Ulaṭbānsi Legend

In the PENELOPE project, we follow the connections of weaving, poetry, music and philosophy in ancient Greece. The film Ulaṭbānsi / Zigzagging looks out for similar connections in contemporary India using the poetry/music of the weaver-poet Kabir as starting point. Here you can find more information on the itinerary of the film.

min 00:00

Ulaṭbānsi, a word that defies easy translation, was an absurdist technique of the 15th century weaver-poet-saint Kabir, where poetic inversions point to the upturning of accepted conventions. To the uninitiated, Kabir’s upside-down disruptions may seem absurd, but to those steeped in this form of embodied, radical spirituality, the inversions make perfect sense. We found parallels between this upside-down language and the way the weft zigs through the warp and then makes an about turn to zag back. It may look like the weft is simply moving sideways but actually it is moving forward and back to make the fabric.
The design of this Kharad carpet, depicts a zoomed-out view of the weft’s zigzag.

min 00:32

Shivjibhai tuning his 8-string tambura before the satsang (musical gathering) in Bhujodi, Kachchh (a district in Gujarat, India), reminds us of the sizing process carried out by the family in Chirala. The threads of the warp are stretched out, untangled and dusted off before the rice starch solution is applied with a traditional brush made of millet stems.

min 00:51

On the last evening of our stay in Kachchh, the Bhujodi Bhajan Mandali (group of folk singers from Bhujodi) all of whom currently weave or have a connection with handloom, decided to hold a satsang specially for us. It was an informal gathering with a lot of discussions in between the songs.
When we had first suggested making the film, we had assumed that a group of weavers singing the songs of Kabir would organically make the connection between the spiritual practice of the weaver-poet and their own practice. However, when we asked them for songs about weaving, they couldn’t remember any. They began singing the more meditative poems about the mind-body connection. Since we had met them earlier at a Kabir pilgrimage, they thought of us more as followers of the spiritual practice rather than as handloom researchers.
To get some relevant songs for the film, we staged an intervention by opening out Murjibhai’s shawl (further discussed at min 18:42) and showing them a woven representation of the satsang. The next couple of songs that they sang about the spinning wheel make the soundtrack and arc of the film.
While the mandali (group of folk singers) tuned up, we set up one camera on a tripod and placed the sound recorder. Khimjibhai took hold of our second camera and began clicking photos of us. Suddenly, it dawned upon us: We were also talking across the registers of poetry, weaving and filmmaking.

min 04:52

This warping wheel in Sidur colony, Chirala, is another crucial pre-loom process. Witnessing the three-dimensional nature of these processes that end up as a two-dimensional fabric, brought home the fact that the zigzag is actually a flattened spiral. In retrospect, we think it was fortunate that they had only chosen songs  about the spinning wheel.

min 05:06

Shivjibhai is making indigenous Kala cotton fabric commissioned by the NGO Khamir. At the opposite end of the house his father, Dhanjibhai, is making shawls of indigenous wool.
Shivjibhai used to work as a sound technician from whom the mandali hired audio equipment, which explains the huge speakers that sit atop his loom. He recounted how someone joked that he would never be able to sing, provoking him enough to prove them wrong. Now he finds that the taal or rhythm of the music matches that of his weaving practice.

min 05:21

Khimjibhai, known for his sarees, is weaving the extra weft Chaumukh motif comprised of 4 triangles. At the satsang he sat next to Abdul Azizbhai, a world renowned Bandhini (tie and dye) artist from Bhuj. Both were batchmates at the institute of design, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, under the instruction of Judy Frater.  Also, given the communal polarization in the country, it was a refreshing delight to have them both enjoying the statsang side-by-side. Azizbhai has a deep and long-standing interest in the Nirgun (formless) tradition of Kabir, hence, he intuitively understood what our film was about. His whispered suggestion to Khimjibhai to sing “Kone Banayo Charkho / Who’s the Maker of This Spinning Wheel?” was an inspired choice.

