Ahara directly translates as “food” in many South Indian languages such as Kannada and Telugu. Food is an essential part of our daily lives, yet something that has been an inspiration for artists, designers and craftsmen for its multisensory aspects. Whether for ordinary or special occasions, food “is a vehicle for expressing friendship, for smoothing social interaction and for showing concern.”1 Weaving, like cooking and eating food, also symbolizes social relationships and has become a central part of many communities in India. Throughout history, cooking and weaving have been instrumental in creating a strong social experience.
In Aspura, a village about 70 kilometers from Jaipur, cooking and carpet weaving skills which are mostly carried out by women, are important daily activities passed on from generation to generation. Both activities are opportunities for family members and the community to get together to share and exchange knowledge in the spirit of cooperation, support, and reciprocity. A large part of the day is spent discussing what meal to cook, how to prepare it, what ingredients are available and what needs to be bought. This is intertwined with thoughts and discussions on what yarn to use for weaving rugs, what needs to be ordered, what designs to create, and how to make it. Both activities “strongly affect the social relationships and act as a method of cultural exchange.”2 The Ahara project thus explored ways to creatively amalgamate the two activities that form an integral part of the community in Aspura.
Flavors, Colors, Motifs
Through the Jaipur Rugs Foundation that empowers rug weaving communities in India, 75 women artisans in Aspura weave rugs on a daily basis as a means to transform their lives and the lives of those around them. The youngest of them, 24-year old Bugli, has learned this craft from her mother who had learned it from her own mother. When Bugli’s father was alive, her mother wove rugs mainly for her own use, whether it be to give as gifts or as secondary income to her father’s seasonal earnings as an agriculturist. After her father passed away five years ago, Bugli learnt the craft from her mother so the family has constant earnings throughout the year.
Through the foundation’s initiative Manchaha, which literally means “from the heart”, weavers are given the freedom to weave, not on the basis of a mapped design as was the norm, but to create something of their own. With this in mind and with an aim to challenge the traditional design process where the designer directs the craftsmen to create a product, the Ahara project began as a co-design initiative. Its aim is to encourage empowerment through inclusivity and non-authoritative design principles, allowing artisans and designers to collaborate together from design conception to completion.
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Living with Bugli and her family allowed me to me to understand how their personal dimension and their weaving processes were intrinsically intertwined, which motivated me to find ways for her family and community to take equal part in the design and research processes.
I soon realised that both cooking and weaving is an echo of what their ancestors had passed on to them as forms of nonverbal communication. From giver to receiver, colors and motifs that are woven into rugs can be vessels to relay emotions and messages, as can flavors and food ingredients. Whether for a family member, a friend, a client, or for a total stranger, they are able to be fully dedicated to these activities because of their culture of gratitude and their ancestors’ teachings that the well-being of one is linked to the well being of another. I experienced this honor firsthand when Bugli and her family welcomed me with enthusiasm and warmth even though they didn’t know me.
to the Sacred
Bugli lives with her mother, two brothers, sister-in-law, a niece and a nephew in a three-bedroom courtyard house. The spatial design of the weaver’s house is integral to their lifestyle which combines caring for their homes and family with weaving rugs during their free time. The rooms are flanked by beautiful blue walls and most weaving-related activities transpire there. Gathering and eating happen in the central courtyard space. During hot summers, the courtyard is also used for sleeping and cooking.
Upon entering the house, one encounters a weaving area on the right that opens into the courtyard where another loom for Bugli’s sister-in-law Suman is installed. Their day begins at 5 a.m. when the women of the house awake to wash and clean the courtyard and rooms, as well as prepare tea and a light breakfast before the men and children wake up to get ready to go to work and to school. Once the morning chores are complete, Bugli’s mother goes to work in the fields while Bugli and Suman weave rugs. They take breaks to make tea, discuss what to cook, or purchase vegetables for lunch and dinner from the vendor who passes before noon. A visit to the neighbours to discuss what they are cooking or weaving and to offer any needed help in design or weaving techniques is also part of their daily ritual.
According to Bugli, it is believed that activities passed on from generations are a gift and a way to marry the mundane to the sacred. This is reflected not just in their daily rituals but also in their ceremonial activities.
Having observed the connection between cooking and weaving in their daily lives, I proposed the project Ahara to Bugli. She began by enthusiastically exchanging recipes that had been passed on to her by her mother and grandmother and proposed that some of these could be woven onto the rug. One of the first recipes she shared was for mangodi, a dried condiment that is prepared using split pulses and is a favorite dish amongst her family and a popular one in her culture. Bugli explained that since they live in a dry and arid land, vegetable and pulses are preserved by dehydrating them.
She wanted to weave this dish and its creation process onto the rug. With this as an inspiration, we started by using painting as a medium to express what food means to Bugli and other weavers. Most picked their favourite food and started to converse amongst themselves about who passed on the recipes to them, how it was made by their mother or grandmother, how different it is now, and most importantly how they could be represented in a painting. This exercise started with Bugli and her sister-in-law Suman. Soon, we were joined by her curious neighbours and friends who wanted to be a part of the process. This informed the design of the rug.
