There is an old sign; sometimes obscured by razor wire or the odd gun barrel; outside the gate of Srinagar airport that says,
"Welcome to Paradise".
The vale of Kashmir is beautiful in any season, the towering background of the Himalyas, the gentle rural landscape that fills the valleys with terraces and trees. A gentle, graceful place where time rests.
It is also a war zone in the long conflict between India and Pakistan, and has the heaviest occupation of troops on the planet.
The capital Srinagar; is a city of steeped roof houses of delicately carved timber through which flows the Jhelum river, into the Dal and Nagin Lakes, the shores of which are lined with wooden house boats.
These are the magical vestiges of the British Raj's ingenuity.
In the late 19th Century the then Maharaja of Kashmir would not allow foriegn ownership of land. So the British, desperate to escape the torrid heat of the plains, had the design of the Dungas, the large barges of the waterways, converted into houseboats.
These houseboats, largely made by hand, take about three years to build and are a wonderful example of the Kashmiri skills of woodcarving and furniture making.
In Agra in India, Emperor Shahjahan built the Taj Mahal to mourn his wife. His father Emperor Jahangir, built the beautiful Shalimar Gardens in Srinagar in 1619 for his wife Nur Jahan, as a representation of paradise on earth on the shores of Dal Lake. One can only sigh.
And so throughout history Kashmir has represented a version of paradise.
A way to come close to paradise in Kashmir, is to wake in the houseboat, with the early morning mist blanketing the lake beneath the snow capped Himalayas, and hear the voices of the Muzzein softly harmonising through the mist, with the morning call to prayer.
Becoming the air and filling existence with the resonance of the human voice in perfect prayerful harmony.
We source our Kashmiri stock from a Srinagar family who specilize in courtesy, hospitality, humour and the finest examples of Kashmiri hand work that we have seen oustside a museum. This is art, a cultural inheritance, that has been perfected through time.
The crewel-work which you see in the clothing and home decor, was traditionally only used to produce the rugs. The gabbas and the namdas.
In the 1940's a European designer adapted the stitch to fabric and to garments.
The embroidered fabric is made of hand spun thread and is hand loomed.
The Patriarch of our family of leather workers, resides in a town which is a fantasy of golden stone, rising out of the far flung reaches of the Thar Desert in the very north west of India.
Around about 50 kilometres from the Pakistan border, the line of control, the north west frontier.
Which explains the occasional thrill to be had as the MIG fighter jets scream out of the west and straff the town with sound. The locals take no notice at all.
It is a long train journey to get there, sleeping under the fan to the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks, leaning in the open doorway, watching for the vibrant flash of sari far out across the fields.
Noting over the years the ox plough being replaced by the tractor and seeing the winds lift the topsoil and knowing that the ways of development are not always best.
Waiting in sidings for the trains to pass, that move the North West Frontier Army.
Flat trays of tanks, monolithic with agression, draped with uniformed young men, lounging in the cool wind, on their way to protect India from the tragic threats of the Pakistan border. A sad and costly inheritance of colonialism.
Enthralled by the 'traffic' waiting at the crossings. The colour and gaity of a wedding party, the turbaned cameleer, relaxed on the wooden cart behind the elegant stature of that most desert animal, the camel.
Carts drawn by oxen with red painted horns, and the trucks, adorned and decorated with unbridled zest.
Across the area of Pokara, Indias atmospheric nulear test site where I believe the chai has a certain zing!
Travelling northwest from the green to the brown to the landscape of thorn and sand where the earth is painstakingly built into a honeycomb of small square indented beds to harness and hold the precious water.
And waving, waving, to children herding goats, to women carrying gleaming brass water pots on their heads, to men working the land in the dawn mist, as the present roars through the past.
Then at last the end of the line, as the ancient sandstone fort of Jaisalmer rises majestically out of the plain.
Once a centre of opium traders, amongst all the transference of goods along the Silk Road trade route of the past.
Prakash the eldest son, who calls this magic desert fort home, can name seventeen Patriachs; full title; off the top of his head. They have been here awhile! These are desert people.
And it is always a such delight to swing off the train, dry and dusty, leap onto the back of the motorbike behind Prakash or one of his sons, and zoom up the hill, speed through the narrow alleyways and be welcomed by Asha Devi and Shalini, the beautiful and intelligent women of the family.
The many, many workers, who are the extended family, live in small towns and villages across this landscape of sand and thorn.
In Rajasthan, into the neighbouring state of Gujarat, and west to the border with Pakistan. All bringing a degree of regional interpretation to their craft.
The leather is naturally tanned, and therefore retains the character of the hide, which like wood, mellows and colours with age.
All the tanning of the leather, the making of the bags, assembling and sewing of the patches is done by the men.
