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THE DIVINE FABRIC

Gujarat has polarized public opinion in India for a few years now. The man who is credited with ushering in prosperity in Gujarat is tipped to lead the nation after the next general elections. His critics, however, scoff at his economics. They also allege that his politics is divisive. Unfortunately, frenzied discussions about this messianic political figure from Gujarat have completely eclipsed the stateís other, more valuable, contributions to India. How many of us remember that Gujarat remains a rich source of folk art and matchless craftsmanship?

TEMPLE TENTS FOR GODDESSES IN GUJARAT, INDIA (Niyogi, Rs 2,995), Eberhard Fischerís erudite monograph on the exquisitely painted and printed canopies and blinds used in ceremonies of worship of local deities, is a timely reminder of this legacy. Fischerís examination of diverse, but localized, community art is a laudable attempt to retrieve its forms from obscurity. A catalogue prepared by the author in collaboration with two researchers for an exhibition in a Zurich museum in 1982 forms the basis of this work.

But this isnít merely a case of translation. Fischer has revised the research material, added illustrations from slides taken during fieldwork and catalogued the exhibits individually, thereby lending greater depth and detail to the book. The attention to detail is most evident in the section that introduces the 52 specimens of the matano chandarvo textiles. The accuracy with which Fischer pieces together a narrative from what appears to be a chaotic jumble of motifs in, say, a painted chandarvo dating back to 18th-early 19th century from Bharucha bears testimony to Fischerís skills as a cultural anthropologist.

The other parts of the book, each neatly organized around a chosen theme, retain this quality of precision. Included here are compelling ethnographic accounts of the life and times of the Vaghri community ó printers, painters and manufacturers of chandarvo hangings ó hailing from Ahmedabad, Saurashtra and Jambusar, respectively. Personal accounts ó the story of Vaghi, a printer from Ahmedabad, for instance ó offer perceptive glimpses of not just hardship but also customs integral to the community. The daunting economic challenges facing the Vaghri people provide ample proof that even the much-vaunted Gujarat model has done nothing to mend the cracks in State welfare through which underprivileged communities disappear.

Producing a chandarvo is an intricate process. An entire section has been devoted to the technique of production. The information related to such technical aspects as the choice of material, the washing, seasoning and bleaching of the cloth, printing and dyeing and the sale of these textiles is quite instructive. The chapters that discuss the mythological and legendary figures which form the iconography of the chandarvo are as engaging. Significantly, the iconography displays a harmonious blend of animistic traits with deities and figures associated with Hinduism and the epics.

Fischerís book will be appreciated by scholars and the cerebrally inclined. Lay readers may view his narrative style as pedantic. But the illustrations should muffle such uninformed criticism.

The importance of a book like Temple Tents is two-fold. First, it adds to the inventory of Indiaís folk arts that exist on the fringes of the national consciousness. Second, it also reveals the extent of the threat that a global society poses to indigenous artistic traditions. An anthropologist in search of an endangered textile is not very different from an archaeologist in search of a lost civilization.

Left is a reproduction of a portion of a chandarvo from Saurashtra, while top depicts a shrine with a mural in a village near Jambusar. Below it, one sees magic being created on cloth.