Saturday, May 18, 2024

Geopolitics in a rug | Pavitra Rajaram’s carpet collection for Jaipur Rugs

A carpet is not the first place you’d turn to for a lesson in modern geopolitics. Unless you’re looking at the Afghan war rug. Made in Sheberghan, a city in north Afghanistan, and Afghan settlements in Pakistan, these carpets — with motifs of tanks, artillery, machine guns: symbols of violence — began to appear in the marketplace after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Afghan war rugs continue to be big sellers in the global souvenir market, despite the fact that they aren’t decorative. It is their folksy origins that piqued designer Pavitra Rajaram’s interest, but as she dug deeper, she was even more intrigued by what they communicate about design as history. “We always have this western way of understanding history,” says Rajaram, days before she jets off to Milan to unveil Majnun, a capsule collection designed for Jaipur Rugs, at the prestigious Salone del Mobile. “We think if it’s not written in a book, it’s not linear, it’s not a record. But the fact is that we also record culture in music, dance, decorative objects, craft.”

Designer Pavitra Rajaram

Designer Pavitra Rajaram

The war rug is a direct inspiration for one of the five carpets Rajaram has designed for Majnun — but with an “ambitious” twist. “In the style of the Afghan war carpet, I show a sepoy in uniform, but scattered around him are flowers which represent hill stations,” she says. “The term ‘hill station’ is unique to India. It was born because the British went to these cooler places, and to get there, they had to build railroads. ‘Sipahi’ [the carpet] then becomes a story about India’s colonial history.”

Sipahi

Sipahi

Five stories woven in wool and silk

For Majnun, Rajaram has taken five iconic carpet traditions from across the subcontinent, Asia and Asia Minor, and explored them in a contemporary idiom. There is ‘Arjumand’, a traditional Persian Kashmiri carpet, named after Mumtaz Mahal. It is inspired by the Mughal gardens of Kashmir, but in Rajaram’s work, it also has elements of Chinese scroll paintings, such as clouds and the willow tree. Woven into this carpet is a conversation on the Silk Road.

Arjumand

Arjumand
| Photo Credit:
Hashim Badani

The shikargah, which has its origins in mediaeval Iran, and came to India through our Persian and — “I know it’s a bad word to say these days, but…” — Mughal ancestry, also gets a 21st century update. Instead of scenes of the hunt, such as tigers killing antelopes, Rajaram’s shikargah depicts animals living in harmony with each other. “It speaks to our 21st century attitude to the jungle: to converse, preserve, sustain.”

The shikargah

The shikargah

There’s a modern version of the Yarkhandi, which is a unique tradition with a fascinating origin story dating back to the Ladakh war of the 17th century, where a fight for rights over the pashmina goat between Ladakh and Tibet — supported by the Mughals and the Mongols respectively — ended in a treaty that commanded that carpets were to be woven together. “From that came a carpet tradition that incorporates Kashmiri, Tibetan and Chinese motifs,” she says.

The Yarkhandi

The Yarkhandi
| Photo Credit:
Hashim Badani

With Majnun, Rajaram’s impulse has been to demonstrate how “these may seem like different, separate histories, but there are threads that hold them together as ideas.” It’s why she fuses the chintamani — the ‘three pearls of wisdom’ motif embraced by Ottoman kings in the 14th-15th century but that, as Rajaram explains, originated in Shakya Buddhism, during the Gandhara period — with the tiger stripes and leopard spots of tantric Tibetan rugs.

Chintamani fused with tantric Tibetan motifs

Chintamani fused with tantric Tibetan motifs
| Photo Credit:
Hashim Badani

Need of the times

Majnun (featuring two colour ways for each design) will be Jaipur Rugs’ second exhibition at the Salone del Mobile. In summer 2022, the brand unveiled the Brahmaand collection, designed by Ashiesh Shah, shortly after which it opened its flagship store in Milan. But this will be a first for Rajaram, who helmed Good Earth’s luxury design for 25 years before returning to product development independently.

Rajaram’s collection

Rajaram’s collection
| Photo Credit:
Hashim Badani

The Silk Road has always been a source of inspiration for Rajaram. “I’ve always imagined that when people meet on the road, they don’t just exchange goods. It’s not just commerce. They also exchange ideas, thoughts — they take back things they like from those merchandise.” But this collection goes beyond that, asserts the champion of ‘slow design’. “I’ve been researching the Tholu Bommalata puppets of Andhra Pradesh, and I’ve realised they have strong linkages to Indonesia, and the spread of Hinduism in the East. I think that, as my practice has evolved, it has now become about mapping design histories, finding these cultural linkages and expressing them in a contemporary way.”

Does she find it ironic that she’s talking about the indelibility of history at a time when whole chapters of time are being exiled out of syllabus? “We’re all political,” she says. “I think the narrative of the moment is [trying to find] what is not true. The reality of India is that we have been syncretic for 3,000 years. My husband is Kerala Christian, and traces his roots back to a family that came to Muziris in the 4th century. Is he not Indian?”

Design and creative people are needed in today’s atmosphere, says Rajaram, “because more than ever before, we need to be able to tell these stories, and be able to show in a beautiful and joyous way, exactly how syncretic our history is”.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, writing on culture, lifestyle and technology.

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