min 06:40

Geetaben Gomti Parmar and her husband, Dhanabhai Parmar, run the guest house at Khamir. She runs the kitchen and canteen at Khamir in the day and touchingly ensures that all the stray cats and dogs have their share. She is also part of the production team in Khamir and works in packaging and order processing.
When she was a child, her family fled from Pakistan and she has traumatic memories of being a refugee. She learnt Suf embroidery (that originated in Sindh but now is only practiced in Kachchh), from her mother and now embroiders on Kala cotton stoles in the quiet of the evening when no one disturbs her. She showed us a stole made by her cousin, which was not as neat as her work, which Geetaben suspects is because her cousin’s family doesn’t give her enough time to make the mathematical calculations. The cousin’s embroidery looks similar in terms of the pattern but doesn’t come close to Geetaben’s sublime practice.

min 06:55

Watching Geetaben make the Bajra millet flatbreads by hand, rather than a rolling pin, it struck us that the material and the process create the conditions of the possibility for the resulting form.

min 07:53

Our discussion led to the conditions of possibility in Suf embroidery. Geetaben made the distinction between Suf and Rabari embroidery, the latter being more conductive to circular patterns. The Rabari are nomadic tribes that migrated centuries ago from the neighbouring state, Rajasthan. (The Rabari women embroider their blouse, skirt and dupattas (stoles) incorporating mirrors and beads, often depicting their myths and rituals.) Geeta Ben dismissed the Rabari embroidery as not being as precise as Suf which depends on the weave of the fabric with mathematical precision.

min 08:32

Often when Geetaben is embroidering, she counts the threads or follows the line of the weft or warp with her needle. The simple cross stitch line at the bottom of the stole covers 5 threads of the warp and 5 threads of the weft, making it easier for her to judge the number of threads and build the pattern in reverse. Geetaben’s patterns progressively taper into a void or rather return the attention back to the woven cloth. At the risk of reading too much into it, her precision and sense of positive and negative space verges on a Sufi-like mysticism. She does this work each night sitting at the foot of the bed under the light of a single fluorescent tube light. Each piece takes her over a month to craft depending on complexity of the pattern.

min 08:55

Everyone in Bhujodi who heard that we were making a film on Kabir asked us if we had been to see Premjibhai. When Naranbhai Siju finally took us to meet his uncle, the latter was having his siesta on a charpai (wood-framed, woven rope bed) in the shade of a mango tree. Upon being told of our arrival he immediately sat up, alert and ready for the dialogue. He talked of all the experiences that had led him to become this fearless: the deep wells that he dug, being ill-treated as an untouchable, his faith in education as a means of social upliftment, setting up a weaver’s cooperative, and his rigorous spiritual practice. His words, and their unsaid meanings, resonated in the marrow of our bones. When we timidly asked about his connection with the spiritual and Kabir, he retorted, “Haven’t you made the connection through our dialogue of this past hour?”

min 11:32

The reference to Ram is not limited to, or even necessarily about, the Hindu deity of the same name. In the nirgun (formless) tradition of Kabir, Ram refers to the identity of the eternal with oneself;  it also is the sound (root-word, or Bijakshar). Shabnam Virmani’s film, ‘Had Anhad: Journeys with Ram & Kabir’ (2009), is a vital resource for explorations of the various connotations of Ram.

min 13:19

Attached to Premjibhai’s house is the Handloom Design Center that he set up to teach young apprentices and take on experimental work. Naranbhai recounted that originally its name was Handloom Design and Research Center but because it was too long, the word research was dropped. Perhaps, the practice of research was dropped too.
The exit of the center was through the shop where we saw exquisitely designed stoles. One stole left out inch long sections of the weft to depict ocean waves while the silk weft and cotton warp was used to convey the texture of water and sand. When we asked to see similar designs, Premjibhai’s sons Devjibhhai and Chamanlalbhai brought out a triptych panel of stoles that depicted the rain over the white desert at three different times of the day.

min 13:24

Khimjibhai K. Vankar is the resident trainer at Khamir who teaches weaving. He has seen many kinds of people visit Khamir and he tells all of them to live and roam in ‘Bharat’, an old name for the country that is resonant of its culture and heritage, rather than the jingoistic nationalism that ‘India’ now seems to signify. We were surprised to find him one day in the kitchen, apparently teaching his intern, Ranjan to cook. Other co-workers also presumed he was making tea, but it turned out that he was boiling the starch for the warp threads!

