Published in Now! Jakarta, August 2009



Sleeping out is a big part of daily life for many poorer Gujaratis!

Last month I discovered some very interesting facts about Gujarat in India, a state I’d always wanted to visit.
I learned that Gujaratis have been trading textiles with Indonesia since the 12th Century. (The double-ikat gringsing cloth of Bali is descended from the Paola cloth of India for example).
In the 10th century the Parsees come to Gujarat from Persia, bringing trading skills which enhanced the already skillful trading populace.
The campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi, a Gujarati, were sponsored by Gujarati traders as were many of India’s finest construction projects—moder‑n buildings by International architects such as Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier.
Ahmedabad the capital, is well laid out and relatively unchaotic for an Indian city. Despite the desert climate, the roads are lined with Neem and Tamarind trees; water is diverted from Maharastra in the South to keep full the wide river which dissects the city (In this way it resembles Isfahan in Persia).


Corner of the exquisite 14th century Siddi Syed Mosque in the walled city, Ahmedabad.

A column base at the beautifully detailed Siddi Syed Mosque.

Front façade

Ceiling detail of the Siddi Syed Mosque.

A small ancestor shrine at M.G. House hotel, Ahmedabad.

La Golconda.

The old walled city and the original Moslem citadel date from the 13th century. The old city contains some exquisite mosques (many in the open, Persian style) and mausoleums. The most celebrated mosque, the Siddi Syed, was fashioned from local sandstone, by Yemeni slaves in the 14th century at a time when the spice trade between Java, Sumatra and Yemen was flourishing. To this day Java annually still exports thousands of tons of sarongs to Yemen, annually.  And to this day the fine silk sarong manufacturers of Gresik, East Java send their best pieces to the royal houses of Saudi Arabia.
One can easily recognize the descendents of Yemeni traders in the Arab quarters of major cities like Surabaya and Jakarta.

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Southern Indians affect a dislike for the Gujaratis’ vocal volume surges (they can talk!!) and nouveau riche behaviour.  But on the whole I found the Gujaratis civilized and warm and very vegetarian.
In Ahmedabad I stayed in a brilliant boutique hotel, M.G. House, opposite the old mosque. It was a former haveli, a merchant’s mansion, of which many still survive in Ahmedabad; and many are very grand indeed (an Indian friend once called the Kraton Hamengkubuwono in Yogyakarta an haveli).
The M.G. House had an intriguing Indian restaurant on the roof terrace, a lavish lotus-themed indoor pool, vast Belgian Belle Époques suites and the best vegetarian food I have ever tasted.
From the hotel one can take a ‘Heritage Tour’ of the old city (and iPod guide is supplied) which includes the old citadel-fort—of which, sadly, only a corner remains—and an intriguing cavalcade of mogul-era lanes and bazaars, mosques and mausoleums.


The suicide-bomber-on-a-Vespa look, so popular on the streets of Ahmedabad today.

Artist Amit Ambalal in his studio in Ahmedabad. Behind him a row of his crow statues.

For architecture voyeurs Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management on the outskirts of the city is a must visit: Kahn’s take on the boxy medina-style, flat-roofed houses of Gujarat is a poetic masterpiece, all in local brick. He is the 20th century master of low-rise, low-rent brick clusters. The campus is set in a huge woodland of Eucalypts and Acacias.
The highlight of any architectural tour of Ahmedabad is a visit to the Calico Museum on the estate of the owners of the legendary Calico Cotton Mills, one of Gujarat’s oldest. The sprawling museum is housed in compounds of traditional Gujarati houses, naturally ventilated, with cow dung floors. It is set in a large garden with a fine collection of palms and water plants. The textile collection is extraordinary—featuring tents, costumes, banners and saris from all over India.
The museum is run with an iron first. As our small group was being herded around the halls with military precision I was reminded how chintz and supplementary embroidery often attract the most Valkyrie-like matrons!!


Death of Vali; Rama and Laksmana Wait Out the Monsoon. From the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas (1532 – 1623). Courtesy British Museum.

15th June 2009, To the British Museum for a exhibition of Rajastani Art:  Garden and Cosmos: the Royal  Paintings of Jodpur.
At this extraordinary exhibition I discover one painting with clouds painted just like the mega-mendung motif in Cirebon paintings and batik (see image this page).
Is it possible that this is a Mughal Indian motif and not a Tibetan or Chinese one, as has always been presumed?

17th June 2009: A living treasure
I visit the studio of Ahmedabad’s top artist Amit Ambalal who last year spent two weeks painting in Ubud, Bali. His Bali canvases are vibrant and very Balinese—playful, colourful, mystical—and he remembers his time in Indonesia with great affection.  
“What do you think about Indonesian painters” I ask him.
“Indonesian art is where Indian art was 40 years ago” he answers, “still struggling with the ‘shackles’ of strong local traditions; still trying too hard to be ‘modern’.”

Amit Ambalal’s paintings of Bali.

Art critic Gayatri Sinha writes in his book on Amit Ambalal about Amit’s experience in Bali:
“Bali with its petrification of the past, its thriving tourism and its residual atavism provides Amit with fluid frames of time. Hinduism in Bali has some archaic manifestations; the Hindu Majapahit Empire (1293-1520) on eastern Java founded a colony in Bali in 1343. In times of war, it was to Bali that artists and intellectuals, poets and artisans fled, creating a fecund kingdom of performance and ritual sites.”
I tell Amit about the ancient textile links between Bali and Gujarat and he brings out a 13th Century (carbon-dated) piece of Gujarati block-print textile found in Makassar and gifted to him in Bali, last year.

19th June 2009 : To Hyderabad to visit my three Balinese Supervisors slaving away in the gardens (mostly dust) at the Falaknuma Palace (The former palace of the Nizam)

Projects in India take soooo very long that one’s clients undergo complete life changes. My dream client in Hyderabad Andra Pradesh—the sister city of  Ahmedabad—has, in the five years we have worked on her haveli style home, undergone quite a transformation from being local darling, to full blown International Fashion Goddess (see photo).
A learned Indian scholar once told me, “‘Andra’ lips were mentioned in the Mahabaratha,” as we were admiring Pinky-Madam’s classic Andra visage.


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