In the ancient modernopolis of Ahmedabad, India, lives a singular man of towering guru-like presence, godly white ponytails, and two extraordinarily long thumbnails. Erroll Pires has devoted his life to ply-split braiding, a traditional technique utilized to make camel belts. He has refined, transmuted, and reinvented its usage for over 30 years in what some would call an obsessive dedication, purposefully refusing the boundary between art and object. His repertoire now extends from traditional camel belts to avant-garde three-dimensional objects and seamless dresses. His tools: his hands. His universe: the magnificent explosion of braided colors.
How had a man who once led the hectic and pressured life of a textile designer, so gracefully transform into an ancient soul embodying the simplicity of the desert and the generosity of a guardian angel? For those of us willfully enslaved to today's reality of 'too many' -- choices, devices, interests, tasks to accomplish--, this is a curious disposition that is both aspirational and enviable.
The confluence of events and people in life often instigate profound change and compels us in directions previously unimagined. For Erroll. the impetus came from the pre-eminent British artist and master weaver Peter Collingwood, his beloved mother, and his ply-split braiding master Shri Ishwar Singh Bhatti of the Jaisalmer desert. The camel belt, as a result, became his story and a force that has shaped his life philosophy. This is a story of what it means to become–and be–a craftsperson.
Impelled by a desire to research an uncommon topic and a technique off the beaten track, Erroll's first encounter with the camel belt marked a moment of epiphany. A mix of ensuing fascination and restlessness led him to journey out to Jaisalmer Rajasthan, where supposedly camel belts were still being crafted. However, the search for a camel belt maker was certainly not a simple straightforward quest. The wrong pair of shoes for the desert, language barriers, elusiveness of the locals, the never-ending search for the right door are part of the universal tragicomedy experience one resigns to when treading on non-native land. But persistence and fortuitousness finally led to the first teacher, then eventually to Ishwar Singh Bhatti who became a key figure in Erroll's apprenticeship and lifeship.
A typical day would start out in the morning where he would accompany his teacher to feed the animals. Then, he would have a class with him, observing him, photographing him. Ishwarbhai would then leave for his job at the collector's office; Erroll would go into the town; they would then meet during lunch to attend to camel belt weaving. In the afternoon, Ishwarbhai would go back to the office, and they would reunite in the evening to continue their weaving.
This daily ritual created a bond between them and affirmed the pupil's earnestness to learn the craft. "Most people's approach to crafts is to come around, take a picture, then leave. Even people in the town were wondering who is this guy who comes, then disappears, then comes and disappears again. And what's the relationship between these two people?"
Within a circle of craftsmen, acceptance of a stranger, especially from the city, does not happen overnight. Only after many years of observing the work he was doing with his master, had acceptance finally arrived. "They always used to make fun of me. 'What will this guy learn? He doesn't even use a hook, he uses his nails...' I was in the midst of all their jokes. I even had to smoke their beedies which were strong enough to kill a horse. But that was the journey."
"How long have camel belts existed?" Ishwarbhai's elder brother Pirdan Singh just smiled and replied to him, "Since mankind started to work with camels."
The goat hair camel belt stretches with the movement of the animal and does not cut into its skin, whereas the canvas and leather used in modern productions has less flexibility.
All the patterning know-how is in the head. "No sketches or drawings, no planning on paper. It's just incredible how a craftsperson operates."
"Out there in such harsh terrain, the simplicity with which they live, I think it's a life of high order."
According to Erroll, Pirdan Singh was even a greater master than his younger brother. But he stopped doing it simply because he is SO satisfied with life. Not even the prospect of being nominated for the coveted National Master Craftsperson Award would make him be wanting. Is this how a state of nirvana feels like?
One day, Erroll followed him from his home, and saw him dump waste yarn. He watched Pirdan Singh have chai with his friend and then spin his own cord. Perplexed, Erroll asked him why he wouldn't simply go into the market and buy one. He replied, "If I go into the market, first it's going to cost me money. But even if I can afford that money, and I make that spring bed, if it's not satisfactory, then I have to go and blame somebody. But if I spin my own cord and make a spring bed, and if it doesn't turn out well, I only have to blame myself."
Traditionally, a master craftsman could take anywhere from 3 months to 1.5 years to make a good goat hair belt that would outlast him. There was no sense of hurry. However, this art of belt making is vanishing in Jaisalmer due to growing urbanization, which reduces nomadic life, and the onset of speedier production of canvas or leather-made versions. Who wants to make something that takes so long?
"Young students these days have too many choices and seek instant results without the patience to go through the hard work. I used to start classes at 7:30 in morning. In the beginning there woud be 20 students, then 15, by the end there would be almost none. They were too fascinated with the finished product without realizing all that goes into getting there."
Hard work, intensive research, and patience led him to a form of enlightenment one fine night. During one of his 14-hour late nights, the camel belt "revealed itself" to him, unveiling all the most complex structures in the world of textiles which his mind's eye was able to replicate. This can be compared to a form meditation, an entering into the zone, the flow, a state with which artists and craftspersons are so familiar. The one-track focus unclutters the mind and spirit to make space for things that one could not have realized before. "For craftspeople, that's what life is all about. We have to undrain and unlearn ourselves from our previous mindset in particular training in order to get into the frame of mind of a craftsperson."
Throughout his years training with Ishwarbhai, Erroll lived with a certain sense of guilt toward the man who so selflessly taught him what he knew. One thing he learned from the master was to never allow monetary transactions between pupil and teacher. "It is the rudest form. Instead, do something kind. Bring gifts of fruits or vegetables,or something which would come in useful." Yet it is hard for a craftsperson to live from his art and additional sources of income, such as working in offices or taking tourists around to shops to earn commission, is the reality.
However, the universe had a plan and an unexpected opportunity presented itself–Erroll was to recommend a craftsman for the National Master Craftsperson Award. After long arduous maneuvers through obstacles and constraints of the award requirements, his earnestness eventually paid off and his teacher was awarded. Media attention, events, and funding were provided for him so that he could acquire a piece of land and build his home.
"Finally, I could breath more normally knowing that I was able to reciprocate this man's selfless generosity."
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Erroll Pires is a celebrated contemporary ply-split braider based in Ahmedabad. He was a faculty member of textile department at the National Institute of Design (NID) of Ahmedabad for 27 years. His work has been exhibited in United States, and several countries in Europe including United Kingdom, and his pieces are part of the permanent collection in Whitworth Museum in Manchester. Currently, Erroll "splits" his time between a meditative state of transmuting the traditional 2D technique into 3D, and conducting conferences and workshops in art and design institutions internationally.