Jasleen Dhamija

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The following essay “This Space is Mine” by noted Indian textiles historian Jasleen Dhamija, was first published in The Rugs of War catalogue, 2003.

The first time I came across a War Rug was in the late 1980s in New Delhi. It was just by chance that I saw a carpet of an indigo blue background with a beautifully worked traditional border of curling stems and fine guard borders on each side. The two ends carried the traditional gelim weave with geometric patterns, a signature of the Baluchi women weavers. But, in the main body there was a strange repeat of a pattern dominated by yellow flowers, oddly placed and distributed all over. At first glance it looked like a typical Baluchi rug with rather odd shaped geometric patterns. It was only when I looked at it again that strange, heavy ominous forms emerged. They were rows and rows of battle tanks, their turrets well defined and raised guns, and signs of engaging in a battle. The yellow flowers were bursting shells, the flower of death. I shivered and something within me froze.

This was not the usual carpet woven by the Afghan women on their horizontal ruh-zamini kargah, parallel to the earth looms, which could be stretched out in any open space. These are the looms on which the nomads wove carpets for themselves and the surplus for sale, for the extra income for their household. These carpets were also not the commercial carpets meant only for the bazaar. They were the very personal carpets that they wove for themselves, for the near and dear ones, to be gifted to the extended family according to the norms of gift exchange prescribed by their tribal and family tradition, or to be sold to a known clientele. I always felt that the women weavers were closer to earth and drew inspiration, from it. For them the earth was animate, it smelt, it spoke to them and gave their creative selves sustenance. This was not the commercial carpet woven on the vertical loom by professional carpet weavers. The women had not woven the mythical pai phil, the imprint of the elephant or the enclosed garden with a tree and a bird that they had woven for centuries. It was a cry of anguish. It was that ominous death machine, which dominated their life. Women have always believed that by weaving the feared form they could capture it and take away the powerful evil. Were they like Clytemnestra, who through the nimble knots of her woven rug captured Agamemnon and then annihilated him? Was this the exorcism of the evil demonic character of the remorseless, relentless machine, which crushed their homes, their people, their arduously planted gardens?

The next war rug I saw was a prayer rug, brought to me by a Kashmiri carpet seller. The Mehrab was clearly defined in black on a maroon background and the whole surface covered with multitudes of tiny planes worked in a black outline and filled with a strange lilac pink, the colour of the setting sun. It was as though their entire sky was dominated by these planes and they saw the light reflected only on their wings. There was a claustrophobic presence of the war planes that blocked their horizon. Recreating it on the prayer rug was calling out to God to protect them – Oh Khudaiya man khafe shudam, Oh God! I am suffocated! – a common cry of a woman in adversity.

I began to look out for these innovations. The weavers were hiding their intent by making a repeat of their new motifs so that at first glance they looked like the conventional carpet, yet in the powerful repeat they were like non-verbal incantations to subdue the enemy.

Suddenly, I saw a change. The women became bolder, the multiple instruments of war became more dominant. However, they still continued to organise the spaces symmetrically. The first departure into another landscape I encountered was City with Airport (Plate 4). It has a double zigzag guard border enclosing the main border of stylized trees of life. The zigzag denotes flowing waves of water, which is their sustenance, while the trees denote life eternal. The airport dominates the right side, surrounded by a densely populated townscape, with standing houses, some of them burning, while the flat squares are those flattened by the war, where only the outline of the space remains. In the lower half, below the airport, hope is reiterated, but tentatively. A stylized peacock with its open tail feathers stands between a clutch of bird heads. A gun points to a drooping tree, as though struggling to remain erect, perhaps representing the weaver struggling to stay alive. All around instruments of war – helicopters, aeroplanes, armoured cars – hover over the space. Traditional motifs appear suddenly, but their meaning has changed. The gul, flower, is no longer the flower of hope, the burgeoning of bahar, spring, when sap stirs in the earth, but the bursting of mortars. The S pattern is no longer the benign powerful dragon of the sky, but destruction that rains down. It is a landscape of devastation with an arsenal of death and subjugation. Yet hope springs eternal as the devout would say, al-ham-dulallah, thanks be to God, for in the midst of devastation, the tree of life, in between the houses, raises its flowering branches, reaching out to the sky. The One who gives succor will make the earth green once again and salvage the devastated human landscape.

The weavers appear to have discovered a new form of expression. These extraordinary rugs discard all conventions. In Plate 6, the dominant border is of helicopters with their rotors whirring. Down the centre runs the tree of life. The enemies are poised for battle, tanks shooting shells, foot soldiers with guns. Is this the mujahideen attacking the Russians, or some other tribal conflict? In the centre stand two havelies, ancient homes, with archway and faces looking out from their windows. The two armies are fighting their battles, while the people helplessly watch their environment, their lives being devastated.

In another rug (Plate 11), tanks, hand-grenades and guns dominate the surface and multiple S dragon forms and bursting shells fill in the space. Three women covered from head to toe, stand with outstretched arms protecting their homestead, represented by four hens, while a stylized Allah written in Arabic on either side of them, gives them strength, gives them protection. Are they the hidden anonymous creators of these rugs? Are they stretching their arms out to each other to create a circle of power, of protection?

The rug on the cover of the catalogue shows Afghanistan devastated by the demoniac form of the puppet dictator controlled by a monstrous hand bearing the hammer and sickle. The surround of the border is created with multi-coloured bombs. The map also shows Pakistan where life goes on calmly. The caravan of the Kuchi (the nomadic people of the area) is led by an unveiled woman, with men and children seated at their ease on camels proceeding towards Iran. Antelope and deer appear at peace in their environment. These shy denizens of the forest are unafraid, for there is no threat of violence. By contrast, the scene in the space demarcated as Afganistan is full of violence, which echoes the cries of its people violated.

The Jahan Bahksh story (Plate 1) appears to be a transformation of the legends of the Shahnameh, where the Deeva Safeed, the white supernatural being is embroiled with the red devil. The rather crude drawing is powerful and appears to be the work of a folk artist. Headless men, armless riders on strange tank like forms, look on helplessly, while local guerillas use their traditional weapons to destroy their enemies.

It is as though the women have taken on the battle in their own way. Their sheep provide the wool, their hands clean and spin it. Nature provides the dyes and their skill, their burning desire to protect their people, their humanscape, drives them to weave these magical totemic rugs, which would defeat the apparently invincible army. Their fears are controlled, their creativity gathers the uncertainty, the impenetrable to conjure the strength for a battle with the enemy. Thus the simple rug is transformed into an expression of faith in their ability to hone from irrational, petrified anachronistic images a world of their own. These rugs are a creative expression, which transgress the conventional boundaries of art history and cultural critique.

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