Celebration of Everywoman
By Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath
A few minutes back, turning towards the camera, I stood waiting for my turn to enter the Banque Populaire Loire Et Lyonnais at Croix Rousse, although I could never possibly have an account there. Standing across the street a little later, I almost heard the woman laughing out loud as she walked down the stairs with her two children gamboling about or the man pushing a red Velov bicycle at the bottom of the steps to greet with a ‘bon jour’. What stood before me was a perfect 3D representation or a trompe l’oeil of a characteristic present day Croix Rousse layout, the erstwhile working class district of Lyon, complete with its steep stairs that open out from the streets with buildings and shops lining it.
It is said that the Mur Des Canut changes its face every ten years reflecting the life of a neighbourhood where the canuts, the silk workers lived. Probably that’s how long it takes to notice the perceptible changes that are natural with the passage of time. And then I think of Aita, my grandma, in a small town, Duliajan in Assam, sitting at her loom by the kitchen and the many neighbouring women who come in the afternoons to help each other with spooling the thread and stringing the loom with threads. Bowls of tea pass between them and the pithas make the rounds with bits and pieces of gossip and tips in weaving. Aita died more than a decade ago. The backyards no longer resemble their past and many have shrunk to make space for small scale tea gardens. In a recent work-related trip to one of the villages in Dhemaji, a district along the Brahmaputra, I realized that neither the looms had changed much nor the lives of the women who sat at them.
Of late I have been deliberating the many nuances that a journey reveals. As we walked along the streets and stopped by at the corners or under a shade to catch our breath and let the views settle in, I realized that there could probably be two ways of travelling. One is to be the flaneur, to soak in the sights and the experiences into a montage. The other is in retrospection, keeping all channels open, letting the past mingle with the present; juxtaposing the different cultures along some points of reference; letting memories of another space and time dance a little. New ideas and thoughts then weave in and out just like the music that flowed out of the punched cards of the street organ a musician was playing outside, towards the left of the Cathedrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon.
It was a novelty I couldn’t resist taking a picture of, only to realize later that when ideas flow out of confines and boundaries into public spaces, they morph and sometimes cluster together to take different shapes and change the face of the world. For that matter, even art when released from the confines of the high brows and galleries of a select few connoisseurs, takes on an endearing role. If it weren’t for innovative punched cards of the jacquard looms, the musician would have been tapping his fingers on the keys of the organ. Where would Charles Babbage have found his inspiration for the Analytical Engine, that pioneer of the modern day computer, if the Jacquard loom was yet unborn? It is with the same idea that a group of students in Lyon, it is said, argued against the closed door confines of art and thought it necessary to open it and bring it to the streets, closer to the common man. Art that touched the heart with its depiction of everyday life and in a space that remained unseen in the background while the man on the street went about his everyday work. Many blind walls of Lyon came alive with frescoes and murals of the common life. Some of those went a step ahead with the trompe l’oeil technique, the term technically translating into ‘to deceive the eye’. While this technique simply allowed the mural to be an extension of the everyday life for a Lyonnais, to the visitor, it beckoned looking them in the eye to be a part of the every person’s life here in this city at the confluence of Saone and the Rhone.
Sometime back I read an article how Lyon was once a polluted, industrial, and congested city in the 1920s. It was in the 70s that the mayor decided to brighten up spaces and a group of student artists traveled to Mexico to learn under Diego Rivera, who had developed a series of powerful murals that told the political stories of the city. Cite Creation, the organization responsible for Lyon’s murals, came into being as a student cooperative movement. They allocated certain dark areas of the city to mural artists. Of the sixty outdoor murals strewn across, it is this Mur Des Canuts that literally stands the tallest with 13000 sq ft of area, paying homage to a slice of life in the canut neighbourhood. But more than anything else, it was to give a sense of pride to the inhabitants of the city in their history and to celebrate their local identity.
Lyon was witness to three major revolts of the canuts in 1831, 1834, and 1848, stemming from demands for better wages and way of life for the exploited canuts, who worked long strenuous hours. These uprisings have been recognized as some of the major worker’s revolts during the Industrial Revolution. As a tribute to this part of history and in recognition of the contribution of the silk workers towards the glory of Lyon, a blind wall of a tall building in Croix Rousse was painted using trompe l’oeil technique. Its first version came up in 1987 and the one that reflects the neighbourhood now came up in 2003, having changed once in between in 1997. The versions change according to the organic evolution of the neighbourhood that includes ageing some of the previous characters seen in the mural and adding details to represent the changes accorded in a normal life. The young woman depicted walking down the stairs in the earlier version, now walks down with two children of her own. Children turning cartwheels have replaced the earlier depiction of mural artists working on the wall. On either sides of a flight of stairs, a ubiquitous feature of the Croix Rousse neighbourhood, are two buildings balancing the dual existence of the old and the new. A pink-toned almost rustic building of the old canut quarters with laundry hanging out of one of the many tall windows and a concrete staircase winding its way up to the top storey, exhibits the past way of life. Opposite it stands a modern building with balconies running around the floors and an artist on a wheel chair on the top floor working on his canvas.
