for over two minutes. Some 20,000 people died, almost 170,000 were injured and almost a million left homeless. It was one of the worst earthquakes ever in India. The citizens of the city of Bhuj, only about nine  kilometres from the epicentre, were among the hardest hit.

The memory or the earthquake remains strong in Gujarat State. Throughout our travels we listened to countless grim tales of the toll it had taken: loved ones lost, homes destroyed, possessions gone; vital infrastructure shattered. Ahead of our stay in Bhuj we were cautioned about the rawness of grief that remained even after almost two decades. Visiting the house of a renowned textile expert, one of innumerable victims of the seismic catastrophe, his son proudly but sadly pointed out the intricately carved wooden front door frame which they had managed to salvage from the rubble of their previous family home.

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Of course, it’s not just contemporary infrastructure which crumbles under the forces of a quake. Antiquities also suffer. In Bhuj one such casualty was the intricately decorated Royal Chhatardis, or cenotaphs.  The term chhatardis derives from the word for umbrella, because of the umbrella-shaped dome of the structures. They house no bodily remains, as these were cremated, but serve as memorials. The Royal Chhatris were built in the 18th century by Jadeja ruler Rao Lakhpatji who reserved a particularly impressive Turkish-influenced, bejewelled blue-domed structure, for himself.  Walking through the extensive tract of memorials  the visitor notes that rank did not save the ruler from the earthquake’s might, his cenotaph  revealing significant damage among the many other fallen sculptures. But overall this vast sandstone shrine, intricately depicting gods, goddesses and royalty, retains a regal atmosphere of a bygone era of beauty and extravagance.  State finances are being directed into restorations as was funding to get Gujarat back on its feet after the devastation. The resilience of the human spirit still stirs the emotions.

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Completely cowed

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It’s old news that cows get a pretty good deal in India. The term “sacred cow” is a living reality there but seeing the reality is truly believing. To mix metaphors cows are  top dog in India. They casually stroll across two-lane national tollways, move in with their owners in family compounds, are garlanded and bejewelled, pick the best spots in the middle of the road for their afternoon nap (there are fewer flies in the middle of the road), and even have charities at their beck and call across the country.  Talk about bovine bliss!

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Hardworking beasts. 

The cow’s revered place in Indian culture reflects its centrality to traditional life. It is a source of labour; transportation; provides milk for drinking and for making cream, cheese, butter, yoghurt and ghee; dung for fertiliser, fuel, building material, insect repellant and disinfectant; and in the Ayuvedic medicinal system cow urine has many applications. The cow’s gentle nature is said to create a maternal image inspiring affection. Soulful eyes are a definite plus. The combination has given the cow special standing in the Hindu religion leading to its protected status. Best of all for cows Hindus don’t eat beef  and the slaughter of the beasts is prohibited in 24 out of 29 states. Not that that provides complete protection. Beef ends up on many dinner plates and India is a significant exporter of beef. Maybe the male of the species is the one feeling the heat?

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Cow pats lined up and drying in the sun.

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This won’t go to waste!

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Early morning at the cow charity.

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Earning cow charity brownie points. 

So bovines enjoy a charmed existence until they grow old, infirm and beyond use when some crafty owners set them loose around markets or other public places. Even then society comes to the rescue through cow charities, or gaushalas, where they’re fed and cared for. The devout can score good points through donating to the charities or playing their part in caring for the animals. Or by giving safe passage to the many itinerant beasts which meander blissfully across the roads and highways. Sadly, a rise in militant Hinduism is resulting in the murder  of those accused of eating beef or killing cattle. Surely time to remember Mother Cow’s reputation for gentleness.

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No flies on these cows. 

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Move over cars!

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Decorative bird feeder – and cows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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No stone unturned

An ’80s’ movie etched in my memory is Costa-Gavras’ chilling Missing, the story of an American family’s search for their journalist son who had disappeared in post-coup Chile. The 1973 toppling of Chile’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, ushered in an era of bloody repression under the CIA-backed military dictator General Augusto Pinochet.  The Palme D’Or-winning Missing centred on the search for left-leaning reporter Charles Horman by his businessman father Ed, played by the legendary Jack Lemmon, and Charles’ wife, played by Sissy Spacek. Ed at first blames his son but slowly discovers the complicity of the American Government. The Chile coup shocked many Australians, maybe because Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party had recently won office after 23 years of Liberal-Country Party Government rule.

Three years later Argentina suffered the same fate as its western neighbour when a military junta ousted Isabel Peron. Argentinians woke up to find their parents, sons, daughters, husbands, wives – everyday men and women – “disappeared”. These commonplace tragedies are given ongoing focus as now-grandparents continue to search for missing grandchildren, many of whom have ethereal status without a confirmed existence. I have just put down the gripping 2016 novel The Memory Stones by Australian journalist-turned-author Caroline Brothers, a fictionalised telling of one such generational search. Brothers worked as a foreign correspondent for media organisations such as the  International Herald Tribune, including stints in Mexico and Central America. She told an Avid Reader gathering last year she chose a fictionalised format for Memory Stones because the non-fiction version had “already been told” through extensive reports over decades in the foreign media.

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The choice of style was effective: fiction allowed the creation of characters who brought life to the events of the period and allowed the reader to suffer the anguish of all those who experienced devastating loss, through disappearance and death.  It’s estimated that between 1976 and 1983 up to 30,000 Argentinians vanished or were known to have been killed. The book also brings life to the courage, tenacity and ingenuity of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo –  the Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo – which still works relentlessly to find the the babies born to “disappeared” or executed young mothers and adopted out to junta officials. The abuelas’ efforts have recovered 122 grandchildren, seen 1000 of the dictatorship’s torturers tried and 700 sentenced.  No stone unturned indeed.