min 14:02

The entrepreneurial spirit of the weavers is a striking element of Bhujodi. The first thing you find in almost every weaver’s home is a wall covered with national awards and certificates.
After the devastating earthquake of 2001, Kachchh was flooded with NGOs with developmentalist agendas. Also, design interventions have been brought in to cater to the aesthetic of distant urban markets. Some weavers have even converted their homes into shops that look like heritage villages, for the gaze of bused-in tourists. A local mining tycoon has funded the construction of a craft park in the town.
This mural, facing the main road of the town, could perhaps be read as a representation of this disconnect. It quotes a popular couplet of Kabir translated as, “A leaf falls from a tree, blown away by a gust of wind. When can those who have parted meet again, a great distance lies between them.”

min 14:13

Craft work rarely comes with a signature, because no one person can claim to have made it. It is born of social relations. Handloom textiles, for instance, require an ecosystem of cotton farmers, ginners, spinners, dyers, and weavers to produce the fabric. Designers and artists, on the other hand, make all this work of the artisans invisible by simply adding their signature to the final ‘product’.
Similarly, we could not help but notice the irony of this signature on the mural that appropriates Kabir’s cautionary lines about the futility of clinging on to the body whilst making a name for oneself. A quick internet search led us to the mural’s painter, Priya Krishnan Das.

min 14:24

The most complex designs that we encountered in Kachchh, that included narratives and portrayals of everyday life, were made on the most minimalist looms of Kharad weaving. Tejsibhai Dhana Marwada’s family is one of remaining few to practice the Kharad technique. Here, Tejsibhai’s youngest son Hirabhai kindly demonstrated the technique for the camera. The most striking feature was watching how the weft thread is routinely broken off and a different colour weft thread added, making it possible to produce such complex tapestry-like designs. The design is not the result of an extra weft technique but is the defined by the weft itself. It is the warp tension that holds the loom together so that once the carpet is woven, the loom falls apart. In Kabir’s language, the body falls and withers, while the soul-swan takes wing.

min 14:37

In this Kharad carpet, the narrative of sustainable energy is conveyed in three sections. Starting from the bottom, the erstwhile nomadic lifestyle of the Marwada community is depicted, then the rise of industry where a girl pleads with her father to not cut the tree (min 14:45), and finally the uppermost panel features the windmills that dot the Kachchh landscape.

min 15:39

One afternoon in Chirala, we took shelter from the rain in Gunturu Bravaramba’s home and watched her slave away at the pit loom in her veranda. We observed that the brown silk saree that she was weaving had strips of silver extra weft patterns at periodic intervals, controlled by a Jacquard mechanism, so we waited for this moment to arrive to capture the cards in motion. She sweated and worked feverishly hard for an hour before she was too exhausted to continue. She apologetically clarified that she was too old and hence could only manage a loom with 2 Jacquards. Each machine adds tremendous weight to the loom and the motors that run it make it unbearably hot to stand in the pit loom. Instead, she offered to take us to her relative’s house next door that had 4 Jacquard machines attached to the loom and was operated by a healthy young man. It was heartbreaking to hear her diminish her work.

min 17:23

In Sidur Colony, Chirala, we met the young Gundarapu Venkata Ramakrishna Sai, who proudly showed us his switch operated loom. The loom had 4-6 Jacquard machines attached to it plus the motor connected to the switches. As he showed-off the switches, he talked of the complex designs he is able to produce. When he saw that we were not only unimpressed but rather horrified he asked why we were opposed to mechanisation in handloom. A lengthy and heated debate ensued, a glimpse of which we included at min 20:00 onwards.

min 17:23

The song is a plea to not get trapped in worldly illusions using Kabir’s experience of the weaving world. It ends up, as most Kabir’s poems do, with a plea to recognise the eternal within oneself, the crafter of the loom! Having witnessed the plight of most Chirala weavers who are trapped and burdened by the weight of the Jacquard machines, we were cheered at meeting Bandaru Gangadhara Saibaba, a weaver who had the capacity to recognise that which is eternal. At the Chenetha Chethikalala Sambaralu: Conference on Innovating Technological Cultures in Craft and Handloom Weaving; Chirala, 11-18th November, 2018, Ellen Harlizius-Klück witnessed Bandaru Saibaba learn the complex code involved in the Laos brocade tapestry that Chanhsouck Phommalin was weaving, without a word being spoken between the two. More discussed at min 26:06

min 18:16

What Premjibhai says about living in close proximity with the singers and later hearing the music echo from within, also holds true of the sound and craft of weaving.

