Recently, I traveled on work to the villages around Machilipatnam in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. I usually enjoy driving through the countryside and this trip involved plenty of that (about three hours back and forth from my hotel in Vijaywada to the villages). Perhaps, the landscape failed to move me because I found the relentless paddy fields (muddy yellow in harvest rather than the fabled gold) dreary, or thought the thin clusters of palm trees rising up at intervals like many-handed gods had something grim about them. Perhaps, my visits to the villages and the relentless stories of poverty, AIDS, domestic violence left me tired. Perhaps, the grey miles of ruined aquaculture farms hardened me. Or maybe, I was just having a bad week. I don’t know what it is but somehow, this particular part of coastal Andhra left a memory of bleakness.
Yet, there were some pleasant moments — pristine white heron speckling the fields, interesting birds near the shrimp farms, cotton trees in bloom, brilliant sunsets and sudden rain. Much of this was witnessed en route and I couldn’t bear to stop Rambhav, the driver, to take pictures every time. Here are some I did manage.
A duck farmer out with his brood — This is not a common occupation in these parts where people mostly survive on inland fishing, agricultural wage labour and aquaculture farming so this was presumably a rare sighting. The ducks had come out to ‘pasture’. The man got quite excited when he saw my camera. Between his Telugu and my sign language, I gathered that he wanted to pose with his ducks. So he stepped into the water and called them. And they came.
I took a picture of this shed built in the traditional style (mud walls and thatched roof) because it was prettier than the houses and didn’t have piles of vessels on the ground outside. Many houses are still made like this but increasingly, people are being able to build pucca houses. The government has also introduced housing schemes in some villages. While these old-style houses look more ‘quaint’ and charming, they are dreadfully uncomfortable, prone to leakage and flooding, and easily destructible. With no windows, they also lack ventilation and tend to trap smells. The pucca houses, in contrast, are ugly, square things but obviously far more functional.
Machilipatnam is famous for Kalamkari textiles. I visited a small production unit in Polavaram, which is one of the important centers of production. The owner explained the process to me in great detail. I will not get into that here but it involves many soakings in various chemicals and washing and drying the cloth multiple times. Also, bleaching the cloth with cowdung. I valiantly repressed squeamish urges. The dyes are created using various seeds, herbs and roots. He mentioned that the biggest difficulty they face is in getting hold of the forest products required to create the dyes.
Different dyes are applied in each layer.
The dyes are stored in large vats in a dark, little room. It smells evil as boiled mixtures of odd substances are likely to. In fact, the whole place stinks a bit and I did not envy the artisans as they tirelessly bent over their work that is both meticulous and monotonous.
Unlike in Srikalahasti where the work is done with a pen, the Machilipatnam form uses printing blocks. In this production unit, a separate room houses the blocks which lie about in careless disarray in heaps on the floor and overflow from cupboards. Is there a method in this madness? I’m sure there must be. On the other hand, the people here seem a little unaware of just how fascinating their art is considered by outsiders.
A close-up of some of the blocks.
They get more complicated.
I found it interesting that the cloth is used for bedcovers, lungis, pyjama suits and nighties in these parts but it’s very difficult to buy a Kalamkari sari or salwar kameez material because this is a concept that had become fashionable only in the big cities. I was told that there are only two shops selling Kalamkari products in Machilipatnam and neither of these sell saris or material.