09.14.2018

Ahmedabad

 

The Tree of Life

It was fun to re-visit the city where my career first began. Twenty years ago, I attended the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. I met three lovely students, remarkably cool in the March heat, which was rising daily. They were amused that a foreigner would come to Ahmedabad at such a time. I told them of my interest in Indian textiles. They offered a room at NID in exchange for a liquor license and some whiskey for a party they were throwing. I agreed at once-—my first Indian deal! 

The school put me in touch with a block printer. Soon I was at his studio, marvelous worn woodblocks stamping away, natural dyes bubbling in huge copper pots, goats wandering over finished textiles as they lay drying on the ground in the scorching sun. Since then I have created my own studio and I’m still traveling the world in search of textiles, printing techniques and just a good time in general.

According to the legend, Ahmedabad was founded in 1411 when Sultan Ahmed Shah witnessed a hare chasing a hound and decided to build a walled city on that very spot. The old gates are still there, keeping in the many treasures of the city. Domes, minarets and intricately carved wooden havelis dazzle the eye. There are really too many places to see but here are a few of my favorites.

The Sanskar Kendra museum designed by Le Corbusier is in quite a state of disrepair, but walking the galleries can still be mesmerizing. Everyone from the guards to the dogs are asleep; the quiet makes it easier to absorb the grand vaulted spaces.

One of the loveliest mosques I’ve ever seen is Sarkhej Roza, just outside the city, built around a stepped water tank. The mosque is still in use with students studying in the Madrasa and families having lunch on the shady steps under perforated stone windows. Right nearby is the charming gardens of the open-air Utensil Museum, truly unique and not to be missed.

Stay at the House of MG, built in 1924 for a wealthy textile merchant and the perfect jumping off point for an early morning tour of the old city.  The Unesco heritage designation has saved a lot of the old Havelis, some of which have been turned into guest houses whose inner courtyards hide swings, deep wells and some spellbinding carvings of local gods and animals in dark teak. If you find yourself thus enchanted, be careful of the cows on their morning walks as its easy enough to bump into one or step in their leavings!

Close by you’ll find the Jami mosque, where the enthrallingly large calligraphy murals remind me of Brice Martin’s loopy abstractions set on stone.

Further along is Hutheesing Jain Temple. The main temple contains fifty-two mini shrines of intricate design, every inch filled with incredible carvings of gods, goddesses and animals rivaling Angkor Watt with an exquisitely carved central dome. The stones seem to be creasing and folding in midair yet perfectly balance whole crowds of figures in motion like the elegant dance of life. 

Jump in a car to see the Stepwell of Adalaj. Found mostly in arid regions, stepwells collect rain during monsoon season, provide water for drinking, washing and bathing and are also used for festivals and sacred rituals. Built in 1498, Adalaj is like a subterranean palace. Air and light work their magic as you descend amongst chiseled elephants frolicking, lovely women adorning themselves and dancing while musicians play.

Back in town, I get to see the Mill Owners Association Building, built by Le Corbusier. The grumpy manager lets us wander around the serene and well-preserved space. A gentle ramp draws you up, with terraced gardens built into each floor, reminding me of Le Corbusier’s statement that “space, light and order… are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.” I didn’t want to leave.

I end my trip where it all started: the Calico Textile Museum. The same fiery guide who took me around twenty years ago is still in power and she has not mellowed! As we wander the lush gardens, her discourses on life and art did not always make sense to me, but were entertaining and the collection itself is spectacular. South Indian bronzes, Jain manuscripts and of course some of the finest Indian textiles in the world. 

I am so lucky - it was this amazing city that started me on my crazy textile odyssey that has kept me entertained, fed and happy for so many years.

 

John Robshaw

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