“Why do you like textiles so much?” I asked Manjusha.  She was captivated by a black sari with pink diamond shaped embroidery; running her fingers up and down the pattern. Sashiko is a form of decorative reinforcing stitching from Japan.

“It’s visual logic.” She said. “And so tactile at the same time.” This pattern was a geometric variant of sashiko; with the cross section of a warp and weft thread forming an individual squared point. Like a pixel, I thought. I had studied the basics of computer programming in high school; iterative structures, and lines of code outputting similar patterns. In coding, if there is an error in logic, you have to scan each line, scrutinize each semi colon, and print out every step to see where you went wrong. But weaving is material; what you do is what you see and what you see is what you do.

“I suppose you can say it’s easier to debug,” she said, pulling out a photograph on her phone, a picture of half finished embroidery on British tweed.

“Look. a b a a b.” She pointed out the rhythm between the stitches and the blank spaces. “I go in vertical lines, and then I stitch it again horizontally.”

Sashiko stitching on british tweed by Manjusha
Sashiko stitching on british tweed by Manjusha

What Manjusha was describing was a simple explanation of the way a loom worked.

There are two parts to a loom; the weft and the warp. The weft is the horizontal threads and the warp is the vertical threads, and it is the weft which is woven into the warp. The rhythm of the warp subsumes the rhythm of the weft; it is within the pattern of the vertical threads that the horizontal threads work.

Like a nested for loop, I began to think. I had been introduced to the for loop in school, and one of our first assignments was to use it to create triangles and pyramids through an arrangement of stars. There also, there were two main variables, with the loop controlling the horizontal pattern working within the confines of the vertical pattern. I began to wonder if a for loop was a mathematical representation of a weave.  Whether the beginning of coding had its threads (excuse the pun) entangled within ancient looms.

“This is made on a pit loom,” explained the lady at the Gujarati textile stall. “The pedals are in a pit dug into the earth, and it leaves the hands free to work on the weft.” The kurtas and stoles are created in the tangalia style, where geometrics – mostly variations of diamonds and triangles- are created through dots. Each dot is white thread wound around an individual strand and then cut off, so that it becomes embedded in the weave. She brought out a photo album with glossy, film encased pages describing how the textiles are created. We asked her what would happen if a mistake was made, because this didn’t look like a weave or a knit that could be unpicked; it didn’t even look like a weave because each dot extended only over a single pixel.

She flipped it over and pointed out the underside of the cloth, confirming that it truly was a weave. “Well, we try not to make mistakes. “ She said. “It’s really difficult to fix. “ This is the debug quality of textile; a system.out.print()function after every step, ensuring that you have to mend your error if you want to proceed. Phulkari, the embroidery style from Punjab, is known for its precision because each thread is counted; and the strands are fine, as fine as spider web. The cloth formed is known as malka; a combination of cotton and muslin, and it keeps its tension because it is taken directly from refining to spinning; it is not wound into bales.

“You can take my card.” She told us, handing us a white rectangle. “We’re really trying very hard to revive the art, and if you’re interested then we can even come to your college and hold a workshop or something.”

When students go to villages to learn textile craft, it is the mathematics of it that they are learning; a different perspective on logic. The kullu shawls of Himachal Pradesh also operate within diamonds and sashiko patterns, but pixelated, with step-like edges that appear on borders. Iterations are counted, making it labour intensive, and the money that the artisans receive is not enough to cover the physical and emotional toll. This is a reason why such crafts are dying and the weavers are moving on – either to contemporary motifs, or to urban cities. In phulkari, the peacock has emerged as a favourite because it is easy to make. But traditional tribal motifs are symmetric, geometric and repetitive in nature, which means that there is a formula that generates them. Coding and weaving interact because the property of cloth is that it is comprised of continuous small elements. Looms and computers, therefore, are similar in the sense that both are algorithmic environments for creative work with patterns.

In ancient times looms were worked by hand, and therefore, there was a limit to the complexity of the structure.  Joseph Marie Jacquard recognized that weaving, although intricate, was also reiteration, and a mechanism could be developed around this idea. He introduced the eponymous Jacquard loom with the punched card system to control a series of operations, making it an ancestor of data entry and programming. When I studied agro fibers, I combined jute and cotton threads on a hand operated loom with levers. Each lever acted like a Boolean variable; either it raised the warp thread, or it didn’t. Like binary code, there are only two types of information that it works with.  It means that when you are weaving something, all that you have to decide is whether the concerned warp thread is to be lifted or not. According to Dr. Ellen Harlizius-Klück, this makes the loom the oldest digital machine and that is why this information can be stored as a hole in a card.

