Thursday, 22 February 2018

Indian Epic - Travels in Kutch, Gujarat - Textile Heaven



Kutch is famed for its rich textile heritage so what better way to spend our final day than overdosing on them. Our first call was to the Living & Learning Design Centre (known as LLDC) in the village of Ajrakhpur, just outside Bhuj, a world class crafts & textile museum with an education and resource centre enabling the craftsmen and women of Kutch to interact with designers, learn about new designs and products to ensure that their work remains both relevant and marketable. You can learn more about the work of the LLDC HERE.


Photographs aren't allowed inside, which was probably a good thing, as Jon and I were able to fully immerse ourselves in the textiles on display and the incredible exhibition of costumes worn by the many tribes of Kutch. There were also some fascinating videoed interviews (subtitled in English) with representatives from the various Kutchi tribes, discussing their outfits and their way of life. We were sad to learn that the custom within many communities is that the clothing and jewellery of the deceased is thrown in the sea, buried or burnt, neither recycled or passed on.


I was interested to read a quote from a woman belonging to a Kutchi tribe where females stay indoors. Nobody has ever told us we can't go out, she said, our husbands say that we should, it's just that we don't want to be the first of our generation to do so. We want someone else to go before us. The weight of tradition can be such a heavy burden.



The women of the Rabari, one of many Kutchi tribes famed for their embroidery skills, used to start embroidering their trousseaux in their early teens. Their work was so intricate that the women were often in their mid-thirties before they were ready to marry. In recent years the tribal elders banned the women from embroidering their own clothes dictating that their work be sold. In an interview with one of the Rabari women she said I feel sad that I can't own the beautiful clothes my ancestors wore. I'm proud that my work is valued and that the money we make from selling our work supports our community but I feel that I've lost part of who I am by having to wear plain clothes.


The centre was only inaugurated in 2016 and is a wonderfully modern and imposing space. On the day we visited they were preparing for an arts festival, due to start later that day.



 Ramji wasn't available on our last full day so K provided us with another driver. Although he didn't speak a lot of English he was from Bhuj and so, when asked if we could see some traditional block printing he knew exactly where to take us......those of you with a fetish for fabric, look away now!!


Dr. Ismael Mohammed Khatri can trace his Ajrakh block-printing heritage back at least nine generations. This is just a small part of his warehouse.


We asked if it was possible to see where his fabric was printed so he hopped into our car and directed us a mile down the road. I expected a factory but we were taken to a village, with every adult resident involved in the process of block printing cotton -  while men stood over huge vats of simmering dyes, stirring away, women laid lengths of partially printed cloth out in the sun to dry, children played amongst the fabric, cows were tethered to gateposts and cats slept in the shade.


The actual block printing process took place in a large brick-built building with a corrugated metal roof. Unlike factories here in the UK there was no radio blasting away in the background, just the satisfying thud of wooden printing blocks against seemingly endless sheets of pristine white cotton - with the occasional chirp from a family of sparrows, who'd made their nest in gap in a factory window.


Dr. Khatri told us that it takes each employee three days to print a 100 metre length of cotton. That's why block printed cotton isn't cheap.


The factory supplies block printed cotton to some of the best known shops in the country, including the wonderful FabIndia where this fabric was destined, to be made up into women's knee length kurtas and bed covers. 



Dr. Khatri




Gives a whole new meaning to sun-dried!


The process was mesmerising. Again, sorry about my terrible accent - I can't stay quiet for a minute.


Needless to say, we popped back to the warehouse after our visit and treated ourselves to two scarves as souvenirs. I loved block printed fabric before, now I bloody adore it.


By now it was lunchtime so we picked up the driver's wife from Bhuj hospital where she worked as a nurse and went to their favourite basement canteen for a massive veg thali. The food was incredible and the company, despite the language barrier, was warm and lovely.


When we visited Manvi you may have noticed the Gujarati tie-dye shawl I wore. I was excited to find it in a 50p bucket in a charity shop and was intrigued by the process involved. Gujarati tie-dye is a lot more intricate than my teenage attempts with waxed string and marbles.


