Winter mornings in Delhi are bliss.
Outside my window, the sun is shining brightly above tall peepal trees – their heart-shaped leaves rustling in the breeze. The air is cool, blowing down from the snowy Himalayan peaks further north and bringing respite after months of roaring heat.
In the park opposite, ladies of a certain age are taking their morning walk. They follow the rectangular path, chatting animatedly, wearing elegant Indian kaftans over practical trainers. And to ward against the morning chill, inevitably, their shoulders are draped with lovely shawls.
This morning, one of them is wearing a particularly fetching piece... russet flowers embroidered on white wool... punctuated by ochre arches along the border. Judging by the evenness of the embroidery, however, this shawl is probably machine made... and represents another nail in the coffin of an art dating back more than 600 years.
Like so many ancient crafts in India, hand-woven Kashmiri shawls – or 'Pashminas' as they’ve become known the world over – are disappearing. Once, they graced the shoulders of emperors, princes and noblemen and were the rage of European nobility... or were lovingly collected for wedding trousseaus... today, they are being replaced slowly and inevitably by mass-produced shawls in synthetic materials.
So when I heard about Aditi Desai... a woman who has been collecting, restoring and studying hand-made shawls for 30 years, I arranged to meet her, hoping to finally understand what a ‘pashmina’ really is. We arranged to meet at a gallery where she was exhibiting some of her private collection. Before leaving home, I grabbed a few of my own so-called ‘pashminas’ to show her. I was curious... was anything I owned hand-made or even worthy of the term ‘pashmina’?
On the short auto rickshaw ride over, I thought of the shawls of my own youth. My mother owned some jamawars – a term whose definition escaped me. As a child, I’d often watch her dress up in rich silk saris, hand-crafted gold jewelery encrusted with emeralds and rubies, and her shawls. But even as I played with her exquisite things, I understood little of their history or craftsmanship.
I arrived at the gallery to find a queue of people, like me, all clutching shawls – some family heirlooms which had been mouldering unloved in closets for decades.