Years ago, Gauri had bought a Kachchhi stole from a crafts exhibition in Hyderabad which she thought would be appropriate to wear during the film shoot. From the pattern and Technique, the weavers instantly recognised that Murjibhai must have made it. We decided that the stole must meet it’s maker again. A discussion ensued with Murjibhai on the lines of who owns the stole and joked about the egoistic trap involved in owning things. He showed us his work, which was all run of the mill (excuse the expression), until we asked for only indigenous cotton and woollen shawls. Immediately, he produced this shawl that represents a satsang in a house with the music spreading across town. “Since it is our native wool, I thought I should depict our local identity and heritage” he said. Yet again, we realised that they are very capable of representing themselves. We wondered if he’d let us purchase the shawl as part of the film – making it a diptych. He consented but said that he was not very happy with this depiction of the satsang because it was an abstract idea that the medium flattened during the representation. For instance, the musical notes remained foreign in spite of his attempts to make them look like a tambura.

min 19:58

A common sight in Chirala, Sidur colony, where old, outdated and faulty punched cards (which encode the design in the Jacquard machines) are used to decorate or literally as in this case, build a wall around one’s house. The suspenseful music is on location sound of the neighbouring TV blaring a Telugu soap opera. Welcome to the Matrix!

min 20:25

In this discussion we clearly see the difference between the way the older generation understood our question and how the younger generation interpreted our intent. When asked the difference between the Jacquard designs and the ones they used to make by hand, the older weaver Gundarapu Kuppa Swamy tried to explain his embodied experience of being able to tell the difference just by seeing it. The younger weaver Aanam Naga Sankar only spoke of how the Jacquard makes the process faster, revealing the pressure to catch up with the quick turnaround time of the power looms. It is also a telling comment on a community of weavers which has conditioned itself to only define its identity in relation to the capacity of the machine du jour.

min 21:07

Here, the youngest member of the RCJS (Rashtra Chenetha Jana Samakhya, National Handloom Weavers Union), Mallikarjun, who sensitively guided our explorations throughout our time in Chirala, used the discussion as a pedagogical moment to tackle the issues of capitalism, furthered by the entrepreneurial master-weavers (actually small-time traders, and not artisans who weave) who employ most weavers as daily wage labourers, or as piece-rate workers. The pressures of the market force the weavers to make luxury silk sarees, that can be sold at a higher price along with the elaborate designs that the Jacquard machines make quickly. As a result, the everyday cotton fabrics with small buttas (extra-weft designs made by hand without the Jacquard machines) requires more work to market and sell per meter and hence is not seen as cost-effective. It was clear to us that the Jacquard was robbing and obliterating the wealth of knowledge that the weavers had for generations, even as it kept diminishing their practice into ever-shrinking niches.

min 21:26

Again, the generational divide elicits different responses to the livelihood versus knowledge debate. The older weaver, Gundarapu Kuppa Swamy ruefully recognised the loss of skill and increasing dependence on the Jacquard machines as a threat to their knowledge while the younger weaver Aanam Naga Sankar, who had worked in power loom industries, talked of the exhaustion and enervation that young weavers feel after a day of labour on the 4-Jacquard machines.

