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Handicraft Traditions in India and Kenya

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Photo: Ditte Isager

As we drive through rural villages, I catch tantalizing glimpses of life on the street through a slit in the curtains—a barber tending his customer, roti on the griddle in a cook stall, a stray dog dodging a rickshaw bike loaded with bundles. We arrive at the weathered fort’s main gate, big enough for elephants to enter. (They once did.) Inside the main courtyard, pink and butter-yellow plastered brick walls are punctuated by scalloped windows and wooden balconies. At the entrance to the women’s quarters, Waseem shuts off the engine as attendants draw a folding qanaat (protective shield) around the car. Khan’s maid Shameem signals that we can enter a hallway unobserved. Less grand than the public rooms where Sulaiman Khan greets guests, the women’s side of the house has its own central courtyard, flanked by whitewashed columns and inner gardens.

In a shaded chamber with heavy green doors left open to catch any slight breeze, the Qilasaaz ladies are seated on a white canvas–covered floor, bent over their stitching. Like the women of Ndonyo Wasin, they also wear vibrant colors: shell pink, parrot green, lavender. Their hair is drawn back in thick braids. Shoes are piled at the entrance. Noise from a political rally in the streets scarcely penetrates, although somewhere bells chime the passing hours distinctly. Part of Khan’s mission is to preserve a Lucknowi embroidery technique called chikan. Plopping down against a bolster, I take a closer look at their threadwork. As someone who accidentally sewed a Girl Scout sampler to her uniform, I am envious of the adroit, miniature patterns. Circles, whorls, raised knots, running stitches, piercings, shadow fish, curled flowers, and silver leaves grace the exquisite clothing. Even the seams are hand-stitched. Qilasaaz uses tissue-thin khadi (homespun cotton), silk, chiffon, and broadcloth made from pulped bark, which Khan sources from hand-weavers and dyers who know she is interested in sustaining their crafts as well. A ruby red crepe de chine jacket with gold edging hangs on a dressmaker’s dummy. Samana and Bibi unfurl an intricately embroidered sari. They teach me the Urdu words for each type of stitch: phanda (raised knots), jaali (pierced), and hath-kati (drawn-thread work). Samana, who has a solemn face and graying hair, supervises Qilasaaz when Khan is away. She makes notes on a new sleeve style for some beach tunics I want sewn from brightly striped cottons.

The workshop breaks for lunch in a side veranda as the soaring heat whitens the sky. Seated on a raised platform, the women unpack steel tiffin boxes of curry, chapati, and rice. Gesturing to the quarters, Khan tells me, "This space is bigger than their houses. Qilasaaz gives them regular work, and some sense of independence." Khan emphasizes that all proceeds go directly to the younger members. "They can spend their wages however they wish, buy gold or pay school fees, but I also encourage saving," she adds. One of the unintended consequences is that the younger women seem to be having fewer children as their families recognize the earning potential of their skills.

Khan’s mother, Rama Mehta, was a noted diplomat and author of Inside the Haveli, a fictionalized account set within the women’s quarters of an aristocratic Hindu household. The novel emphasizes community and respect for elders rather than what Westerners would perceive as oppression. (A lecture series on women’s issues at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study was named for Mehta by her friends John Kenneth and Catherine Galbraith.) While we eat chickpea pakoras, Khan expresses nostalgia for an era when the Mahmudabad qila swarmed with aunts, grandmothers, in-laws, and cousins. "There’s nobody left," she acknowledges, "to tell me off."

Toward the end of our day, when I show the Qilasaaz women photos from Ndonyo Wasin and Ol Malo, Khan translates their shock. Despite its Bollywood image, India remains a deeply conservative country when it comes to deportment and dress. Still, seeing photos of women from another continent in unusual dress clearly fascinates the sheltered group.

Unfinished tasks are folded away, and three women draw veils across their faces while others cover their heads. Suddenly, the riot of color is subdued, but not the women’s sense of humor. While two tie imam zamin safety charms (rupee coins knotted inside a strip of fabric) to Khan’s peach-colored sleeve, I admire the decorative henna swirls on the palms of several recent brides. Despite the language barrier, I discover common ties as they prepare to depart. Pantomiming, I want to know where else temporary I tattoos are drawn. Pointing to my upper arms, hands, and feet, the group nods yes each time. At the risk of being provocative, I point to my derriere. It takes a split second for the absurdity to sink in. Then they crack up, laughing uproariously.

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