Puran Chandra is from the Mandi district in Himachal Pradesh. He uses sheep and yak wool as raw material and the colours of grey, ochre, brown, puce can be seen in the shawls he has woven.

Yak wool shawl with sashiko patterned border
Yak wool shawl with sashiko patterned border

“Hamare hi hain; hum hi palte hain.” He said. They are all his sheep, and he undertakes the rearing, the shearing, the combing, the spinning himself. And the promotion of his craft also; he comes to Bangalore for ten days during the monsoon for dastakar purposes.  If one looks carefully, the patterns formed by main weave are similar to the pattern on borders, similar to the pattern formed by the tangalia. The stylistic elements are the same, but have been permutated and combined and then permutated again to yield something that is distinctive and ethnic. Like the Pochampally ikat-a material known for their intricate geometry. The technique began as threads knotted (ikat) and dyed before being woven together. Elements are common to many world cultures, yet it originated separately in independent locations. It often requires multiple rounds of tying and dyeing.  They too are expensive; priced so high that the makers of the fabric are unable to afford them.

“Hamara kharcha chal jata hai.” Puran Chandra said. “Thoda kheti bhi karte hain.” They manage their expenses, but they farm also, to earn extra. In a world where everything is a click of a button away, time becomes currency. But the digital is not an invention of technological modernity; instead, a very ancient concept with roots in history and culture.

Photo credits: Manjusha Muthiah.

This article was published on The Indian Economist

How Computer Programming Is Similar To Textile Design

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Blossoms is a bookstore in Bangalore. It is located on Church Street, which is a tributary of Brigade Road, which connects MG Road and Residency Road. Church Street is a siphon-off, and takes time to build up into a stream. You would miss Blossoms the first time you see it; one of its outer walls is a vintage Otis scissor gate, a kind of criss -crossed barred elevator door,  the kind that you find in nascent apartment complexes. It has an English signage in red and its equivalent in Kannada in blue. The original store had begun as a two hundred square feet space, the size of a single car garage, and has grown into three stories, measuring three thousand five hundred square feet. It looks like it has expanded on adhoc tendencies; spaces cropping up whenever they are needed as if it is a living, breathing entity; its boundaries ephemeral.

“It is, in a manner.” I was told by a friend who had brought some of her used books to exchange and create a credit account. “Blossoms is primarily a second hand book store. Most of the books you buy have been owned by someone else.” The books she had brought were the data kind; the Guinness Book of world records, the pocket encyclopedias, and even these ones bore an inscription on the page before the index- in Marathi, the tongue of her grandfather.

I first discovered Blossoms as a cavernous opening in the wall.  It was a weekend in July, the time when the Bangalore sky roils and churns into itself and as I ran up the steps and entered it, my only thought was to escape the pouring rain. Shrugging off my jacket, I turned and caught my breath. I was standing at the entrance of a bookstore. Today, a pure bookstore is elusive; they are all becoming a combination of sports equipment and music, but this one was one of those unadulterated dusty, quaint old stores where one finds real gems. It was the kind of place where you expect to find ravens perched on bookshelves and flying out of cobwebs. The walls were a dirty cream, and lined with wooden cases, containing books authored by people I hadn’t heard of, and the centre had tables groaning under the weight of hardbacks and paperbacks. It was like I had entered a different world; worlds, not of bestselling authors, but of obscure ones. Even the sound of the rain had vanished into the background. I picked up a book, opened its pages, and drank in the musty scent greedily-the last book I had read that had a smell like that was my grandmother’s copy of Gone with the Wind. This too, was a copy of Gone with the Wind; except it dated back to 1964 and had ink smudged thumbprints on the sides.

The bookstore was deserted, the counter was empty; something that I was thankful for, because it gave me the opportunity to stroll and explore at my own leisure.  One of the things about stores like Oxford and Teksons is that the people follow you through the aisles; a moment of respite and someone leaps out to provide assistance, making you jump out of your skin, not realizing that perhaps you stopped of your own accord, and not because of a moment of indecision. And even if it was indecision, isn’t that the enjoyable thing? To take a moment and think of what to choose, and the final choice reveals something about yourself, even though you don’t know it. This store seemed aware of it, as it was empty and yet it wasn’t. I walked past authors arranged haphazardly-a Jeffery Archer, Ayn Rand, Irving Wallace, Marion Zimmer Bradley-who happens to be one of my favourite authors of historical fiction. She is best known for retelling the Arthurian legend from the perspective of the female characters, where King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are supporting, rather than the protagonists. She is one who is relatively obscure, because the books that she writes belong in quite a niche area-see what I mean about finding treasures?

