Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane

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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”.


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.


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.


The Roopraj family compound – including solar heating.



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.


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


The open-air kitchen. 


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.


 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.


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.


Exquisite textiles in the making. 


Dream weavers

In my primary school days the Queensland Government thought a young gal’s education should include learning to sew. Needlework was part of the curriculum and I well remember my calico “sampler” with its rows of colourful embroidery stitches,  carefully practiced rows of running, back, split, stem, satin, chain, blanket and button hole stitches. As the year progressed the sampler became longer and longer, and grubbier and grubbier. Despite the best efforts of the Queensland Government I never did become an accomplished seamstress, although I have called on various of those stitches to save a favourite jumper, do an emergency repair on a dropped hem, shorten new jeans or other general repairs. Recalcitrant though I was in nurturing my needlework skills, associations with Japan, south-east Asia, the Middle East and Mexico over past decades opened my eyes to the beauty of handcrafted textiles and exquisite needlework.


Weavers and their alluring wares. 

India is a heaven for textile lovers with spinning, weaving and dyeing traditions stretching back at least five thousand years. The focus of our tour, Gujurat State, holds a special place. With Western boundaries to Pakistan and the Arabian Sea – water and land bridges for trading routes and transgressors – Gujarat was both a repository and recipient. Its remaining tribal regions are a treasure house of embroidery, mirror work, appliqué, and block making and printing, and the dyeing formulas creating such vibrance. Notes accompanying our Marieke’s Art of Living tour said archeological digs had unearthed cotton and spindles dating back to Harrapa, one of the major cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, which covered significant parts of Gujarat. Ancient Vedic texts, on which Hindu culture is based, document early spinning methods and fabrics.


Popular indigo. From underground storage, to pit loom weaving, to dyed garment. 

Precious designs, techniques and materials were nurtured and handed down over centuries. In many cases the crafts were the province of the women, practised at the end of a day after the other work was done as dowry gifts for the daughters. In turn, those daughters would do the same for their daughters. Thus family and village traditions were created and works done with love and therefore much valued. Many artisans, now translating their skills to commercial use in small family enterprises, would proudly relate to us the number of generations who had been custodians of their craft. In some cases it reached an astonishing 35 generations – around 700 years.



Intricate shibori tie-dye work – or bandhani – starts with a stenciled pattern.

Steps to shibori: dyeing, drying, catching the fabric to create the pattern. 

A Gujarat must-see for textile lovers is the Ahmedabad Calico Museum of Textiles run by the Sarabhai Foundation, regarded as the best such museum in India and with an international reputation. It was founded in 1949 by the industrialist Gautam Sarabhai and his sister Gira and is housed in the elegant old family mansion in the Shahibaug district with haughty peacocks wandering the vast, lush gardens. The displays include court textiles of Mughal and provincial rulers from the 15th to 19th centuries, regional embroideries and tie-dyed and religious textiles. Exhibits of ritual art and sculpture, temple hangings, miniature paintings, South Indian bronzes, Jain art and sculpture, and furniture and crafts are also on show.

calico museum

Calico Museum, Ahmedabad, and stunning exhibits featured in gallery notes. 

The collections are regarded as so precious that visitor numbers are strictly controlled to protect the priceless artefacts from dust, air pollution, aberrant light and temperature fluctuations. Two groups of just 15 participants daily are allowed – and no photographs please! The tour guide has a fierce reputation – no mucking up and don’t fall behind. But we found her to have a sly sense of humour and a formidable knowledge of her subject. Her illuminating lecture on the beauty of the exhibits and the love and religious devotion artisans applied to their work gave her an “Indian Sister Wendy” appeal. With a new appreciation for the precision, patience and passion that has gone into the textiles of India I now regret the lack of dedication I applied to my childhood sampler.

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A suitable destination


Sacred cows. 

My elder brother put it best when I tried to describe returning to ordered Australia after a month immersed in the colour and chaos of India. Sensory deprivation! Having lived there for over a year as a PhD student in the 1970s he returned to cautious Canberra – a bit like landing on the dark side of the moon after being on the set of a Bollywood movie. Now I understand!


A rowdy wedding party takes over the street in Ahmedabad. 


Rogan work.

The colour and chaos of Delhi streets. 

India is indeed a celebration of the senses with its noise, colours, smells and tastes and I wonder now why it took me so long to visit. Having missed the boat (excuse the pun) in the days way back when all the cool kids followed enlightenment-seeking hippies and pop singers to the destination du jour, I knew my window of opportunity was progressively narrowing.  Luckily, my sharp-eyed travel buddy spotted a perfect opportunity in a small-group tour specialising in tribal textiles – right up the alley of two ethnic craft lovers.


