The old woman who never learnt how to make paper boats

When the festivals rolled around this year, I was not much worried. After all, despite the lockdown or unlock or whatever you want to call the chaos caused by the pandemic, I could order all the things I needed to celebrate them – all but the flowers. But, ‘flowers are available and get delivered at home too,’ you say? Well, I can watch my vegetables and fruits go through the ‘COVID-treatment’ at the hands of the L&M, but not bear to see delicate blooms being soaked in salt and soda water. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you’d better read my post about it.

I called my granddaughter for some ‘non-flower’ flower ideas. She is that whiz who can turn any junk into a piece of art in a wink. Origami, painting, baking, food decoration, puja decoration — she is good at everything and has loads of ideas and hacks when the required material is short. I remember her small chest of drawers where she kept all her ‘treasures’ including gift wrapping paper, colourful ribbons, pieces of cardboard – basically anything in which she could ‘see’ some future project taking shape. Pushed pell mell into those drawers, they came to the rescue when anything needed to be ‘built’ or created by her deft hands.

Listening to me now, she wasn’t too enthusiastic, having seen her pati flounder at the simplest of craft projects she had wanted to with her on Skype. Incidentally, her maternal grandmother is a great handicrafts person. But being too sweet and polite to refuse, she tried to teach me to make some paper flowers by drawing the patterns with a few deft strokes. Though they were excellent, paper flowers could not be used for puja and I was back at square one.

I decided to celebrate the festivals without flowers. It was a tough decision for someone who usually has loads of them. For the first time in my life, I felt frustrated for being such an ‘uncrafty’ person! But then hadn’t I been one since childhood?

I remembered the time when the younger Brat had been in Sr. KG and had come home one day holding a paper boat. ‘Amma, can you make one for me? This one is squished up,’ he said.

I had never had any problem when the older one was growing up. His grandparents had been around and had been wonderful when it came to such stuff. I looked at the boat helplessly and then decided to give it a shot. After all, how difficult can a paper boat be? I carefully opened it out and studied the folds with the concentration that even Sir. M. Vishweswaraiyah wouldn’t have given to the blueprints of one of his dams.

Nyet! All my efforts came to nought as scrunched up paper piled near my feet. Finally, the kid held up a perfectly made boat and said, ‘Amma, look! I have made it. It is so simple! Come let me show you!’ He was too sweet (or too young?) to make fun of his mother who was such a dumb thing!

‘That is wonderful! Let me finish the kitchen work and then you can teach me,’ I hastily escaped from the ordeal of learning something that I knew was beyond me.

There is absolutely nothing to explain how I ended up in a family of super craftswomen (not to forget some men too), especially on my mother’s side of the family. She and her three sisters were all superlative in every kind of art and craft. Be it rangoli, cooking, making beautiful things out of scrap and waste, stitching fantastic dresses (without any formal training whatsoever), making intricate embroidery, knitting up a storm….you name it, they excelled  at it.

Painstakingly made, one pinprick at a time

My mother possessed great engineering skills to boot and could have been one had she continued her studies beyond 3rd standard. She could wield a carpenter’s saw, a mason’s chisel, a metal hacksaw or any other hard tool with equal felicity with which she held a ladle. She cut and sawed and nailed stuff and made useful things or made things useful, as the case might be. She was also an artist and made clay dolls and the Ganapati murti for puja every year. Her chulhas were not only beautiful to behold, they were perfectly made with cement and metal and mud and much in demand. The tiny saris and veshtis and vastras she made for the very small puja vigrahas were a sight to behold. Oh, there was so much of her artistic genes that she had passed on to my elder sisters and even brothers.

She continued making beautiful things till her 80s. One year she had made 108 (more, in fact) of these Ganpatis images on small squares of tin foil, painstakingly tracing the patterns on them and then piercing the outlines with a pin. They were carefully folded so that rangoli powder could be put on them and the Ganapati image imprinted! I only have one of them left, but there were many different Ganapatis she had made and given away with the haldi-kumkum on Vata Savitri vrat, after she completed 108 pradakshinas of the vata-vriksha! She taught youngsters a lot of handicrafts till a ripe old age.

Flowers or battis?

Her younger sister, my aunt, made the most artistic phool-battis and stitched colourful sari-ensembles for the goddess in temples near her house and to give away, well into her old age. It used to feel like sacrilege to light one of them! She would make them in hundreds to give us when we ran out of the beautiful battis. They were treasured by family and friends.

My three elder sisters and cousins had all inherited the creative genes, each outdoing the other in artistic accomplishments. With absolutely no training whatsoever, my two eldest sisters used to make these dolls for the elaborate Navaratri kolu every year, drawing and cutting them out on cardboard, dressing them up in crepe paper costumes and trinkets. The gorgeous dolls adorned the landscapes to populate the markets and gardens they created around the kolu steps. I wish we had preserved some of them for posterity.

Flower art for the Deity

Doll making has become professional with all kinds of materials available to make and decorate them. But back in those days, with literally no-budget for any materials, they created those stunning beauties. Drawing and painting were in the very breath of all my sisters. At one time our parents’ puja room had the pictures drawn and painted by one of my elder sisters. I have shared many flower rangolis made by my eldest sister in her late 70s with her arthritis-affected fingers. The second eldest has since moved on to healing hurt bodies and minds with her medical and spiritual abilities.

