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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Extraordinary Fashion Pipal

A young designer, a craftsman of New Market, and an ancient holy leaf: Sandy Ao skips along with Kolkata’s latest foot fashion.


Dried leaves of pipal (Ficus religiosa)

100 sell for 25 Rupees at New Market in Kolkata

Photo: Sandy Ao

Last night in the classroom of a Catholic church here in Austin, TX, we spotted an interesting calendar. It was round, and divided the year into liturgical slices: the sacred seasons—like Lent, Easter, and Advent—and big chunks of “Ordinary Time.” Western culture seems especially prone to demarcations like this. We apply the psychic Marks-A-Lot—a lot! Let’s draw a thick line between what’s sacred and what’s profane, between the “work week” devoted to money-grubbing and the “Sabbath” for piety and giving back.

Perhaps the same thing goes on in India. We’re quite ignorant about Indian culture, have never even had the pleasure of visiting. But from what we’re learning thanks to our friend Sandy Ao in Kolkata, India seems to reach for the Marks-A-Lot a whole lot less. Instead, the primary cultural tool there seems to be the spoon. Sacred and secular, ancient and modern, commercial and religious get stirred together. There’s less of a gap between holy festivals, next to no “ordinary time.”

imageAnupam Chatterjee of Kolkata,

a young Indian designer

using an ancient plant

Photo: Sandy Ao

Sandy Ao set us off on this train of thought with some pictures she took recently at Kolkata’s huge New Market, formally known as the Hogg Bazaar. The shopping area was built in the mid-19th century so that English colonials wouldn’t have to rub shoulders with Kolkata natives. (Talk about Marks-a-Lot!) Today, though, and for many decades, the New Market has been everybody’s favorite place to shop. “In recent years we have many malls in Kolkata,” Sandy writes, “but New Market is still everyone’s choice.” Not only are prices better, she says, “It’s a paradise for the shoppers! You can get everything under the sky” 

Even a pair of winged sandals. Sandy found ethereal footwear in the making during a recent visit to New Market. “It’s the idea of this young fashion designer from Kolkata. He is hardly 23 years old. His name is Anupam Chatterjee, a young man full of imagination and working hard towards his dream career - fashion designing.”

Anupam told Sandy he uses fresh flowers often, and even made a gown “fully covered with fresh jasmine.” For the sandals he chose pipal leaf, which dried looks like a swatch of white tulle. Years ago, Sandy tried her hand at creating this beautiful filigree. “When we were young in the school we used to pick up those fallen pipal leaves and would soak them in the water, excitedly changing the water daily and waiting for the green pigments of the leaves to fall off till the leaves turned to this beautiful fibre structure. Most of the time we would end seeing our pipal leaves letting us down.” The dried pipal leaves at New Market are processed locally, she says.  “For 100 perfect pieces of these leaves they charge Rs. 25/- only!!!  It’s like my dream come true.”


Imtiaz deftly folds pipal leaves into ‘flowers’

Photo: Sandy Ao

Anupam Chatterjee has been collaborating for two years with a New Market craftsman named Imtiaz. Buying pipal right there at the market, Imtiaz has learned how to fold the leaves into airy flowers by watching others in the stalls close by. He earns Rs. 100 apiece for each pair of fancy slippers, spooning the pipal flowers together, Sandy explains, with “duck feather, dried arecanut fibres and flowers made of reeds.” We’re not sure how Anupam prices the finished footwear, but he’s already received enthusiastic response. Liking the look of pipal leaf, Chatterjee used it in a recent fashion show. “And the show was a great success,” Sandy writes. “Who knows? He may be another Sabyasachi Mukherjee in the making!”

imagePipal Tree, terracotta tile

Mohenjodaro,  2500 B.C.

in current day Pakistan

Photo: Iowa State Univ.

We don’t ordinarily mention shoe fashion and religion in the same breath, but, pipal (Ficus religiosa) is not ordinary. “The peepal is the first-known depicted tree in India: a seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, one of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation (c. 3000 BC - 1700 BC), shows the peepal being worshipped.” In the Vedic period, people used this wood as a firestarter, with the old rubbing method.

It is a deeply sacred plant for both Hindus and Buddhists.  According to legend, the Buddha received Enlightenment under the Bo (or pipal) tree. And here are several Hindu spoonfuls: Vishnu was believed to have been born under the pipal tree and Krishna to have died beneath it. “Some believe that the tree houses the Trimurti, the roots being Brahma, the trunk Vishnu and the leaves Shiva. The gods are said to hold their councils under this tree and so it is associated with spiritual understanding.”

How about a few dollops of science and manufacturing, too?: Ayurvedic medicine uses all parts of Ficus religiosa, and tannin from the bark works its way into Indian leather. Sandy relates also that in Bodh Gaya, folk artists paint on that region’s tougher pipal leaves: landscapes, portraits, and images of the Buddha.


Sandals with sacred pipal leaf and duck feathers

in Kolkata’s New Market

Photo: Sandy Ao

We asked Sandy if anyone would take offense at artists, designers and producers tinkering so freely with a plant holy as pipal.

“We are a country that loves arts and crafts, and always have an open mindedness for any creative work with a good sense,” she replied. “I am sure there will never be any objection coming from any side about this young designer using dry pipal leaf for his sandals. After all, these leaves do look like wings on feet, so unreal and so out of this world.”

Ordinary? What’s that?

Posted by Julie on 01/23 at 02:03 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyMedicineReligious RitualsPermalink