In 2018 Arjun and Rashi, were in the field in Punjab looking for something special, a particular kind of textile known as the Majnu Khes.
“We had read about it online and on various platforms and everybody had said we will find it in Panipat because that’s where it used to be made. But nobody in Panipat knew about it, nobody in Punjab knew about it,” said Arjun.
Returning home, Arjun’s mother told them about how his paternal grandfather had a khes that he never let anyone use.
“It was packed in the trunk upstairs. And when my mother brought it, it turned out to be the one we had been looking for. The khes I had been looking for was in my own home. My grandfather had brought it with him during Partition,” smiled Arjun.
And there we have the story of how craft and the Subcontinent remain intertwined with threads of history, culture, identity, gender, partition, colonialism and even post-colonialism.
Khes is a piece of woven cotton textile originating from what is now modern day East (India) and West (Pakistan) Punjab and Sindh (Pakistan). Rashi and Arjun began researching khes as design students in 2018, mapping not just the weaving structure of the textile and documenting the craft but also weaving the narrative of Partition and the relationship with Khes.
“Ours was a classroom project in our third year project of textile design working in pairs and research on any textile craft on the country. We chose khes because once it comes to Punjab there is not enough that has been done on Khes, a lot of information on phulkari, the Punjabi joottis (shoes), the naaras and the paraandees but Khes is somewhere lost. Khes was looked as a mundane textile, it was never looked at as something special,” said Arjun.
Which is interesting because other crafts such as Phulkari (a form of embroidery which usese floss thread) holds such significance as it has a memory attached as it is made for a special person. So it did seem almost unbelievable that khes was discarded when surely hailing from the region that was ripped into two – Punjab – would have some cultural significance especially as a memory.
“Khes is connected to history and it has a connection with Partition. It has a shared history for both countries and it is this khes that has made us realise how similar we are across the border. We have been speaking to the younger generation via Facebook and Instagram and through conversations about khes we have found a shared history, culture and Punjab,” said Rashi. More than connecting across the border, for these two Khes is a mode of communication at the local level too.
“I’m a Punjabi but I was brought up in Mumbai. After Partition they all settled here in Mumbai and Arjun has been in Punjab all his life. So after Parittion they went to Jallandhar in Punjab. We both have Punjabi backgrounds. I never knew of Khes before we started the project, we had never used it at home, I don’t have any heirlooms from the partition.We want to tell people what Khes is as a material and the technique of weaving in terms of how intricate and skilful a khes creation is.”
Perhaps the most striking element of the Khes Project started by Rashi and Arjun is the recognition of the holistic dimension of craft before the pandemic raised the alarm for sustainability.
“More than indigenous it is a sustainable way of living. It is a result of the Indo-Pak colonialism hangover that we ignore our cultures that we had been living, Craft is not just a source of income but a way of living, it has always been sustainable and works with nature, the given ecosystem and raw markets that happen to be available to us,” explained Arjun. “Nature is used to make patterns on the loom, we don’t realise how genius our craftspeoeple were and still are. What it was back then, it was amazing. We are losing this craft.”
Through the digital documentation on their Instagram account, the heavy devastation that colonialism wreaked on the Subcontinent’s way of living hits hard.
“We saw the West as the best. They realised the power of our cultures and so now we are following them, following us. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh were forced to look upto the British and let them tell us that our ways of living was wrong,” said Arjun. But that is changing. “Today because of social media, the younger generations see what the West is doing and their realisation of the power of our cultures,” said Rashi.
While there is no denying the power of social media, the idea of present day connections used to travel back in time as a return to life in the past is a fascinating phenomenon. A curious mix of storytelling, digital documentation culminating in a physical product indicates that while craft has survived environment, economic, political and societal changes, it is also beating the digital realm with its power of connection.
To see more of the Khes project work click here.