Posted on: 19-09-2016

It was 5.30 on a winter morning at the railway station of the former princely state of Gwalior. I was waiting on the platform, holding a ticket which I had just bought for the princely sum of Rs. 29. When I saw the mist part and a ghostly silhouette pull into the platform, spewing smoke off its top with gusto. It seemed nobody had told the poor old carriage that a couple of centuries had passed.

At first glance it seemed that the Gwalior-Sheopur Kalan passenger train was still trying to hold on to the 19th century, when she was born.

She was to depart at 6.15 am. I had been advised to report early to get a seat – the ‘seat’ being a few inches of space on one of the hard wood benches that had been polished smooth by the sands of time and generations of rustic bottoms. Turned out 45 minutes early wasn’t good enough. Because the 7 bogies, which could hold 200 odd souls, were all taken, by grinning, bright-eyed locals. However, room was made for me by helping hands and warm smiles. Curious glances greeted my camera. And history was narrated to me with moustache-twirling pride.

This was the longest remaining narrow gauge route in the world. Covering 198 kms at the stately average speed of 18 kmph. And in the eleven hours that she took to run her course, she cut through the revered Chambal ravines, as if defying the dacoits to stop her if they could. Truth is, she was never stopped, because the Gabbar Singhs also hitched a ride. The Sheopur passenger train was also the bandits’ way of holding on to civilization.

Yes, the train never refused a ride to anyone, said Rambharose Singh Rathore, as he straightened his blue turban, in a desi gesture of tipping the hat to a legend. And even as I heard this story of magnanimity, I looked out and saw living proof of his words – as bouquets of people hung out of every door. Not to mention scores of dangling feet right outside every window, which were attached to the rooftop travellers. The train that never refused a ride to anyone, was carrying about 3 times her capacity.

I was advised that it needed years of practice to graduate to the elevated status of a rooftop traveller. As the adventurous travellers, while trying to balance themselves on the rocking roof, have to keep a keen eye on approaching obstacles, and be ready to swing down temporarily when the train passed under low truss bridges. For the non-swingers, the only other option was to lie flat with the crossbeams zipping past barely inches above one’s nose. Desperately holding on till their destination arrived.

I learnt that the Sheopur passenger train was known to make unscheduled stops, pausing as if to catch her breath next to pretty mustard fields, sparkling streams and quaint farmhouses. At one of these breaks, I took the opportunity to cozy up to driver-saab. The elderly Anwar Khan-saab treated his train with the love and tenderness of a lifetime companion. He told me that after every round trip, he took her personally to the Gwalior rail yard for maintenance. I’ve had a great run with her, said driver-saab, running his gnarled hand over age-old dials and knobs. And his eyes took on a faraway look, as he tried to hold on to fading memories of younger days and the melancholic reality of the present, of knowing that his days and that of his beloved train were numbered. Like most of the narrow gauge trains of India, the Gwalior-Sheopur Kalan Passenger Train would soon see its last run.

I returned to my compartment, to be welcomed as an old friend. Space was recreated, questions on driver-saab’s well-being were asked, water was offered. Before I had a sip, I paused and asked Rambharose, which end of the compartment was the toilet? He smiled and shook his head. The train had no toilet.

I had no option but to hold on.

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Posted on: 23-07-2015

Jejuri's famous Somvati Amavasya festival, when the town dances the yellow dance with Lord Khandoba, falls on a Monday (Lord Shiva's auspicious day) or Somvar, when the people of the town offer pure tumeric powder to the idols and to each other. The town swarms with locals dressed in white, devotees throng on the steps and streets of Jejuri offering bowls of golden purity and painting the town golden yellow; a color they associate with the power of the sun and one suggestive of Khandoba’s solar origin. Cries of 'yelkot yelkot jal malhar' resonate through the nooks and corners of the town... that's when on realizes the sincerity of the love and admiration offered to the mighty Lord Khandoba. When the streets of Sonyache Jejuri- GOLDEN Jejuri- bathe themselves in the sea of yellows and canaries from the tumeric, that's when one believes that Lord Shiva's avatar tramped evil and led good to victory. And when the moon refuses to appear on the 'amavasya' (new moon) night, the ochre of the tumeric throws the town into a dim, serene glow. A six-day festival, from the first to sixth lunar day of the bright fortnight of the Hindu month of Margashirsha, in honour of Khandoba is celebrated at Jejuri Temple. At Somvati Amavasya festival in Jejuri, one may see devotees possessed by the power of God whipping themselves with horse-whips. By publicly practicing self-torture and, above all, by coming out of it unharmed, the Devotee shows everybody that the divine entity that is believed to descend upon him during the possession or the trance, has the faculty to make him insensitive to the stimuli of pain. Religious observance suggests that it has two main purposes. One is the hope of rooting out some physical appetite, thereby achieving purity and self-mastery, and thus merit. The other, much the main purpose, is to induce an ecstatic or transcendent state often interpreted by believers as contact with the divine.