Craft skills start young under watchful eyes.


A nomadic Jat camel herder displays tribal finery. 

We visited the ateliers of dyers, weavers, spinners, knitters and stitchers of numerous fabrics and styles; spoke with scholars documenting and saving precious samples; met accomplished artisans in villages, cities, tiny family compounds, and nomadic tribal people out in the desert.  Its heartening to see cooperatives and organisations working to safeguard these precious crafts and skills and we eagerly visited the outlets where the products of painstaking labours are sold at fair trade prices. Female tourists also make a bee-line to more commercial retailers such as the acclaimed Anokhi and Fabindia, both started decades ago by foreigners wanting to share and preserve the textile skills more widely.  Their wares include the output of villages that specialise in industries such as beautiful quality block printing.


Keeping crafts and colours alive. 

While India’s renowned textiles were the initial lure, having endlessly drooled over the spoils of returning friends, India’s layering of religions and cultures has fed the richness of art, architecture and cuisine that makes it such a fascinating destination. From the early Indus civilisation of the Harappas, which dated back beyond 3000 BC, were added the traditions of Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. The Moghul invasion from around 1500 AD introduced Islam and its religious and cultural heritage. I’ve long remembered the awe in which my late architect father-in-law spoke of places such as Fatepur Sikri, the red sandstone city founded in the mid-1500 by the Moghul Emperor Akbar as his capital and regarded as one of the best-preserved examples of Moghul city architecture.  It is listed under UNESCO World Heritage protection, along with that other incomparable Moghul-era monument, the Taj Mahal. After witnessing the feisty Miriam Margolyes moved to tears by its beauty in the BBC TV series The Real Marigold Hotel, and with THAT photograph of Princess Diana etched in my brain, I knew I couldn’t retire my backpack before seeing the Taj.

Taj from the Red Fort Agra

Taj Mahal from the Fort, Agra; porticos in the Fort; Chand Baori stepwell, near Jaipur.

These architectural gems just scratch the surface. American historian Will Durant made the point that in spite of the barrier presented by the Himalayas India had bequeathed to the West ..”such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system.” In Jaipur we visited the early 18th century Jantar Mantar Observatory built by the founder of Jaipur, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, a brilliant scholar of astronomy.  It comprises 19 architectural astronomical instruments including the world’s biggest stone sundial.  The impressive structures also are under UNESCO World Heritage protection. And that’s not to mention India’s many other contributions including the Auveydic medicine system and Yoga. Then there’s the brilliant cuisine – delicious AND nutritious and ticking all the boxes before “gut health” became the new big thing in dietetics.


Haveli, Shekawati region. 


Demoiselle cranes in the Little Rann of Kuutch wetlands. 

India is full of surprises and paradoxes. In a country of around 1.35 billion people, the second-most populous, it’s possible to find open spaces with expansive wetlands attracting numerous migrating birds and the international twitchers who follow them. Wildlife sanctuaries offer opportunities to spot rare wild animals. Gaudy weddings and rowdy celebrations endlessly manifest, stopping traffic and keeping us bemused tourists awake. The roads are hair-raising but instances of road rage are rare. The Aussie suburbs seem so boring by comparison. I can understand the sentiment of the world’s most famous Indiaphile, Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple,  who declared if he had five more lives he’d live them all in India.


Livin’ the life…it pays to be a protected species in India. 


Summer spectacular


Jagged rock-islands as far as the eye can see.

The Shakotan Peninsula’s Cape Kamui eases its way out into the Japan Sea like a advancing dinosaur, the howling wind whipping up waves which engulf the rocks at its feet. On its brow sits a lighthouse steering the seafarer clear of danger. Kamui is one of Shakotan’s three capes: the others being Ogon and the eponymous Cape Shakotan. The peninsula is renowned for its desolate sheer cliffs, plummeting into the boisterous ocean, crystal-clear waters and numerous needle-point rocky island outcrops just offshore, the product of millions of years of wear and tear from buffeting and pounding swells eating away at the coastline. Over the horizon lie Russia, and further to the south, North Korea.


Shakotan’s Cape Kamui eases into the Japan Sea like a giant dinosaur. 


Enjoy the spectacular views! 

The name Shakotan originates from two words from the Indigenous Ainu languages, shak, meaning “summer”, and kotan meaning “village”.  Its genesis as a region came through the development of the rich herring industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herrings became such a money spinner that the nearby town of Otaru, “herring central” in its heyday, became so wealthy from the trade, and such a centre of commerce, it became know as the Wall Street of Japan’s North. Overfishing and climate change killed off these marine versions of the goose laying golden eggs around the mid-195os leaving the townships struggling to find new meaning in life.