The third sister was even better. She not only drew and painted, made rangolis and created arty stuff like the elder ones (maybe even better), but also went on to become an expert tailor and embroiderer, topping her batch in the exams for both. I owe it to her for teaching me to hem edges of garments neatly without a crooked stitch and the various embroidery stitches (which I have since forgotten). She also taught me how to use the thread till the last inch so that nothing was wasted. I used to make my own blouses by using her paper pattern for years till I couldn’t find the time or energy to stitch them. (Sounds better than ‘lazy’ doesn’t it?) Later in life, she learnt professional soft-doll making and turned out some great ones to give away. She also makes the most elegant bags, purses and wallets from cloth and felt, recycling and up-cycling materials.

Every stitch a work of art

Her creations are perfection personified. Her painstakingly hand-embroidered tapestries with every centimetre of the background covered with intricate stitches in myriad colours are a delight to behold. She has made wall hangings, rugs and more with those colourful threads with her nimble fingers, to be hung on the walls or gifted.

While I was immensely proud of their accomplishments and content to bask in their glory, I was made to learn at least some of the arts and crafts like basic stitching, embroidery, knitting, rangoli, etc., by them and my mother. But I had realised very early on that I would only remain at that level—basic—try as I would to rise above that. I had made peace with it and my Jill-of-all-arts-master-of-none status.

A beautifully crocheted doily by my Mother-in-law

Marriage however, made me freshly aware of my inadequacies: my Mother-in-law and sister-in-law were both wonderful in all kinds of arts and handicrafts. My Mother-in-law was also a great singer, while my sister-in-law was a wonderful painter in addition to all other things her mother was good at! I used to marvel at the intricate crochet and tatting that they both did, the shuttle and needle flying in and out like magic! I could knit at a decent speed but in their hands, the needles were a blur, so fast they moved! My Sister-in-law still draws and paints. She learnt the art of Tanjore paintings and her creations are a credit to the art, so professionally and impeccably are they done.

Stunning perfection – Thanjavur painting

The second generation is even better. My nieces and nephews are all good at creative stuff –their kids excelling from an even younger age. That includes my own granddaughter. I have shared some of the gorgeous rangolis by my eldest niece and the aesthetic and grand kolus she arranges at her home every year.

Let me come back to my story of flowers or lack of them.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. In my case, it was desperation. Having had to give up the idea of paper flowers, I tried making some flowers with cotton, which is an acceptable material, inspired by YouTube videos. No luck, as they looked more like blobs of cotton than remotely resembling any flower.

Then light dawned, or should I say the Devi Herself showed me the light, probably to prevent some ghastly creation made by her ardent devotee ending up as offering.

I opened a packet of battis and started making a garland by weaving them up as we do with mogra buds. More light, and I decided it would be nice to have some colour! I soaked them in haldi water, kumkum water and in water to which I added some orange food colour. Now I had ‘flower buds’ in three colours, four, including white! I began weaving them happily and had garlands ready in a jiffy!

I shared the pictures with my young consultant and was elated when she said, ‘They are good!’ Finally, her pati had come good on the crafts-front!

I am hardly bothered by my lack of crafty fingers. If ever I had any regret, it was dispelled forever by a lovely remark by the young one the day I was lamenting about my lack of artistic skills while watching her do one of her ‘projects’.

“But you write so well, Pati!”

Every time a tiny pang nibbles a corner of my mind for not having inherited the art genes, her words pep me up and am good to go, both left thumbs held up triumphantly!

Homepage image: https://www.futurity.org/ Paper Boat: https://www.thesprucecrafts.com/

Flowers top: https://www.hyderabadzone.com/ 

7 comments

  1. Talent evidently runs in your families on both sides, yours and your husbands. It reveals itself in many forms of artwork and handicrafts among the members. It depends upon the aptitude and interest. Your forte is in your fabulous writing skill. You can churn out pages and pages of riveting essays on any subject, trivial or tough!.

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  2. The creativity flows in the family, Zephyr! Lovely post

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  3. A delight to read as always. Love that “Jill of all trades…”!
    Creativity abounds in thee!
    And how wonderful it is to be praised by the young ones, no? The greatest reward, perhaps…
    Write on, O Zephyr

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  4. He he! Great post!

    Well, creativity comes in different forms, Zephyr. In your case- through your pen. Or should I say- keyboard!

    You are lucky to have so many talented aunts and nieces. And now your granddaughter joins their ranks! 👍

    BTW, great idea for a garland!

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    1. I am sure we all have creative people in our families, especially the older generation, which had to make and do with a lot less than ours and our children’s. But even so, somehow crafty genes skipped me somehow. And oh yes, am I glad to have creativity with words, though am still a long way from perfection. The garland looked really good and was I proud of myself!

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  5. Hi

    Creativity starts at innovation and you have it in you with those pretty cotton flowers ….

    Awesome Zephyr …. and I agree ” you write so well” 🙂

    – jaish_vats

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    1. Oh, my creativity hardly bears talking about. But I was proud of myself, to tell the truth 🙂 The kumkum soaked ones looked like iruvakshi mottus! Thanks for the appreciation, Jayashree! BTW, haven’t read anything from you for a long time. Aren’t you writing?

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