We asked our driver if we could see some tie-dye and ended up in the front room of a house in a nearby village. The householder explained how he sketches a series of dots and dashes on lengths of white fabric (either cotton or silk) and pays local housewives to sew around the dots, pulling the thread tight. The completed lengths of fabric are then returned where they're immersed in a tubs of vegetable dye. When dry, more markings and stitching are added and the fabric is dyed again.


Here's some of the completed work.




The chap wasn't interested in selling us anything, he was more than happy with a selfie!


We finished the day with a stroll around Bhuj. It's probably a good thing that Saturday was half day closing or I'd probably have bankrupted myself.


Everything you could possibly want including pom pom necklaces for your water buffalo and replacement legs for your charpoy.


I'd forgotten that I'd seen the fake ivory arm bangles on Bhuj market. Jon put me off by saying that they looked like onion rings.


It was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye to K and the Devpur Homestay on Sunday morning.


But that wasn't the end of our adventures in Kutch. We had one place to visit before our flight to Mumbai. Run by the not-for-profit organisation Kala RakshaSumeraser Sheikh maintains an archive of antique textiles, a handicraft workshop, a museum and a fixed-price shop. Most of the participants are women from marginalised communities (like the ladies below) .


This elderly woman is suffering, like many professional embroiderers, from failing eyesight. She arrived as refugee from the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and has lived here ever since.


Kala Raksha employ her to make these beautiful patchwork chess pieces from salvaged fabric and also provide her with accommodation.


Such incredible skill. I was pleased to learn that the not-for-profit organisations that promote the skills of Kutchi embroiderers provide regular eye tests.



The antique textiles & tribal jewellery on display made me giddy with excitement. I bought a DVD from the shop called When Stitches Speak, an award-winning animated documentary (link HERE) which I'm looking forward to watching soon. 


I wanted it all!












Appetite for textiles sated we continued on our journey to the airport where, once again we were treated like rock stars, with the cabin crew meeting us outside the terminal, unloading Ramji's car and carrying our luggage for us. 


And that was Kutch! As you can probably tell from the profusion of posts we loved every minute of our week-long adventure. If you're interested in visiting you'll find the wonderful Devpur Homestay's website HERE and if you want any further information & advice about visiting the Kutch region of Gujarat please feel free to email me.

You'll find the whole set of photos HERE.

See you soon!

66 comments:

  1. wowww, what an overwhelming fabulousness!, I do love block print, and all those embroideries and fabrics and colors!!. I think I would squeak and hop in excitement and then buy until bankruptcy if I ever visit these places.
    I love particularly the museum photos, such adorable that even the mannequins have their faces made of embroidery. A real job of art!!
    Thanks for sharing your travel with us!!
    besos

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    1. Ha! I could have gone mad - I'm quite relieved that our internal flight allownace was only 15kg! xxx

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  2. wow I hope I can include this part of India in my trip next year. The block printing is fascinating and I now appreciate my (bargained on Ebay) Anohki block printed skirt and sarong all the more for seeing how they have been made. Betty

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    1. I hope you visit Gujarat, Betty. It's so lovely to travel somewhere with so few Western tourists.
      I love Anohki clothes - they have a boutique in Fort Cochin, the prices are insane! xxx

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  3. you have to fight with me over that marvelous textiles and jewelry ;-D
    wonderful! thank you - i´m in heaven just by looking at your photos and video..... what a gorgeous week was your stay in gujarat.
    xxxxx

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  4. Oh my gosh! The textiles are gorgeous! I'll be seeing it all in my mind all day. Sometimes it's easy to forget that such amazing things can be made by actual people and not mass-produced on a machine. Off to check the links now..

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    1. Aren't they amazing? I've always loved them but it's impossible to get your head round the fact that they're handmade until you see it with your own eyes. xxx

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  5. Such mesmerising posts, what beauty and skill. The tie die is interesting, very similar to Japanese shibori. I prefer the idea of different colours overlaid on each other. I have been spellbound by these posts.

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    1. Thank you, Maureen! The tie dye was lovely. One of the local ladies brought her completed pieces back to the man for payment when we were there and I was quite impressed with the amount he paid her. xxx

      (I'm off to Google Japanese shibori now!)

