When I lived in India, I never got a chance to visit the city of Ahmedabad in the northwestern state of Gujarat but I grew up hearing stories about the glorious past of this textile destination. As I began work on my book project, the first place I realized I must visit to begin my research (and I heard the same suggestion from every expert and saw many references in every book I read) was a place called the Calico Museum of Textiles which, I’m told, is a memorable trip through the world of Indian textiles spanning five centuries.
I began reading more about the town and realized that just two days ago Ahmedabad turned six hundred years old. Ahmedabad was founded on February 26, 1411 AD by Ahmed Shah and has been the financial capital of the state of Gujarat for a long time. During 19th and 20th centuries, Ahmedabad’s textile industry exploded and soon it was celebrated as the Manchester of the East. Mahatma Gandhi established the Sabarmati Ashram in 1917 in Ahmedabad and for many decades the city was at the forefront of India’s Independence struggle.
Inside Walled City & Sabarmathi Ashram with Gandhiji's Chakra Photo Credit Creative Commons
On the occasion of its birthday on Saturday, Ahmedabad unveiled the largest cake ever made in India’s history. The cake was 239 feet and 14 inches long, 3.4 inches in width and weighed over 1800 pounds. When I saw this video of the cake and the craziness that accompanied the cutting of it, the first question that gnawed at my brain was whether the cake was eggless. Considering how many people of the Jain faith live in this town and how picky most locals of the town are about food, surely this must have been the tallest order for the thirty bakers who worked on it? Jains shun onion, garlic and, of course, all forms of meat.
“Ahmedabad’s food culture is brilliant. You would have never heard of Jain pizzas, for instance,” says Mala Sinha, a textile designer who runs Bodhi, an ethnic wear lifestyle brand, in the town of Baroda which is sixty miles away. “Ahmedabad is avant-garde in so many ways–historically politically, culturally,” Sinha says. "And architecturally too, it’s a great city."
By 1487, the city had become enough of a power center that Shah’s grandson, Mahmud Begda, decided to fortify it against possible attacks. A wall seven miles in circumference was built to encircle the city and protect it from invasion. Today, the walls are gone but some of the original grand gates still stand, their beautiful carvings and calligraphy lending an old-world charm that inspires the work of designers like Mala Sinha.
The region’s fascination with color has its roots in the Indus valley civilization which developed cotton-growing and dyeing technologies. “Ahmedabad has always had the nagar sheths, men who were principal merchants and patrons looking over the welfare of the city,” Sinha says. Little wonder so many skilled artisans came from all over the country and settled in Ahmedabad. With national institutes like NID, the Indian Institute of Management and the School of Architecture, the city now continues to be a Mecca for design. “Designers from all over the world still come here and get stuff made here. Trade was alive many centuries ago and it continues to be so today.”
At Bodhi, Sinha’s team specializes in block printing, screen printing, elaborate embroidery and cloth embellishments on saris from natural fabrics (cotton, tussar silk and mulberry silk, among others), stoles and home furnishings. They are continuing the traditions locals have honed for centuries.
Sinha’s saris are fabricated for working women who want saris that make them look professional during a presentation or a lecture. Sinha believes Indian women don’t have too many choices for the professional look. She says most of the selections at the higher end are glitzy or made with festivals and weddings in mind. “They end up looking like Christmas trees–with a heavy border or zari,” she says. “And so we had to have a language for a woman of today who is a thinking woman, a global woman.”
The Sinhas are doing their part towards the environment and sustainability. They preserve rainwater and have special solar dryers for the fabric baking process. Developing new design techniques excites this couple and they have created a process whereby Bodhi’s workshop has a meticulously worked out conservation system to reduce water pollution and wastage. Water is filtered using microbes and it is channeled into tanks containing a bed of biological matter for further filtering.
For Mala and Pradeep Sinha, Ahmedabad is special because it did not just inspire their life's pursuit at Bodhi. As one of the first graduating students of NID in the seventies, the Sinhas fell in love in this ancient city. "I found my husband in Ahmedabad and that's a very special tie," she says.
Below Mala Sinha's friend of three decades, Mona Vijaykar of Saratoga, California, creates her own block printed dupatta with help from Bodhi's staff.