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The classic touch

For 15 years I’ve been an enthusiastic subscriber to the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Masterfully lead by the energetic and creative Richard Tognetti the ACO captivates with its eclecticism and daring scope.  While performing under an Australian flag Tognetti has brought together a virtual united nations of performers with orchestra members hailing from French Canada, Japan, Finland, Ukraine, Slovania, Singapore and Romania. Tognetti is not your average chamber orchestra director and conductor, roles he has played at the ACO since his 20s. Still youthful at 52, and until recently sporting a trendy brush-up hairstyle, the world-acclaimed musician likes to take his followers on musical “magical mystery tours”.

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Concert-goers know to always expect the unexpected. During my  time I’ve experienced a full-screen movie of the keen surfer’s wave-hunting expedition to remote Western Australia with the orchestra performing the Tognetti-composed score live; a collaboration with Whitlams lead singer and keyboardist Tim Freedman; an evening of Bell Shakespeare Company readings with ACO accompaniment; and a Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret evening with the world-famous comedian joined by award-winning performer Meow Meow. Tognetti, with or without the full orchestra, is just as happy performing in ski village clubhouses in Hokkaido, and small outdoor sound shells in rural Australia, as the Sydney Opera House or grand concert halls in world capitals.

But for the ACO’s concert at QPAC concert hall last week it was a return to the classics, a sublime evening of Bach violin concertos rounded off with a Haydn symphony. For the Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major, Tognetti was joined by long-serving and accomplished lead violinists Helena Rathbone and Satu Vanska. Then they were joined by Vanska’s Finnish countryman Timo-Veikke Valvo for a solo performance of the Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 4. No wonder the ACO is often referred to as an ensemble of soloists. Which is exactly what the orchestra’s next national tour is titled – ACO Soloists.


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All in the family

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” isn’t a common dilemma for the children of India’s craftspeople. Family businesses are big business and frequently carried out in the family home or compound housing extended family. Not only are prized skills passed down through generations, little ones start learning the techniques with their elders and while their fingers and faculties are at their most nimble. Often, crafts are a village-wide affair.

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The Roopraj family compound – including solar heating.

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Cotton dhurries of finest quality to suit all premises. 

A surgical approach to packaging. 

A perfect example of this is the Roopraj dynasty in the small village of Salawas, not far from Jodhpur in Rajasthan. The extended family makes vibrant, multi-hued dhurries, hardy floor coverings woven in exquisite designs in cotton or silk yarn, or goat or camel hair. The enterprise carries on a 100-year-old tradition taking the sought-after products into palaces, houses, apartments, and all manner of dwellings across India and the world. Mr Roopraj has many international visitors to his well-kept family enclosure including from the US, Canada, South America, Europe, the UK, Hong Kong and Australia. He is proud of his streamlined operation which allows for credit card payments, meticulous packing, and efficient transportation, with goods arriving on a purchaser’s doorstep almost precisely on a given date. My package of two dhurries was so carefully wrapped with finely stitched calico over securely taped inner wrapping that I regretted having to cut its precise sutures. Mr Roopraj would make a fine surgeon!

In the spick-and-span craft village of Bhujodi, just outside the bustling city of Bhuj in Gujarat’s Kutch region, the Vankar Visram Valji clan personifies the concept of “family business”. The partiarch was a veteran weaver who in his early days struggled to make a living from his skills. The turning point came when he won a national award in 1974. Now the weaving enterprise run by him and his six sons from their spotless, expansive family compound is the largest producer and supplier of woollen shawls and blankets in Bhujodi. Four sons are also national awardees and another has a UNESCO Seal of Excellence.

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The family cows join the Valdi clan in their neat Bhujodi compound. 

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The open-air kitchen. 

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A beautifully carved wooden door leads to the compound work area.

Master craftsman Vankar Visram Valji  and son: “this is where we store indigo”.

North-west of Bhuj the quiet town of Patan accommodates more treasures, including of the “living artisan” kind. Master double ikat weaver, in particular of treasured patola silk sarees, Bharat K. Salvi and his family can trace their dynasty and their craft back to the 11th century. Mr Salvi combines an ikat museum, housing beautiful and rare pieces from their precious collection, with his artelier. It’s his mission to preserve and document their cherished craft.

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 Although a trained architect Rahul Salvi couldn’t resist the family double ikat tradition. 

Double ikat involves each warp, or longitudinal thread, and the weft thread crossing the warp, being tied separately. The technique produces a patola with no reverse side: both the sides have equal intensities of colour and design. The painstaking process of tying, untying, retying and dyeing in different colours can take four or more weavers up to 75 days to complete. Vibrant reds, yellows, greens and blues dominate. Basic designs include floral motifs, animals, birds and human figures, but geometrical patterns are becoming sought after. The striking colours, organically sourced, come from turmeric, marigold flowers, onion skin, pomegranate bark, madder root, lac and indigo.

Only four centres in the world make double ikat textiles – Bali (Indonesia), Okinawa island in Japan, and, in India,  Pochampalli in Telangana State, and Patan. Single ikat is woven in Okinawa, Cambodia, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, the Philippines and Holland. The Patan centre flourished after the local ruling dynasty in the 12th century brought in Jain craftspeople, Mr Salvi’s forebears, from Jalna in Maharashtra State.

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Patan patola sarees are highly prized. Royals and aristocrats wear them on auspicious occasions and in south-east Asia they are regarded as a holy cloth. The Indian bride whose wedding trousseau includes such a saree is regarded as a very lucky girl. Not surprisingly a genuine double ikat patola doesn’t come cheaply: it may cost upwards of around $AU3000, yet order books are full.

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Exquisite textiles in the making.