The colors of the ingredients of the dish were chosen as colors for the painting, including red for chili and yellow for turmeric. These colors also informed the colour of the yarn that would be used. Instead of using paint brushes, they used the kitchen tools they use for making that particular dish. This alternative way of using kitchen tools to create art inspired conversations among the weavers and led them to create magical patterns. They were excited to document their local food in this manner. The patterns became a vehicle to build the story for the rug design. After the warping process had taken place, Bugli started weaving.
Onto the Rug
Before the weaving process began on the third day, we discussed how we could interpret the painting onto the rug and she took me to visit the field where her mother works, so that I could understand the surroundings that inspired her rug design. “My mother has been working in the fields ever since I was a child, and food comes from the fields, so I am going to weave that first.” Their ancestors never bought grains or vegetables: they cooked with what they had grown themselves. Likewise, the rugs their ancestors wove were not sold but were reserved for personal use or as gifts. “This system does not exist anymore. Now it is all based on earning money,” Bugli’s mother lamented.
Bugli also took me to visit skilled weavers in the neighbourhood to get their advice on how we could interpret the paintings on the loom. After finishing her morning chores and breakfast, Bugli and Kisan started the warping process. Once the loom was set up to the size of the rug, Bugli made the first knot, following rhythmically from left to right, line by line, to create patterns that represented the fields. For a skilled weaver, the intricate and complex process of making 10,000 knots involves about a day’s work. A fairly good quality rug will have over 80 knots per square inch.
After weaving the agricultural field pattern on the rug, Bugli was inspired by her pet goat, Sonu, who provides their family with milk, butter and ghee. Observation drawings were made to explore how this could be translated onto the rug. Conversations that flowed day after day became the layers for the carpet design. We often had her family members, neighbours and friends join in to give us feedback on the design, exchange ideas, with many offering to be a part of the project. Her friends came in to weave during their free time, inspired by the paintings they had created in the previous week.
Bugli’s sister-in-law, Suman, started to bring in her ideas to weave alongside Bugli. They both wove their favourite dishes to cook and eat, as well as ingredients onto the rug: palak paneer, a popular spinach and Indian cheese, for Bugli; samosas for Suman; and ingredients such as chili, coriander, coconut, mustard seeds and other traditional dishes that were passed on to them by their ancestors.
The design evolved each day and was seamlessly tied together like two pages of an art book: Bugli’s on one side, Suman’s on the other side, with contributions by friends. After each motif, we collectively discussed next steps, and how it will inform and connect the previous motifs. The translation of the idea to weave pattern was sometimes challenging because obtaining certain shapes while knotting without a map can be difficult. For instance, one of the recipes had onion as a key ingredient; but both Bugli and Suman had not woven a circle before and found it difficult to weave . Other weavers offered to help but upon discussion and trial and error, they realised that a map was needed in order to weave a perfect onion shape. In such cases, we avoided complicated designs and moved on to those that were simpler. As we progressed, ingredients, ceremonial and everyday dishes, as well as methods and tools required to make them, were woven.
The focus of the Ahara project was to explore food as artistic inspiration and to generate sensitivity and connection towards experiences that fill our daily lives. It was an experiment to show how designers and artisans can connect and collaborate creatively to translate conversations around a common topic such as food. The rug was a result of this reciprocity and shared understanding that cooking and weaving “is a way of life and a state of mind, not a set of actions”3 for the families of Aspura. Weaving was not conducted according to a specific plan, rules, or guidelines. Their intuition guided them. Mistakes were celebrated, and weaving evolved organically, inch by inch, making it meditative in many ways.
1. Fieldhouse, Paul. 1995. “Social functions of food.” In Food and Nutrition, 78. Boston, MA: Springer.
2. McCauley, Abagael. 2012. “Food as a Catalyst for Social Interaction: How. One Meal Changed My Life.” Last accessed July 15th 2020.
3. Aspen Institute. 2020. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/weave-the-social-fabric-initiative/.
Kshitija Mruthyunjaya is an architect, designer and artist. After completing her bachelor's degree in Architecture in Bangalore, India, she moved to the UK where she pursued an M.A. in Regeneration and Development and an M. Arch. (RIBA Part 2). She worked for a leading firm in Bath, for several years before moving to Milan to pursue her Masters in Design. Apart from architecture and design, her passions include research and writing. She collaborates with not-for-profit organizations and local artisans in India to keep traditional crafts alive and to support economically challenged communities. Her main goal is to use her skills and knowledge in design as a regenerative action to create conscious and inclusive communities.
Jaipur Rugs Foundation is an initiative established by NK Chaudhary in 2004. Its key mission is to serve as a social innovator to promote the causes of artisans by providing job opportunities and enabling economic independence among rural societies. It trains rural populations in rug weaving skills so that they may become home-based artisans. Today, it has a network of around 40,000 artisans spread across five states of India who work with dignity.
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