It is this fascinating confluence of art and life that led us as we walked down the cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon, another old district of Lyon – strains of street side music following us around, the little patisseries that pulled us in with their aroma or let us troop through the traboules that had once allowed the runners with bolts of silk from the silk factories on top of the hill, rushing down to meet the merchant’s deadline. One little turn led us to a group of musicians playing out foot-stomping music and we could see where that energy came from. It was the synergy of the applause of onlookers and the sudden intricacies of melody the lead saxophonist was playing. Barefoot, she clearly was one with the music she was playing out to the galleries. It was difficult to extricate ourselves from the charm she held all of us in.
It was another bend that excited and delighted us as I took a double track back to a glass window to see two saree-clad women bent over their paintings. Passers-by stopped to watch them fill colours into their Warli art. As I introduced myself, their faces brightened up with joy and they admitted it was speaking to a fellow countryman in a shared language that made them so happy. They had been in Lyon for a month and had been brought to the city by a French patron of Indian art who was keen on showcasing this indigenous art from India. Amidst the old quarters of Lyon, the Warli paintings did seem to have an air of exoticism around them and held themselves with dignity and grace. In Lyon, the representation of a part of the collective cultural richness of India put a skip in my step even when no music followed us around.
The warp and the weft in my memory were already criss-crossing with their many strands. Standing there across Boulevard des Canuts, for that’s where one needs to be, to get the full view of the 13000 sq ft Mur Des Canuts, I wondered if there was a mural in Assam exhibiting the life of the home weavers, which every woman in Assam was once upon a time, cutting across all social strata, what would it bring into colour for the visitors to gaze at? This largest fresco in Europe is a tribute to the silk workers of the city whose products were once patronized by the royals and wealthy merchants. It was a trade that was introduced to counter the exorbitantly priced Italian silk and those coming in from Asia and which flourished till the 19th century.
It set me thinking that the canuts and their neighbourhood rose to prominence in the modern day tourist circuit because they contributed to the commerce of the country sending the cash registers ringing. From background screens as workers, they wrenched their position in history with the three volatile uprisings demanding better wages when pay cuts pushed them against the wall. Could it also have helped that they were all men? The women back home in Assam had a rudimentary loom, usually next to the kitchen, with a shed overhead to protect them from the monsoon rains or other unpredictable showers. So while the food was cooking on the woodfire stove or simmering to blend in all the flavours, the women quickly sent the shuttle flying a few times between the warp. They did not bring in the cash but they saved some of those from circulating to others – after all a fabric is made thread by thread as every penny counts.
There are no public celebrations of their skills, only motifs and memories passed down from mother to daughter. Aita let me sit by her side at the loom. She waited for me as I slid the maku between the warp held taut by the loom frame and pushed her feet on the pedal. She let me sweep the comb to bring the weft closer to the cloth that was emerging out of this warp and the weft crossing over one another. She simply asked me to be careful of breaking the threads, which my inexperienced hands did break. All it took my Aita was to get up and go to the other side of the loom, identify the problem and retie the snapped threads. My nomadic urban dwellings did not allow me to pick up this legacy.
After days of weaving, she unwound a fabric that would either be a mekhela with its two ends stitched, a sador to wrap around the torso with, a gamusa maybe to offer to a visiting guest or during Bihu. Sometimes my eldest aunt or my mother sat at the loom to ‘lend a hand’ in completing the piece. I had seen this gesture often between women, who took up a sweater in progress or a design emerging from an embroidery frame as the hostess got up to brew a cup of tea or check on some errand. During one of my visits, Aita once presented me with a hand-woven cotton mekhela sador in pink, just my size as a child, complete with motifs and the ends tasseled neatly. I remember wearing it over a frock with the mekhela tucked into a string tied around my waist. I still have this hand-woven piece although it has frayed at the edges.
The glory of Assam’s silk and the fine weaving have been alluded to in many ancient texts, including Kautilya’s accounts, especially the golden silk, Muga, the rare and unique silk from Assam. If I had mentioned this to my grandma then, she would have simply set it aside with a nod and continued to chew on her tamul paan, while sending the shuttle sliding across the warp. If I mention it to the women now in Dhemaji, they would probably look at me with puzzled faces. It really didn’t matter to them, this glory of the past. Weaving is a skill they have inherited. It is a skill they utilize to meet their own immediate necessities and occasionally to sell a few odd sadors or gamusas. For the majority of these women, looms have not seen any changes with time; the Jacquard is a long way off for many. There have been changes in the present times with NGOs and self-help groups working with them.
Chugging my way across the Brahmaputra on a country boat to Dhemaji, I look into its waters, which also carry the sediments and the waters of its many tributaries, I wonder if there ever was an art-piece to celebrate the lives of these women weavers, what would their hearts be filled with? Perhaps if their meditations on the loom travelled, they would receive the same love across time and space. An art to celebrate the life of everywoman.
Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath is a writer based in New Delhi. She has worked on television and radio as a presenter, narrator for documentaries, trained corporate employees in effective communications. She has contributed travel articles for many journals, both print and digital. Most recently her short fictions have been included in Jaggery Lit and in two anthologies, The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 published by Singapore based Kitaab International Pvt Ltd and The Others published by Storymirrors.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.