I moved up the staircase, past the soft-board holding announcements of poetry readings and musical nights. The space was divided with floor to ceiling cases, and collapsed piles of books lay in the aisles   like hurdles, making it necessary for someone to slow down and reflect.

“I have all these copies on my Kindle.” I overheard a young woman telling her friend as she waved a hand over a shelf of Haruki Murakami. I spotted a 1997 contemporaries edition of Memoirs of the Geisha, the version with the grey cover and the vertical half of a Japanese lady eroding into the spine. There was a Tolkien lying next to it.  It had been some time since I read one; these days, one of my favourite pastimes was to read a book and watch its film adaptation simultaneously.  I had recently completed a Pride and Prejudice marathon, where I tried to sync the dialogues in the book and the film together. I picked up the Tolkien excitedly; there is something compelling about owning a book which has been physically read by others, as if part of their identity has been infused into the pages.  This one did not have any reams of dedication, instead, it had a city name and a date scrawled into it with black gel. Mumbai, 1982.

“Found anything yet?” I heard through a gap in the bookcase. I wasn’t the only one who had retreated into this haunt for shelter. There she was, a classmate, browsing through the classics section with a copy of Dongri to Dubai in her hands.

“What about that?” She pointed at the one I held, taking it from me and rifling through the pages.

“Oh, Lord of the Rings. I really should get around to reading it.” She said.

“You haven’t read it?”

“No, don’t read a lot of fiction. I should start, though. ” She continued to browse through the pages fiercely, as if just by touching the pages she could retrieve their essence. I took it from her with some force.

“It’s old!” I said. “Look at it; you’re going to damage it!”

As I drifted through the bookstore, I wondered, for the umpteenth time, how people could find it in their hearts to give their books away. My grandparents had spent a third of their lives nurturing a collection -since the sixties, the time when my mother was born. They had books in Hindi, Readers Digests dating back to the seventies, tomes of Marxian philosophy. A person’s private collection was like a peek inside their mind; in fact, before I had gone away, I had had a disagreement with my family. They had wanted to give the books away, the collection that we had spent seventeen years building, but I was adamant that they would not, could not, even though I had spent the months preceding college finding online versions of the ones that I could not live without. Each one of them held stories, I argued; the Goosebumps novels were the ones that the tooth fairy left under my pillow, the Asterix and Obelix had been a carefully cultivated project with our father; the Twelve Tasks of Asterix hunted down painstakingly to complete the collection. The Mallory Towers series was special to us because it had been bound together improperly, with page 64 of the third book appearing after page 134 of the second, and we read them like that. Each book holds something of ours within it; I can hardly imagine getting sentimental over an epub or a mobi format. Nevertheless, one of New Delhi’s most eclectic bookstores is closing because the virtual world is slowly taking over. But the process of sifting through shelves and the coincidence of finding a gem is not one that can be replicated virtually. Some of my most cherished books have been discovered by chance. Today, in order to find something new to read, I go through lists on Goodreads, type ‘best new books of 2015’ into the search engine.

“I think I’m going to buy this one.” My classmate said. “Are you taking that?”

“No. ” I said. I already had a digital copy of it. A kindle could not compare to a real, life breathing book, but the memories that lay with this one were not mine. The rain had stopped brewing by then, pedestrians were ducking out of shrubbery and cigarette stalls. I walked to the stairs, waiting for her to complete her purchase. The sky was still grey. She came down the steps, holding two brown packets. She gave me one.

“I didn’t buy anything.” I said.

“I know you didn’t.” she said, puzzled as well. “He said something about a sale, and getting a book– or was it an account? Said perhaps you’d like this one. I didn’t understand him completely though. “

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding. “ I said, and taking the packet from her hands, made my way up the stairs. As I did, I happened to glance inside, and stopped. It was the Tolkien that I had wished for. I took it out, and stared at it hard, before looking up and glancing at the counter. It was empty. The man had vanished; leaving no imprint or sign of his presence. But just before I turned back to mull over things, I could have sworn something winked at me behind a bookcase; a twinkling of the eyes, a slight shine in the dimness.  My friend shrugged at me as I came down the stairs, the brown packet still held in my hands. She nodded at it and then gave me a questioning look.

“Nothing.” I said, putting the packet inside my bag, and zipping it up firmly. “Let’s leave.”

This article was  published on The Indian Economist

ReKindling bookstores