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  6. That block printing is such a long process, the end result being so beautiful. What a lovely week - if you wished to go to the most amazing textile place in the world it looks like Kutch would have made the list

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    1. That block printing was so lovely. Even though the colours were quite muted I loved the finished result. I'd love a dress made from it. xxx

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  7. Wow what a truly amazing week you had. The embroidery you show here is exceptional, I especially like the work on the blue fabric. The tie dye process sounds fairly laborious...but what results!
    What staggering skill the block printers have, no wonky lines at all and btw...never apologise for your lovely accent!
    Just been reading about Justin Trudeau's dress code faux pas.
    xx

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    1. The embroidery took my breath away. Some of those pieces take up to six months to complete and the price certainly reflected it - it was good to hear that the women get at least 60% of the profits.
      I Googled Justin Trudeau's outfits - oh dear! There's a lot of Westerners who adopt Indian dress when they're travelling around and rarely get it right. xxx

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  8. O wow! What gorgeous stuff! I love blockprint fabric (all our beds have blockprint duvets) I knew Jaipur had a lot of blockprint shops but had heard of th eones in Kutch! Thank you for the beautiful photos of your trip!
    xox

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    1. I'm so glad you've enjoyed the posts. Maybe you'll get to Gujarat some time soon, I think you'd love it.
      I'm liking the sound of your duvets! I was lucky enough to score some block printed Egyptian cotton sheets 15 years ago, they're on their last legs but I can't find anything half as lovely! xxx

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  9. What a dazzling array of gorgeous fabrics. I loved watching that blockprinting video. Such skill! Never mind your accent, you should hear my Antwerp twang! Those patchwork chess pieces are divine! xxx

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    1. I could watch that block printing video all day. I think Jon was more mesmerised than me, I think he wanted a job there! xxx

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  10. Utterly fascinating, It must be so boring though for female Kutchi tribe members, never going out.
    I love the beautiful textiles and enjoyed watching the block printing, you don't need to apologise for your voice, you have a nice voice :-) xxx

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    1. I know, I can't imagine a life confined to the house. I hope that one of the women decides to be brave one day and break the tradition. xxx

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  11. I have a new appreciation for block printing-I guess I never really thought about *how* it was made, despite the name.

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    1. It's the same as embroidery - I could never envisage someone sitting down and creating something so beautiful with a needle and thread! xxx

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  12. Arghhh!!!! I've been trying to comment for AGES but Blogger hates me.
    This has been pure bliss Vix - this textile post is just wonderful - thank you! xx

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Elaine! Watching the block printing process blew my mind, I've done it on a small scale but this was breathtaking! xxx

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  13. I've enjoyed all the India posts immensely, but this one is the best yet--both verbally and visually. Thanks, Vix, for traveling for those of us who no longer can, and telling us all about it so well.

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    1. Thank you so much, A.Marie. I especially enjoyed writing this post, It was a real privilege to see and speak to the women and men involved in the creation of these wonderful crafts. xxx

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  14. OMG love this textile one so much!! The block printing is amazing, makes my teenage attempts at Batik and tie dyeing look primitive. I think I would have wanted to bring home a block or two. Were you tempted? Such an awesome time you have had. Bring on the next installment!!!

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    1. Thanks, Sue - I thought you'd enjoy the wonderful textiles and crafts being such a fan of ethnic clothing.
      I wish I could have bought back one of those huge blocks - I've got a few small ones but nothing on an industrial scale. Apparently some of them belong to the shops who commission the pieces - so the print is exclusive. xxx

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  15. All of your India posts have been fantastic but this is my favourite one by far.
    Such stunning textiles and so inspiring.
    I have just inherited some beautiful sari borders from my sister who passed away last year and I also have a couple or three of the wooden print blocks. Now I have seen this post I am thinking of how I can combine the two to make some quilts.
    Thanks Vix.
    Hugs-x-

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    1. Yay, another textile fan. Aren't they absolutely wonderful?
      The sari borders you've inherited from your sister sound absolutely gorgeous. I love the idea of incorporating both the block printing and the saris into a quilt. that really would be a wonderful thing (and a wonderful tribute to your sister).xxx

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  16. Hello Ms. Vix,
    I have been following your site for some time now and just could not resist commenting on the wonderful photos from your Kutch textile visit. The piles of block printed fabric was what this American sewist dreams are made of. I really enjoy and want to thank-you for sharing these world experiences with us.

