Deb Brandon: Living in Radiant Color

Himalayan Conversation

Himalayan bamboo hat

I gave up and clicked the phone icon. Messaging just wasn’t doing it. our messages were getting longer and the back and forth more complex. He answered immediately and our conversation continued. I had so many questions for him, about his life, his village, the traditions still practiced there.

Over the past couple of decades, through my love of traditional textiles, I’ve made connections with artisans from Bhutan, Laos, Peru, Guatemala, Nigeria, Ghana, and India. A couple of weeks ago, I connected with a family of artisans from the Himalayas. It was my insatiable curiosity that prompted me to initiate contact with Anthony Jonnom of the village of Ruksin, which lies in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas.

As an ethnic textile aficionado, I am a member of several textile groups on Facebook. When I was scrolling through Facebook recently, I came across an intriguing textile on the Himalayan Tribes page, a shawl, fluffy on one side, smooth on the other.

Always on the lookout for material for my next book on textile techniques from around the world, I took a closer look at the photos and pored over the information. Apparently, using traditional techniques, it was handwoven with handspun cotton. Cotton? How did that work in the Himalayas? Wasn’t it cold there? Perhaps that was why it was fluffy on the one side, for added warmth. But how did they do it? Was it knotted pile?

I sent a message to Himalayan Tribes, asking questions. My exchange with Anthony Jonnom answered all my questions, and more. The more I learnt, the more convinced I became determined to write about these shawls. For that I’d need a photo of the textile. writing about traditional textiles has been a wonderful excuse for purchasing samples. Now, almost a decade since I started writing about ethnic textiles, I have a decent collection.

I asked Anthony whether these shawls were for sale and was delighted to hear that they were and that I could afford one. He sent me additional photos of the shawl including close-ups. Apparently, they are called gudas in Adi, his tribe.  “Do you like this one? Or a woolier one?” I liked both. “My mother can weave you a woolier one. We use them for blankets.

In order to send him payment, I needed his address. He sent me the name of his village in India, a nearby city, the district, the state, a pin, but no street address. “We have only one street.” He me photos and videos of his village. His photos included gorgeous baskets. “My father made these.” He then added videos of the process of the basket making, then of the spinning and weaving. I asked about other textiles traditional to his tribe. My breath caught when he described the process of making of shawls made from lotus silk and wild silk. The videos really got me hooked.

I had to learn more. I had so many questions. At one point, he asked me whether I was on WhatsApp. He sent me a text via WhatsApp. Typing messages back and forth was getting more and more cumbersome. I took a deep breath and phoned him. I had a choice, voice only, or video? Video. The conversation now flowed. He spoke of his plans for a Himalayan tribes’ cooperative to help artisans sell their wares. The remoteness of their villages complicated sending packages out to the world—Anthony was in the process of setting up a shop in Delhi. He talked about his dreams of organizing weaving and basketry tours to his village.

We discussed concerns about sustaining traditional skills, challenges in pricing, and educating the public. He told me about the Adi, their culture and traditions, life in the village, how his mother insists that he complete his engineering certificate.

The phone call left me with a goofy grin which sill surfaces whenever I think about it.

Bamboo hat

Our conversations continue. He has been giving me a wealth of information about his community’s traditional products. I requested close-up videos of the weaving of the gudas. “I’ll ask my mom to take one.” She also sent a video of a cousin’s wedding, asking guests to wave at the camera.

I feel as if we are becoming friends. I sent him a copy of my textile book. And a week ago, I received a large box from a basket lover in California, containing three handwoven backpacks and two beautifully made hats. The basket aficionado who sent it had been planning to sell them for Anthony, but then the pandemic got in the way. Anthony asked him to send them to me as a gift.

A couple of days ago, Anthony asked me whether I’d like to come and weave with them. “The best time to visit is between November and May…We will stay inside the village.”

I’m game. The only question is when. Next year, perhaps? Pandemic willing.