Through eons, the men of this family have followed this trade. making such as, the saddles of the carravanerai treading the Silk Road. Now they turn their skills to the trade of today, adapting ancient skills to the tasks of now.
The embroidery is done by the women. Learning their skillls on cloth and progressing to working with leather that has been worked fine and soft. There is a quiet confidence in these desert women and it is reflected in the bold strength of colour and the vibrancy of the ancient patterns in their embroidery.
With experience these patterns flow undrawn across the leather patches. As though, like the sands of the desert they simply run through their hands.
Watching these women, from our background of a nuclear family society and the non culture of colonialisation, it is easy to feel envy and some awe, in the timeless patterns of their days, talking and cooking, sewing and children, and sharing.
The challenges beyond language of eye contact, the turn of the wrist as the face withdraws behind the veil.
The endless riches in 'the other'.
And then there are the young!
So rich with all of the old India and riding high on all the possibilities of the New.
Never boring, always challenging.
This area of India is synonymous with the vibrancy of cloth.
Colour and pattern and embelishment are the result of skills and patience and inheritence.
From the language of cloth of the desert dwelling Rabani people to the sequined cloth so loved by belly dancers world wide, to the detailed elegance of the finest block prints, North West India is a treasure trove.
The antique fabrics dislay the quite astounding skills which adorned all, from the Maharajahs to the elephants in the time before the British Raj slowly reduced these states to relative poverty.
Happily we can access some of this splendour in our vintage applique wall hangings in which pieces of this splendid cloth are glued then stitched onto sturdy cloth. Thus preserving examples of silver and gold metal thread work, beading, [with anything from pearls to seeds and sometimes semi precious stones] sequines and embroudery.
We rarely see hand work of this complexity and splendour today and when we do it is extremely expensive.
Modern times modern prices.
We also collect Antique 'pit loomed' pure silk Benares saris masterpieces of hand looming and glorious silk thread.
These are becoming increasingly rare but worth the search as they are glorious as swagging and curtaining. This was our original foray into the world of Indian fabric when endeavouring to curtain a georgian house in Hobart. We also have a 'curio' collection of saris, great fun in interior decorating.
Block print is a technique of vast complexity, including the science of the chemical constituents of colour and the fine carving of the pattern into the wooden blocks.
The execution of the block print is quite mesmerising.
A pot of paint on a wheeled trolley, an expanse of cloth on a table many metres long, a series of hand carved wooden blocks, each one to print a separate colour and thereby build a pattern; and, the artisan.
Slowly imprint by imprint, the first simple outline progresses down the fabric; with just enough dye, with just enough pressure, with the block placed over and over in exactly the right position. Block after block, colour after colour and finely detailed patterns flower on the cloth.
Or it may be the making of a riotous hot pink sari patterned with golden stars.
In this case the wood block will apply glue onto the fabric, after which the printers move across the fabric shaking a screen of golddust.
Then, they leap up onto either end of the six metre table, flip the fabric to shake off the excess and everyone ends up sparkling, with gold encrusted beards and hair and eyelashes.
A constant favourite is our block print curtain. The simplest, sheer white cotton, block printed with a simple leaf motif, white on white. The softest privacy sreen which also reduced the glare of the sun and lifts and floats on the slightest breeze.
The gentle art of of hand weaving; the rythmic creation of pattern as the weft shuttle weaves back and forth through the warp threads is throughout time essentially a village craft.
We have high quaility fine cotton rugs of strictly traditional design from the Salawas village.
And a sturdy wool and jute product in rugs and ottomans in traditional 'killim' type designs.
"Shilpayan" is a non government organisation (NGO), initiated by Debrabrata Dey, a proffessor of economics who returned to his birth place to create a small business to benefit the impoversished tribal caste of the area. with the design assistance of his wife and his mother, both embroiderers, Shilpayan was born.
This product of pure unbleached silk is produced entirely in the vilages; from the silk worm cocoons, to hand spinning, hand weaving and the final hand embroidering of traditional tribal.
We met these villagers in 2001, their first tentative year of production and were so impressed by the exquisite quality of their craft that we became their first western sponsor. This project originally employed 25 embroiderers, by 2005, this had increased to 3200 across a wide area of tribal villages. Their products are now exported extensively across Europe and Asia - a testament to the worlds appreciation of high quality ethnic hand craft.
This success has allowed Debabrata to expand his philanthropy. Congenital blindness is common in this tribal area and Shilpayan has created an orphanage for these children. Also a workshop has been set up to teach the partially sighted to spin the silk thread, using the simple spinning wheel immortalised by mahatma Gandhi as the symbol of self-reliance.
We deal directly with the villagers thereby ensuring that the proceeds support and foster this representation of their culture.