    Best Wishes,
    Gail from Pennsylvania , USA

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    1. Hello Gail! Lovely to meet you.
      Thank you so much for commenting. I'm so happy you enjoyed your visit to the block printing factory. Those piles of fabric made me giddy with excitement. xxx

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  17. Oh my giddy aunt! What a feast for the eyes. Such wonderful pictures.

    I couldn't believe the precision of the hand blocking; I was waiting to see what he would do at the at the edges where the material ran out and it was seamless; you would never have known this was just two of the designs on the hand block, it was so well matched. Your accent is lovely by the way.

    I'm hoping you at least bought yourself a pom pom necklace? I loved the painted tin (?) suitcases on one one of the stalls.

    I don't know how the women (and men) can sit cross legged for what are clearly long periods of time with no back support at all. It would kill me.

    Have a lovely weekend and I'm looking forward to more about your fabulous Indian adventure.
    xxxxx

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    1. I'm so glad you liked this mega textile post!!
      We couldn't believe the block printing process, so much care and attention to every detail. I've done a bit of block printing myself and the results weren't half as neat as his were.
      I'm always amazed at how lithe the Indians are, they put me and my stiff joints to shame!
      When it comes to shopping in India, I'm bloody useless. It's easy at home, you see something you like amid the tat in a charity shop and grab it - in India everything so gorgeous and I just can't decide. I loved those painted tin suitcases and really wanted a pompom necklace just in case I ever have a pet water buffalo - I'll have to go back! xxx

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  18. Your accent sounds exotic to this Aussie!
    Such an interesting post ! For all the fabricophiles you have outdone yourself.
    That blockprinting was so precise. Imagine doing it all day! He looked very fit.
    Interesting to hear of the eyesight problems of embroiderers and the cultural changes with selling rather than wearing their embroideries.
    xo Jazzy Jack

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    1. Haha! I cringe at my accent, I really do!
      I was so excited to share this post with my fellow fabricophiles. I was in absolute heaven. xxx

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    1. isn't it stunning?
      Keep your eyes peeled for FabIndia clothes in chazzas, I see them quite regularly around here. The quality is gorgeous. xxx

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  20. Oh wow!!!!! Stunning pieces. Your dress is gorgeous!!!!

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    1. Aren't they amazing?
      That dress was a cheapo fast fashion buy - so many people stopped me in Gujarat to tell me it was made in India from Indian fabric! xxx

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  21. Oh my goodness Vix, this was utterly fascinating! To see the block print fabrics in process makes you realise how incredibly hard it is to make them as in man power! They are truly amazing. The sheer quantity sounds amazing. I am not surprised you felt your love and appreciation of block prints increase all the more after seeing the whole process!

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    1. I'm so glad you liked the post, Kezzie. It really makes you appreciate block printing when you watch that video, doesn't it? xxx

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  22. What a fabulous post, true social history. I have a friend willing to travel to India with me, we need to get planning.

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    1. I'm so excited for you - if you need any advice email me! xxx

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  23. such beautiful people and such beautiful fabrics,, the printing is something I had never ever read about or heard how was accomplished!! Thanks so much for giving us such an amazing detailed view of such a beautiful land!

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Laurie. I love that, unlike most of the rest of the world, the Indians take great pride in their wonderful textiles and the middle classes are shunning mass produced & imported fabrics and are happy to pay a premium for top quality, Indian made fabrics. xxx

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  24. It is interested to hear of the different customs of the various Kutchi tribes. I feel sad for the Rabari women who are not allowed to wear their beautiful creations so they can be sold, which seems so unfair. I hope that there is a brave woman from the other tribe you mentioned who will not be afraid to venture outdoors.

    I can understand why you love block print cotton, and why it is expensive after reading this post. Thanks again for another fascinating glimpse into Indian culture.

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    1. It made me sad to hear of the Rabaris being denied the right to wear their beautiful embroidered garments and I did wonder that maybe they deliberately took their time sewing their trousseaux so they didn't have to get married until they were in their 30s.
      I do hope one of those ladies decides to leave the house before too long.
      xxx

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  25. Thank you, Vix for an amazing adventure! Desert, incredible rock (natural art) formations, fabulous textiles - I loved this; learning about the women who don't go outside (and learning that it's not their husbands who won't allow it!); and much more. Elizabeth xx

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    1. Thank you so much, Elizabeth! I'm delighted you enjoyed the posts.
      I found it very refreshing that those husbands were happy for the women to leave their houses, it was tradition imprisoning them and not their menfolk. It made me want to track them down, knock on their doors and make them come outside with me! xxx

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  26. The mirror-work and embroidery, and the precision block-printing by hand – I'm breathless! Thank you, too, for including insights into the artisans' daily lives.