min 21:32

Macharla Mohan Rao is the founder president of RCJS (Rashtra Chenetha Jana Samakhya, National Handloom Weavers Union), the first independent trade union of handloom weavers in India. For the past three decades, he has led efforts to highlight the challenges faced by handloom and allied rural workers, in sustaining craft practices. The union has tirelessly worked to organize workers, and through mobilization, advocacy and research worked to reform public policy and market relations – highlighting major issues such as wage inequities, unsafe working conditions and unfair trade practices.
He also conceived of an innovative housing program for the most marginalized weavers. By combining public schemes for housing, and weaver specific work shed schemes, three colonies (including Sidur) were constructed. Conceived as a community housing project, weavers contributed their labour toward building the homes. These colonies stand to this day as testament to the ingenuity, resilience and hopes of the weavers, and serve as exemplars of resilient social infrastructure. When weavers from other parts of India toured these colonies, they remarked that they seemed like 5-star weaving villages.
Mohan Rao’s far-reaching intervention included not just homes and work sheds, but also kitchen gardens, and fruit bearing trees, so as to provide food security and better diets to these families.
Specifically in Sidur Colony, he worked to sanction the land in the name of the weavers and got them to physically build their own homes and kitchen gardens. His vision was that home ownership and food security would help protect weaving families from the capriciousness of capitalist forms of production.

min 26:14

To see the exchange between between Bandaru Gangadhara Saibaba of Chirala who weaves the plainest of plain cloth and Chanhsouck Phommalin of Laos, who weaves the most complex brocade tapestry, is to see ‘ulaṭbānsi’, the upturning of convention, in action. The exchange was filmed on one of the 8 days of the Chenetha Chethikalala Sambaralu: Conference on Innovating Technological Cultures in Craft and Handloom Weaving in Chirala in November 2018. We then showed this footage to Bandaru Saibaba in September 2021, and filmed his reaction. At the conference Bandaru Saibaba sat weaving at a two-pedal pit loom while Chanhsouck Phommalin set up his warp on the empty frame loom provided by the organisers.
Chanhsouck Phommalin’s mastery of pattern is extraordinary even among others of his kind. He carries them all in his head, he does not need the commonly used graph, and yet this great master has the generosity of spirit to share his knowledge with a weaver of plain cloth from another country, who he is meeting for the first time. Neither of the two speaks the other’s language. And yet we saw how the shared language of weaving made it possible for them to understand each other perfectly and share the joy of that wordless communication. Watching Chanhsouck Phommalin at work, Bandaru Saibaba could read the code as it was being written. Ellen Harlizius-Klück was struck by this unplanned exchange at the Chirala conference, an exchange that clearly showed the boundless possibilities of weaving.

min 29:50

Almost three years after the conference, we went to Chirala, opened our laptop in Bandaru Saibaba’s front yard, and showed him the footage of his interaction with the Laotian master at the Chirala conference. We then filmed his reaction. He was delighted; he hadn’t realised it had been caught on film. We asked him repeatedly to tell us what the nature of his exchange with Chanhsouck Phommalin was, but he insisted that it couldn’t be explained in words. Could he recreate the tapestry if we brought him the fabric? No, he would have to see how Chanhsouck Phommalin set up the loom. Would a detailed video help? Perhaps. He had tried to recreate it from memory but failed; it had worked best when Chanhsouck Phommalin was present and guiding him. What this proves is that such an exchange could not have been possible if the weavers had to converse through written or spoken language, it could only happen over the loom with the weavers physically present.

min 30.23

Our guide in Bhujodi, Kachchh was the oldest member of the mandali, Naranbhai Siju, who we met in the 2019 Gujarat Kabir Yatra, a music festival/pilgrimage organised by the renowned Gujarati poet Dhruv Bhatt. We travelled in villages of the Panchaal region, staying overnight in the homes of local people and attending satsangs all day. Just before attending the festival/pilgrimage we visited his son, Prakashbhai, who we had met earlier at the Chirala conference and was known to experiment with dying wool in natural indigo. We interviewed him on his journey in weaving, delighting in his brilliant design exchange with a weaver from Oaxaca, Mexico and were overall infected by his youthful enthusiasm. As we left, we mentioned the yatra and Prakashbhai introduced us to his father who was going to perform at the festival.
Here, Prakashbhai is unravelling the weft of a carpet that he was experimenting on to produce double the width that his frame loom allows with a fold in between. Something his father used to make, recalls Naranbhai. His wife Parulben Siju is using the bits of leftover wool to tie the tassels of another carpet.