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A Passage to India …and Pakistan! by Farzan Navab
Part I - India

The Nawabs are coming

The passionate artisan
India gives so much to the world Husband and wife team & separate tea!
Of weavers and artisans Jaipur is the jewel
A life changing experience A reunion after twenty years
Stick it on with glue Farewells and trepidations
Weaving on the sacred river The Navabs are wanted!
Of Taj and rugs  

Though Sam Navab has been a frequent visitor to India and a former resident of New Delhi, for me our recent trip to India and Pakistan,was an eye opener and so I decided to share some of my experiences and impressions with our readers. My impressions are of a general nature and very personal. Here I am not offering facts but only opinions.

 

Farzan Navab (middle) with
Mr. and Mrs. Sharma


 

The Nawabs are coming
Our flight from Amsterdam arrived on time in New Delhi and going through the customs was remarkably a fast process. It was the first time that a driver was expecting us at an airport. And there were literally fifty to hundred men holding up signs that displayed names of expected passengers.
  Ours was one with the Indian spelling of our last name: “Nawab” as opposed to how Persian speaking people spell it: “Navab” with a “V” instead of a “W”. Nevertheless we understood that the man was looking for us to be delivered to the “Taj” hotel, one of the nicer hotels in New Delhi. At the hotel too, we were treated like royalty (Nawab in India was a title for governors and royalties during the Mugal period). Our insistence that we were really “ Navabs” and not “Nawabs, or in any case royalty, apparently was not to be believed by our Indian hosts.

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"India gives so Much to the world"
said our buying agent Aditya Raman
The generosity of Indian people is stuff of legends but until you go to India you do not realize how such respect and generosity shown to a visitor can be so genuine and sincere. It is perhaps such sincerity expressed by Indian people that makes many tourists dress in Indian garb. We saw many women wearing the sari and many men wearing the overall type Indian suit. To mix with the locals seems a natural thing to do even for a visitor whose stay is rather short.
  On this trip we were guided by our able and extremely kind representative in India Mr. Aditya Raman. A well known family in Varanasi (formerly Benares), the Ramans are known in the rug industry as creators of fantastic rugs, pioneers of unusual weaving techniques and above all of having impeccable credentials. We have known this family for twenty years and have benefited from their great insight and assistance, and in this particular trip we benefited from their wonderful hospitality.
  Aditya Raman was a consummate host, taking us through villages of Varanasi, the streets of Agra and Jaipur, homes and cottages of various weavers, the Taj Mahal and inviting us to the Rambagh Palace hotel, were we had dinner in the courtyard accompanying a former Maharajah while enjoying the trance like experience of watching traditional Indian dancers. He sure made us feel like a Nawab!.   Raman Family History

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Rug finishing in Agra
 
Rug finishing in Agra


Woman spinning - Jaipur

Of weavers and artisans
Manufacturing rugs in India is a very organized industry. Unlike making rugs in Iran that is still somewhat disorganized with many people doing work independently and in totally separate locations, rug making in India consists of two basic components: weaving and finishing. A manufacturer makes a particular design, provides the wool to a weaving house and finishes the job by performing all finishing related activities including shearing, washing, edging the sides and fringing the ends and finally re-dyeing the surface for consistency.
Of all these steps, the weaving though complicated and difficult, seems a straightforward step in the rug making process. To start with, the way the wool is spun and dyed is the number one factor determining the final look of a rug. Some wools are machine spun while others are not. The degree of twisting the wool while spinning will make a difference in the eventual surface look of the rug. Some wools have a high twist while others have very little twist. In addition, natural dyes versus synthetic can create an entirely different look. Each manufacturing house dyes its own wool, assuring its quality and keeping the dyeing portion of their production somewhat of a secret.
  I was specially surprised to see how much work is done on a rug that has just come off the loom. In particular, with the ever changing U.S. market demanding new colors and designs, the finishing of an Indian rug can be a very complicated task.
The Indian rug makers are descendents of great artisans that came to India with the arrival of Mughal conquerors in the 17th century. In the beginning, rug manufacturing was centered around Punjab and in particular Kashmir where the general feel of the culture had already been influenced by the Persians.
  Today most of the manufacturing is done in and around Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur. Each area is known for a particular look and feel that though it might seem similar to the untrained eye,
is obviously different with aspects of design, weaving and finishing representing indigenous
local traditions.

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A life changing experience
I had previously heard from some of my associates and friends that once you travel to India you will not look at life the same way. But I did not know what that meant or for that matter what to expect when I got to India.
  To say that India is a land of extremes and contradictions is of course an overused cliché. But as is the case with all clichés there is more than an inkling of truth to such expressions. India is a vast country with many seemingly insurmountable problems. The overwhelming poverty juxtaposed with extreme wealth is an ordinary scene in India. So is looking at a dead body on the street or looking at the amazing colors of fabrics, people, nature and landscape. The aroma of various perfumes mixed with food and incense and the ever present sound of Indian music in cars, hotel lobbies, on TV and on every street corner, is also something that makes life in India more of a mythical experience. You feel in a way as though you, just like countless movie stars, singers and dancers of Bollywood films, are taking part in an ongoing movie called “life”.

