Saturday, 9 April 2011

Souvenirs of India - and the International Jewellery Market

My earlier post on the globalisation of the souvenir notwithstanding, I did come back from India with a few souvenirs.

  • One Orissa painting of the Lord Krishna, showing his life in tiny scenes around the border.

  • One Madhubani painting of a tree inhabited by birds.

  • A set of tiny painted wooden birds (I have a set from Poland, which they go with), and a little painted Durga and Kali. Durga on her tiger. (I was told, by the way, that an image of Durga should always show the tiger with its mouth open, for luck.)

  • Two bansuri, a G and EE - nice little flutes which I really ought to learn to play properly. (A trip to Varanasi beckons... the best tuition is there, apparently.) It took the best part of half a day to locate the best shop in Udaipur and test the stock. One high, trilling, piercing flute and one deep, dark sounding flute. A nice pair.

They all mean something to me. Durga and Kali for instance are deities I respect, like Death in the Tarot, as representing creative destruction. The Lord Krishna I now know through devotees I met on my journey, and through the works of Meera Bai. And the flutes are also part of Lord Krishna's domain - besides which they have been added to my large collection of wind instruments from around the world.

I also came back with two shawls from Delhi, one very thick one in felted wool, and another woollen one. But that was because it was absolutely freezing, and I needed them badly (they doubled as a sleeping bag on night trains).

It was difficult to find good flutes. Hundreds are made for children to play (and break), or for tourists to take home as wall decorations, and they're simply not good enough for playing real music. They have rough fingerholes, which is not only cheap and nasty in effect, but spoils the tone by setting up disturbance in the bore. They have thick walls, which may make them robust but ruins the tone - I was shown by the master flute player I bought from (and yes, he really could play - an eyeopener as he demonstrated some of the techniques of tonguing and note-bending you can use on bansuri which aren't in the classical western flute repertory) how to look for thin walls on the deeper flutes, which make the tone warm and full.

But India is full of souvenirs I really didn't want. Tie dye T-shirts that are pieces of superannuated 1960s hippy culture, not Indian life. Palm-leaf etchings of the kama sutra. Tibetan singing bowls (the clue is in the word 'Tibetan'. As in, not Indian. Though I should really cut these guys some slack - the fact is that a great deal of the Indian tourist industry, particularly in the south of the country, now seems to be run by Tibetans and Nepalis.)

There also seems to be a creeping standardisation of  'India'. As every Indian and many visitors know, it's not a single place. For a start, it's divided by the Idli-Line, somewhat as Germany is divided by the Weisswurst-Equator; in the north, parathas and chapattis - in the south, idlies and dosas. No such thing as 'Indian' food. Regional loyalties are strong - I even found one kind of sweet that is only ever made and sold in Chittaurgarh. And yet there's a standardised, non-regional 'India' that you find in the tourist shops, that mixes Tibetan and Ladakhi and Kashmiri stuff with Orissan or Madhubani work and Jaipuri jewellery, a sort of mixed-up-melting-pot-India that represents neither Idli nor Chapatti, but rather a sort of gooey porridge.

And I found that Kashmiri embroidered kaftans are twice the price in Kochi that they are in Istanbul, where I bought my black wool one. How sad.

Part II - International jewellery markets and the stonecutters of Jaipur

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