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Posted on: 23-07-2015

Master dyer Abdul Rashid is a devout man, and his dearest possession is a holy book. Like most other holy books, it is frayed from a lifetime of daily use, its fragile pages held together more by faith than by thread. But unlike most holy books, it is not acquired. It is created by its owner, page by page, over seven decades.

Abdul Rashid’s holy book is the Master Reference Book of Colour Codes. One that he started putting together back in 1942, the year he embraced the traditional Kashmiri art of dyeing – as his religion. It was a time when the art was in full bloom, helping countless Kashmiri families earn their bread. But today, like most businesses handmade and heartfelt, this one too is withering.

The slender artist-hands of Abdul Rashid were strong and supple then, and the fingers that caress the pages today are frail. But his devotion has not diminished with time. 

In fact, it has grown, as he has passed on the passion to his eldest son, Naushad – the joy of bringing dull yarn to life, watching it go on to become celebrated shawls and carpets, travelling around the world, lighting up lives, spreading the splendor. While Abdul Rashid sits hunched in a corner of his workshop, book in hand, reminiscing. That’s how I find him, when I enter his workshop on a cold autumn morning.

‘Abdul Rashid & Sons’ sits on a quiet bylane of old Srinagar, next to an old burial ground and mosque. As I enter the dark, warm cavern, I’m greeted with a meditative silence. And the austerity of the place makes it feel like a place of worship. Even though there hangs a delicate irony in the air – that of breathtaking colours being born within unplastered walls.

During the course of the day, I’ll hear the silence broken by various gentle sounds of water – gurgling, trickling, pouring – as Naushad and his young apprentice go about the painstaking steps of dyeing yarn the forgotten way. And I’ll hear songs playing on the young apprentice’s mobile phone – folk songs which speak of the beauty of the valley and sufi qawalis which speak of the beauty of Allah’s creation.

It’s mid-morning and the process of dyeing begins. I’ve been told it’ll take all day to dye just two rolls of yarn. It begins with washing, as Abdul Rashid likes to say that the dyeing will be pure only when the yarn is pure. One must first be emptied of all impurities to be filled with true beauty.

After the cleaning is done, Naushad mixes powdered colours in water heated in an ancient copper urn. The colour is sprinkled, bit by bit, with care and precision, for the water to take in the dye evenly. Then the yarn is wrapped around thick wooden sticks, dipped and rolled gently in the hot water, for the dye to spread uniformly. This takes hours. This is when the yarn gets transformed from within, and such deep transformations cannot be rushed.

Once the dyeing is complete, Naushad takes out a thread and dries it over the fire, to test the colour. Then he shows it to Abdul Rashid for approval. If father and son are satisfied, the process is complete. If not, corrections are made, by giving the yarn more time, more pigments or some bleach.

Abdul Rashid believes that every yarn is capable of greatness. It’s just that some need a little more love, or a second chance.

The colour has come out perfect and I think it’s over, but it seems the most important thing is yet to be done. And fittingly, it’s Abdul Rashid who does it. Taking a finished thread, pasting it onto a fresh page of the holy book, and then writing all the details in his wavering hand. As if to put on record, that the hand still listens to the heart.

And that is the dying art of dyeing. Practised with undying love, for twelve hours a day during cold autumns and freezing winters. When demand falls with summer, the hours reduce to ten. But what doesn’t reduce is the commitment with which Abdul Rashid, Naushad and the boy go about their faith.

Sometimes, angry slogans jolt the sleepy lane awake, or curfews make it difficult to carry on. But Abdul Rashid & Sons don’t allow the unrest to invade their place of worship. Their only jihaad is against the changing times that settle for mass-produced dyed yarns, that lure shawl and carpet makers with speed in exchange for quality.

But why take so much pain when people don’t even think of colours when they see the shawls or the carpets? Don’t they all only care for the weaves and the craftsmanship? Abdul Rashid squints his eyes at the question. Then he looks out of the high window at the dying sunlight and says that nobody notices the light of the sun, but everybody is warmed by it. The metaphor seems ill-chosen, and the unsaid hangs in the still air – the day is dying, and perhaps the sun won’t rise again on the family business.

And the silence is broken by the evening prayer that begins in the neighborhood mosque. Reminding the faithful.

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