Tuesday, May 23, 2006

AGRA: Singing the Colors

"red six, light blue two, yellow one, red eight … ."

Fingers dancing to singing words, weavers pull brightly dyed wool between cotton strings, tight-stretched over massive rollers. A row ends and … slam! Down come the forks, packing knotted threads into the intricacy of a growing pattern, the density of the knots a characteristic of an Agra carpet. Slam! Slam! Slam! We’re hearing the muffled kettle drums of the weavers’ music.
"… dark blue two, brown two, gold one, dark blue two, red ..."

"Notice the bluish cast," the proprietor instructs. "This is lac red, a unique color, the red of an Agra carpet."

Fingers flicker, following the song, sensuous colors flying to their appointed places, building the velvet nap and creating Agra’s distinctive floral patterns. The city, I would learn, has given its name to all carpets made in India, their manufacture growing from exactly the same artistic impulse that inspired the construction of the Taj Mahal.

As the weavers sing, their chants cascade, one lyric leading to another, each carpet having its own verses and melody, repeated and repeated. Today’s voices, yesterday’s chanters, last year’s baritones lead the yarn in the same way, painting beloved flowers, winding identical vines. Originally, they say, the fingers belonged to artisans brought to India from Herat by the greatest of the Moghul emperors, Akbar, while today’s designs spring from his grandson’s, Shah Jahan’s, love of stylized flower motifs.

Our visit here was intended as a side excursion, a break from the serious business of viewing monuments. We hadn’t been sure we should bother, our guidebook having been less than enthusiastic. "Carpetmakers in Uttar Pradesh turn out respectable imitations … ," Lonely Planet: India told us. Uttar Pradesh, of course, is the province that houses both Agra and New Delhi.

"Everyone does rug-making," our local guide had said, his voice lacking enthusiasm.

Neither source was much of a recommendation. But here we are.

In stocking feet I step across a field of lac red that is patterned with rows of flowers to kneel and look more closely at a carpet dominated by blue. Its color and intricately wound flowers mark it as a pattern that probably originated in western Afghanistan when that area was still part of Persia. It’s an old pattern, one that has seen much use. Macedonian soldiers might have lounged on identical carpets--loot stolen on their eastward march under Alexander. And the conquering hordes of Tamar the Lame, known to us as Tamarlane, probably carried clones of this same carpet to Samarkand.

"We have less expensive carpets, of course," the proprietor says. "Only 156,800 rupees." The coffee tastes bitter; is as thick as pea soup. "Hmm. Perhaps I would consider 20,000."

Half an hour later, bargaining inconclusive, my daughter and I have resumed our tourist duties and are in a pavilion, a small palace called the Khas Mahal atop Agra’s massive Red Fort, sunlight filtering through elaborate marble screens. I lean against a parapet, imagining the gleaming marble covered in carpets. Surely, the ghost of Shah Jahan, the architect of the Taj Mahal, must be here. Like us, he will be looking up the Yamuna River to the marble tracery of the ethereal tomb he built for his wife.

Legend says he stared, day after day, at the fantasy of the Taj, remembering in its lines and beauty a woman of laughter and music, his mind stuck in the past. Did the patterns of curving leaves, delicate flowers, and climbing vines remind him of the mosaics in the Taj, ones he had commissioned as he had the carpets? How many of his memories would have been played out on Agra’s rugs?

History moves on. By 1857, the British had taken over the carpet factories, had introduced artificial dyes, degrading the colors. But in that year, carpet making was far from their minds. In 1857, six thousand English came through heat reaching 136 degrees Fahrenheit with hastily packed carts overflowing with family heirlooms and ayahs, followed by horses and bearers. Fleeing revolting Sepoys who killed whole garrisons elsewhere, they crammed the fort.

They would have made partitions with their carpets, beautiful even in the killing heat, tacking them across empty doorframes and along pillared arcades, spreading them over stone floors. Journals from the period tell us that the refugees lived in fetid disorder for months, uncomfortable but safe behind walls built by the Moghuls.

We walk along a gallery and imagine stifling family enclosures here. It would be nice to think they found some relief in the harmonious designs of their carpets, that their spirits might have lifted seeing the beauty in these patterns, if not in the chemical colors. But it probably didn’t work that way.

Later, we watch yet again as the weavers’ fingers flicker in the looms. We listen as their music grows an ancient pattern. There on the frame is a fresh version of an old composition, one that will carry a bit of Agra’s lifeblood and history across the world. Where will I see it next--in a New York hotel, a Paris apartment, or my own home?

The merchant says, "Perhaps I would consider 70,000 rupees." "Hmm," I consider. "It would be difficult, but I might manage forty." And, so it goes. So it has always gone. The song, too, continues:

"… six gold, two red, one blue … ."

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