Taking a trip to uncover secrets of an Indian city
Jaipur, meaning Jai’s City (named after its founder, Jai Singh II, in 1727), has a long and rich heritage of arts and crafts. The city is home to some of the world’s most skilled craftsmen.
And that’s what drew us to this trip organized by Bao Yan, a trader in Indian sheets and covers, who aims to introduce the beauty of hand-made art to more people in Shanghai.
Traveling between Jaipur and Shanghai for the past six years, Bao, who hails from northeast China’s Liaoning Province, calls Jaipur his second hometown and shares with us all that he knows of the secret spots in Jaipur.
It was already 7:30 in the evening when we reached the city. The hotel Bao took us to, with rooms on four sides facing a courtyard, is a family-run guesthouse at the back of a jewelry market on MI Road. However, by the time we arrived, we were told that rooms were not available as all bookings must go online since OYO Rooms, India’s largest hospitality company, had just purchased the place.
“Things have been changing very quickly these days in Jaipur,” said Bao. He said he chose to settle down here in Jaipur because it was a family-run place where people would take care of each other as friends.
“But it seems that the days are gone when rooms were always available whenever I returned,” he said, with a touch of regret.
After several calls, we finally checked in, and went to dinner in an open restaurant in a back street which served as a garage for vintage-car repairs during the day and a makeshift kitchen which prepared hot, homemade dishes for late night dinners. With barbecue chicken, we tried our first taste of “Thumbs Up,” India’s beloved cola.
The next day we went on a walking tour of the city. We went through the new gate, taking pictures with the passionate locals along way, and then entered the walled old city, built with sandstone and blushed with paint in 1876 to welcome the then Prince of Wales.
We saw buildings of colonial times, ironsmiths polishing brass basins in their home workshops, a crumbling front gate with beautifully painted vintage miniatures and a temple with a display of Jain culture.
At the end of the walking tour, we visited the Museum of Legacies at the Kishanpole Bazaar. As the name suggests, it is a museum to conserve and showcase artifacts and crafts. The magnificent mansion was built in the early 18th century. It used to be the residence of Sawai Ram Singh ll, who opened the School of Arts and Crafts in the building in 1857 in order to preserve and promote local craftsmanship.
Inside the four-story mansion, there was a nice display of old pictures on the history of jewelry making, embroidery work from all over Rajasthan, magnificent artwork used in everyday textiles and many indigenous paintings collected by Ojas Art and made by talented Bhil tribesmen.
After lunch at the Anokhi Cafe, we left for Amer Fort to soak up the atmosphere at sunset — the soft wind blowing through the many-pillared audience hall and the crisp vista of mountainsides sloping down to a green lake.
The Sheesh Mahal at the inner court was the highlight of the complex. Serving as the royal dressing room, it features glass mosaic decorations and mirrors built into the walls and ceilings. The effect is kaleidoscopic as the constellation of convex pieces above reflects the movement of the visitors below.
“When in that environment, you can’t help but get inspired,” said Bao. And how very true it was when I recalled the line of British archaeologist AC Carlyle, who said of primitive man “the first spiritual want of a barbarous man is decoration.”
Once we had completed Amer Fort, we covered the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds, on the way to the hotel.
The five-story building of protruding bays with lattice stonework and 365 windows was said to have been built as a screen for the women of the royal court so they could watch, unobserved, the parades of soldiers and elephants below.
At night when all lights are lit up, the beautiful facade of the Hawa Mahal looks stunning.
The next morning we continued our discoveries at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, a multiarts center built by modern architect Charles Correa who was inspired by the original city plan in 1727.
It consists of nine squares with one central square left open — a reference to the cosmic symbolism of the Navagrahas, or the nine planets in Hindu mythology.
A hub of cultural activities, JKK houses a museum of medieval Rajasthani Art and Science, several visual art galleries and an open-air amphitheater at the central square. It also houses a library, a small hostel, a set of art-studios and a cafeteria.
Last year, it was the main venue for the first Contemporary Architecture exhibition in Jaipur. Themed “When is Space,” the two-month exhibition attracted a number of architects, designers and specialist from home and abroad to share their knowledge and skills, as well as to discuss making space in a rapidly advancing Indian society.
This was a modern aesthetic treat after so many days of forts and palaces in India, which showed us how, after almost 150 years, the torch of craftsmanship was passed to the generation of gadgets.
From JKK we left for Sanganer. The small town in the suburbs of Jaipur is famous for its textile printing industry. Sanganer prints have patterns in bright colors on white backgrounds.
In workshops lining one side of a narrow street, we learned how printing blocks were chiseled by specialized carvers, and then we visited a block printing factory run by Ram Nayan Saadh, Bao’s first textile supplier in Sanganer.
Enjoying a good reputation in the town, Ram Nayan inherited the trade from his parents, who were, in turn, taught by theirs — each generation working almost exactly as the one before, going back at least four generations.
For each batch of fabric, Ram Nayan said, he would have the family block stamped on it as the Sanganeri hand-block printing received a geographical indication tag in 2010.
The two men, both in their 30s, agreed with each other on the spot and decided to go forward in business as both saw cotton fabric with color using hand-carved wood blocks as a much valued art to be retained or preserved by actually practicing it.
“It is not an easy life. But it is a necessary one. And finally, it may be that one doesn’t so much see craft, but actually feels it,” said Bao.