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Stick it on with glue
Unfortunately the U.S market has recently shifted interest from hand knotted rugs to what is known as “Hand Tufted”. The latter being a cheaply made product quickly constructed using a gun tufting machine and latex glue. Many formerly hand knotted weaving houses have switched to making these cheap products. Almost all hand tufted rugs are made for sale in the US market where they are distributed through such mass marketers as Pottery Barn and Home Depot. The effect on the livelihood of people in Indian rug industry has been devastating. While making hand knotted rugs is more difficult, the pay is much better, making life easier on thousands of families that reside in the area. However the same workers get very little for making these awful tufted products.

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Ceremony on the Ganges, Varanasi


 

Weaving on the shores of the sacred river
Varanasi, formerly Benares, where the holy river Ganges runs through the city and is a revered place for all Hindus, is also the largest rug producing region in India with the town of Badohi, about 40 miles away, being its center.
  The mostly Muslim population of Badohi make their living by primarily working in the rug industry. Almost every home in Badohi and surrounding areas has either a working loom or is a finishing workshop for rugs. Some weaving houses have become extremely wealthy while the population at large has remained extremely impoverished. The government of India seems too busy promoting their high tech industry while the plight of the carpet industry remains unnoticed. One positive observation is that we did not encounter the use of child labor in any of the production places we visited.
  Most of the work in Badohi is done by grown young men and some who did not seem so young. There are I am sure, many child laborers in various industries in India including the rug industry but not limited to it. The giftware industry for example, which is much larger than the rug industry relies heavily on child labor. It is a fact however that cheap and poorly made rugs are the product of child labor and that quality rugs require more sophisticated and trained weavers who are older. As a rule, our company since its inception, has stayed away from poor quality department store type rugs.
  It is important to note that such practices are the product of overwhelming poverty. To change that, we must address the underlying conditions that contribute to child labor practices. Governments including both the U.S and the Indian governments, can address these issues and enforce better regulations.

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Rug finishing in Agra
 
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz


At Taj with Aditya Raman

Of Taj and rugs
Another interesting place where rugs are made in India is Agra. Associated primarily with the palace of Taj Mahal, literally meaning the place of the crown. Agra is also a rug producing region at least since the reign of Mughal rulers (early 16th to mid 19th century).
  In 1631 Shah Jahan, emperor during the Mughal period of greatest prosperity, was grief-stricken when his second wife Mumtaz Mahal died during the birth of their daughter Gauhara Begum, their fourteenth child. Contemporary court chronicles concerning Shah Jahan's grief form the basis of the love story traditionally held as the being the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.
  One could speculate that Agra being “the place for the crown” became an important rug producing region due to the patronage of its Mughal rulers who brought with them many Persian artistic traditions. But the rugs of Agra have a distinctly Indian characteristic that is also present in all other arts of the Mughal era. The delicately drawn floral elements in these rugs have a particular affinity to the Indian textile design of the period and even to the floral motifs used as decorative elements in the design of the Taj Mahal.

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The passionate artisan
In Agra we met with the very enthusiastic and friendly Rahul Goel of Goel carpets. Rahul is a true artist who utilizes old Indian rug patterns that are sometimes over two hundred years old. The delicately drawn patterns on checkered paper were a product of chance discovery in an old building. Rahul is a perfectionist who believes his mission as a manufacturer is to preserve the Indian artistic tradition. His recreation of old designs is remarkable in that all aspects of design and even the wear and tear has been recreated. Much like many other rug makers we encountered in India, Rahul Goel also complains of the treatment he receives from wholesalers in Europe and the U.S who constantly ask for lower production costs and yet expect the quality to remain high. He is also saddened by the fact that many buyers do not contribute to his knowledge by keeping him informed of the latest trends in the marketplace.

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The husband and wife team and the “separate” tea!
Throughout our journey we were served tea at every production house we visited. As Persians, we are fond of our tea drinking habit that entails sucking on a sugar cube while sipping dark black tea. In India, however, they make their tea mixed with milk. So our host Aditya had learned to indicate our preference for black tea every where we went. The term used was “separate” as in bring the milk on the side and not mixed in with the tea.
  The tea served to us in Agra at Mr. and Mrs. Sharma tasted specially good. The fact is that it is a rare occasion where you feel mutual reverence and respect at first sight specially in business dealings. The Sharmas greeted us at what seemed to be an annex to their home. They are an unassuming couple who conduct their business in a quiet way. They have a rather small production company that is very accommodating to the needs of specialty retailers such as us. We kind of cleaned out the house by buying just about everything we saw. I think the fact that up until then we had dealt with an all “male” cast of characters and the surprise of meeting a husband and wife team with so much sincerity gave us an extra dose of enthusiasm.

