“Delhi once had over 35 varieties of cotton woven locally,” says Laila Tyabji
Iwas born in Delhi, on a hot May afternoon in 1947—one of Midnights Children. Delhi is the place I’ve mostly lived in since, in between boarding school, sojourns abroad with my diplomat parents, art schools in Baroda and Japan, Dastkar field trips, etc. Funnily, I never think of it as my home! Partly this is because Delhi continues to be a city of transients, expats, and migrants, here because of Government berths and diplomatic or corporate jobs, rather than choice. The Jama Masjid and Civil Lines residents who really deserve the title of Dilliwallahs nostalgically remember the days when they were the REAL Delhi, rather than us upstarts in colonies with strange alien names—Friends Colony, Defence Colony, Mayfair Gardens, West End, South Extension… Nevertheless, I am nostalgic too – of the Delhi of the 50s and 60s; so much more democratic, inclusive, laid-back, and peaceful.
A Delhi where my brothers and I went horseback riding every morning with Prime Minister Nehru on streets without sirens, road blocks, or police. When the electricity went off, we all sweated it out in the dark —crorepatis, politicans and aam admi. Everyone drove either an Ambassador or Fiat. We slept out on our lawns or roof tops. Gated communities, road rage, and that horrendous VVIP culture were un-thought of. So were Malls full of branded imported goods! We had tailors sitting cross-legged on our verandahs making our clothes stitching cloth that was still being woven, dyed, block-printed, and embroidered in our neighbourhood—Delhi once had over 35 different varieties of cotton woven locally. How sad not one survives in our polluted industrial jungle today!
For centuries Delhi was the centre not just of political power, but also poetry, music and the arts. Known too for its wonderful jewellery, metal-ware, miniature painting, ivory and sandal wood carving, book binding and calligraphy, its attar and soaps— with craftspeople given extraordinary respect and stature, an honoured part of the Mughal court.
How different things are now – where hardly any local crafts remain except the occasional chikwala and potter, and the only spaces for craft people are on the pavement or in temporary haats. Pre-cast and moulded Chinese Ganeshes and tawdry plastic toys are sold at every street corner.
It breaks my heart when I see well-off Delhiites browbeating a karigar from Kutch or Jharkhand into giving them a discount – behavior they would never attempt in a Benetton store. We don’t realise how fortunate we are that India still has craftspeople—something the rest of the world has lost. The unique personalised creativity of handcraft has a quality no mass-produced brand can compete with. Rural craftspeople visiting the city for the first time used to enquire why we all greeted each other saying “Hai! Hai!” They were amused that “Hi” was a greeting not a lament. Now, of course, their children say ‘Hi’ themselves!
The writer is the Chairperson, Dastakar Society for Crafts and Craftspeople
EVERYONE EVERYONE DROVE EITHER AN AMBASSADOR OR FIAT. WE WE SLEPT SLEPT OUT OUT ON ON OUR OUR LAWNS LAWNS OR OR ROOFTOPS. ROOFTOPS.