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”.

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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. 


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.