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Jaipur is the jewel!
Built of pink stucco in imitation of sandstone, Jaipur is remarkable among pre-modern Indian cities for the width and regularity of its streets which are laid out into six quarters separated by broad streets 111 ft (34 m) wide. The urban quarters are further divided by networks of gridded streets. Five quarters wrap around the east, south, and west sides of a central palace quarter, with a sixth quarter immediately to the east. The Palace quarter encloses a sprawling palace complex (the Hawa Mahal, or palace of winds), formal gardens, and a small lake. Nahargarh Fort crowns the hill in the northwest corner of the old city. Another noteworthy building is Sawai Jai Singh's observatory, Jantar Mantar. Jaipur, with its rich and colorful past, resplendent with tales of valor and bravery is now one of the most important heritage cities in India, and is a must-see for tourists coming to India.
  An Important location for the production of traditional arts and crafts, Jaipur also prides itself as an important place for the making of glorious rugs and carpets. Jaipur rugs made a huge impact in the market in the early 1990s and the Raman family (our host family in this trip) with the making of Noble House rugs revolutionized the market using ancient designs, fantastic lustrous wool and above all vegetable dyes.

 
Sam inspecting rugs
 

  In Jaipur too we met with top rug producers and were impressed with their willingness to show us their best products. One Mr. Kapoor, the president of a well established firm pointing out Persian influences on Indian art and culture, broke in to a Persian language proverb: “one who enters a salt mine will become salty”. In Persian, salt can be a metaphor for many things including “sharing” as in breaking bread and salt with a neighbor or being indebted to someone who shares his bread and salt with one, or for being “charming” as in she looked “salty” meaning she was charming. But for Mr. Kapoor who had studied Persian as a school boy in Punjab before the partition of India, salt mine was a metaphor for Persian culture and its influence on India.

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A reunion after twenty years
Our last memorable experience in Jaipur was an evening spent with Mr.Lakshmi Raman, Aditya’s father and their family. It was an emotional encounter especially for my brother Sam, who had met Mr. Raman some twenty years ago while he was working for another rug firm.
  Mr.Raman was then a major supplier of this Twin Cities firm and had come to get a glimpse of the operation in Minneapolis. Now, some twenty years later, his son had taken the helm from his father operating the handmade rug portion of a business empire that includes major hotel and real estate development in addition to the ownership of a chain of fine vegetarian restaurants throughout India.
  Lakshmi Raman is a true Indian gentleman. Wearing a traditional thick and long mustache and dressed impeccably in a “Safari” shirt (which I tried to find one for myself without success: Mr. Raman has a personal tailor), he greeted us at the door of their modern compound and embraced us warmly. “You have not changed a bit, Sam” said Mr. Raman. “And you are like a Kerman rug, getting better with age” replied my brother Sam.
  The evening was spent with Lakshmi Raman reminiscing about his visit to Minneapolis and giving us tips on where the rug market is going. He showed us a few of the cars from his collection of antique English cars while enjoying his grandson’s playful interruptions. This was truly a remarkable experience, because twenty years ago we could not imagine a day when we could meet Lakshmi Raman in his own house in Jaipur, India. Surely “Kismet” had something to do with it.

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Farewells and trepidations
The next morning we boarded a plane back to Delhi where the day after we were scheduled on a flight to Lahore, Pakistan. In the US we were told that having an Indian visa might hinder us getting one from Pakistan. That did not happen. We were able to quickly get visas for both countries, national animosities notwithstanding. But we felt that things would perhaps be different in Pakistan especially due to renewed security concerns. That weekend, terrorists had bombed a train that linked the disputed Kashmir territory to Pakistan killing dozens of innocent passengers.

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The Navabs are wanted!
Such fears grew large as we entered Lahore’s Allameh Iqbal airport, named after the great Urdu and Persian poet and Islamic reformist. Here too, we were supposed to be met by a driver who was to take us to our hotel. Instead, the signs displaying our names (this time with its correct Persian spelling) were held up by two airport security guards. I thought to myself: “here we go, they are going to hold us as suspicious travelers from India!” Well, that turned out to be a typical False Farzan moment. In fact, our rug supplier in Pakistan knew someone important at the airport and had made sure that we were cleared from customs and immigration without a hitch. So they took us to an office, collected our bags and put us in front of a car awaiting us, in no time.
  Qamar Zaman, a major rug producer in Lahore, and a larger than life quiet gentleman, greeted us at his car. Qamar is a graduate of NYU and seems equally comfortable living in the East or the West. His latest model BMW indicated his desire for finer things in life. He apologized for taking us to the Holiday Inn instead of the more luxurious Pearl Continental. But there seemed to be too much going on in Lahore at the time including a major conference for Pfizer pharmaceutical company which has a branch in Lahore. So all hotels were booked solid.

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