The stunning Shakotan coastline.


Tourism is stepping into the breech with the sea again offering a lifeline. Shakotan is renowned for its uni and ikura, the much-sought-after bowls of ikuradon and unidon a major drawcard in summer and autumn. Tourists who travel to enjoy the old herring warehouses and canals of Otaru are happy to travel the few extra kilometres to savour a bowl plus the spectacular scenery en route. Along the stunning coastline a scenic, 42-km highway snakes along open stretches and through tunnels around the numerous bays and inlets. Dramatic cliffs drop into the ocean with townships, mostly deserted, scattered along the length. The Peninsula is also a stopping off point for Japan’s only national marine sanctuary. A growing attraction is glass-bottom boat excursions into the Japan Sea.  It’s all giving a new lease of life for the “summer village”.


Anyone for ikuradon? Unidon? 




Winding roads and tunnels. 


Lonely Shakotan shacks.

Thanks to Yogi for some of the photographs.






The word kawaii, exclaimed with squeals of delight, is ubiquitous in Japan. It means “cute”, or “adorable”, a quality highly rated by Japanese females, especially young women. The use of kawaii goes into overdrive around most of the country on 15 November each year, the designated day of the Shichi-Go-San Matsuri – the Seven-Five-Three Festival – when the year’s batch of littl’uns turning 7, 5 and 3 dress in their sumptuous national costume, have their photographs formally taken, then head off to the local shrine with proud families for even more photographs, and blessings.


With two grandchildren in those age ranges I was delighted to be personally involved in the most recent Shichi-Go-San in Hokkaido. There, in northern Japan, it’s held a month earlier so the children aren’t subject to the rigours of biting early winter winds and temperatures that can bring snow falls from late October onwards. On the big day, first there’s the trip to the professional photographic studio where formal shots are taken in full kimono, luckily available for rent given the the cost involved in a complete outfit. An astonishing array of colourful gear is jammed into laden racks around the studio awaiting selection.  There are the so many layers that make up the completed attire – inner garments,  outer jackets, sashes for both boys and girls, zori sandals, trinkets for specially coiffed hair,  oversize bows for the backs of kimono, little handbags and props such as “samurai swords” for the boys. After the lengthy photo session, with well skilled photographers (mostly girls!) managing fidgety children with amazing humour, comes the selection of images, a tricky decision indeed. img_5339



Then off to the shrine for more photos -and given the intricacy, elegance, colourfulness  and sheer charm of their ensembles the children are naturally greeted with many more squeals of kawaii!




A roe by any other name


The freshest ikura and kani don at a seaside restaurant on the Shakotan Peninsula. 

The etymology of words is fascinating.  And so it is with that sought-after Japanese autumn delicacy, ikura, – いくら – the glistening omega3-packed sacs of exquisate piquancy that explode with surprise and flavour on the taste buds. Otherwise known as “red caviar” the Japanese word for the salmon roe sounds a natural part of the language. But in reality it’s borrowed from the Russian for “caviar” – ikra – and directly transposed into the Japanese into which it readily fits. A clue that it’s not a Japanese word is that it is written in a phonetic script, rather than kanji Chinese characters. A little research also reveals that in the Turkish word for caviar is kuru, very similar to ikra and ikura.


Delicacy double dipping – ikura and uni don. 

Each year the salmon river migration takes place in late summer/early autumn in Hokkaido. Luckily for the salmon using every ounce of their strength to get back home, once they enter the rivers and streams they are protected, except for recreational fishermen who apply for a special licence ahead of time. But that it doesn’t count Hokkaido brown bears and eagles. After spawning, the exhausted salmon depart to fish heaven.

The most delicious ikura is said to come from  roe taken just before the breeding season when the outer film is taut and the roe soft.  The thin membrane that holds the roe in a cluster needs to be carefully removed to separate the individual eggs. They are then marinated before being eagerly devoured, usually with steamed rice. My daughter-in-law’s mother marinates her ikura in a 60/30/10 mixture of soy sauce, sake and mirin.

Separating the roe from its membrane sac; marinating ikura; ready to eat!  

A popular dish in Japan is ikuradon – a bowl of rice topped by glistening, deep red roe. Often it is teamed with other treats such as uni – sea urchin – and kani – crab. Sea urchin is a prized luxury in Japan, especially when it’s in season in summer. My son is a great fan and would weep to hear of seaweed farmers in Tasmania destroying sea urchins with some sort of robotic spear because they are a major predator of their “crops”. There must be an export opportunity there!


Packaged ikura tops Hokkaido souvenirs at New Chitose Airport’s amazing retail mall.