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    1. My pleasure, Brikka! The skill of those artisans takes my breath away! xxx

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  27. I am blown away, Vix, by those amazing textiles and by the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into the block printing process and the tie dye. I had to have a sit down after seeing all that fabric. It is enough to make any sewist swoon. All I can say is that I would be bankrupt visiting there. The exhibits in the museum were beautiful and how lovely that those ladies are still supported. That blue embroidered fabric is stunning. I have really enjoyed all these posts and can't wait to see what you and Jon were up to next. Xx

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    1. I thought that block print warehouse might make you feel a bit giddy. I think I might have sworn when I went inside (thank goodness for the language barrier!)
      xxx

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  28. The block printing is fascinating. It's such a far cry from the factories we know. I love the details, the craftsmanship, the colour, the texture. How did you manage to leave? And can you imagine never going outside, by choice? Someone should organise them to step outside all at the same time, wouldn't that be amazing?
    These posts have been wonderful, I've enjoyed reading about your travels, as always.
    xx

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    1. I was so happy that all the workers we met worked in good conditions and that they were well paid. I don't know how I managed to get away, I definitely need to return to Gujarat!
      Listening to those ladies talking about their lives made it so real - which sounds a bit daft, I suppose. They're just like us but imprisoned by tradition. I love your idea of a mass walk out, it's so sad that they're missing out. xxx

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  29. I can't look at the whole post in one go because I get too excited! Textile heaven. Someday I'll get there...
    Thanks for reminding me about this on FB!

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    1. It took me forever to put this post together, just looking back at the photos and videos made me a bit giddy and over-excited. I know you would absolutely love Kutch. xxx

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  30. I can certainly understand why it wasn't easy to said goodbye. India is so rich in culture. I'm always interested in learning about their clothing traditions, they have so many different traditional wears, national costumes and so on, it's all so fascinating.

    When I heard that some of these women were in their thirties before they made enough clothes to be able to get married, I thought to myself- well at least they weren't getting married too young. I know it's an issue in many countries (Western countries not excluded) girls getting married too young, so maybe this custom wasn't that bad. If I understand well, now these ladies sell their embroidery items which is good because it supports the community, but it is bad because they don't get to keep it and enjoy it? I do understand how they must feel, happy because they can contribute to their families financially but sad because they don't get to keep their beautiful work.

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    1. Ivana, I thought exactly the same when I heard about the Rabari not marrying until they were in their thirties - maybe they took their time embroidering their trousseaux to delay the inevitable? I think that's what I'd have done. xxx

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  31. Simply gorgeous! Love your videos, and will come back to bask in this sunny heaven again!
    Much love!

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    1. Thank you! There's rather a lot to take in on one visit! xxx

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  32. Wow, such labour intensive processes, real handi-crafts. I imagine the block printing could be quite therapeutic actually. I'd want to knock on those womens' doors and drag them out to play with you lol. xx

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    1. I'd love to drag those ladies down to Spoons for a pint - maybe that'd be a step too far tho'! xxx

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  33. That fabric is amazing - though I do feel sad for the ladies who are unable to wear their own traditional work. (And I'm also slightly surprised to hear you didn't ask "Where exactly does the jewellery go in the sea, and where can I rent some scuba gear..." ;-) )

    There's currently a petition going to stop the government of Bengal shutting down its folk crafts museum - it's an amazingly rare collection, including very old examples of traditional textiles. Would you be interested in signing at all? I've signed: https://www.change.org/p/chief-minister-of-west-bengal-if-this-rare-kolkata-museum-shuts-down-bengal-will-lose-a-part-of-its-soul?

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    1. I don't know whether you saw all the clothes dumped in the sea opposite the swanky Art Deco houses on Marine Drive. I did suggest to Jon that he kept a look out while I went down for a rummage!
      I've signed that petition - thank for sharing it! xxx

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Love from Vix
xxx