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Ancient carpet weaves in a modern idiom

For Pavitra Rajaram, who has collaborated with Jaipur Rugs, design and craft are ways of recording culture

From the ‘Sakya’ series in the new ‘Majnun’ collection. Courtesy: Jaipur Rugs
From the ‘Sakya’ series in the new ‘Majnun’ collection. Courtesy: Jaipur Rugs

At the Salone Del Mobile, 2023—a significant event for the design and furnishings industry—held in Milan, Italy in April, one could see some rather unique carpets on display. A figure of a soldier from the colonial forces stood framed against floral hashiyas, or borders, and mildly hued backgrounds featuring bootis. This was from the Sipahi series, inspired by the Afghan war carpets made in the late 20th century, when carpet weavers became chroniclers of history by including elements of military presence in their creations. The carpets at Salone Del Mobile brought together this element with India’s own history of colonialism by paying homage to the Indian soldier, who had once served in the British forces.

Sipahi is part of the new Majnun collection designed by Pavitra Rajaram—founder-creative director of the eponymous multidisciplinary firm that works in interior design, graphic design and brand strategy—in collaboration with Jaipur Rugs. “Majnun is rooted in the history, geography, and storytelling of carpets that originated in Persia, China, and India and made their way through time to a global audience around the world,” states the catalogue note. The other series in the collection include Arjumand, which features the “Bid Majnun”—a weeping willow tree—a recurring motif in classical Persian and Iranian carpets, and Bahaar, rooted in the tradition of Shikargah, only in this series animals are not hunted but frolic and play in natural woodlands.

Then there is the Maryul, a contemporary interpretation of an ancient tradition, which started after the mid-17th century when the Namgyal ruler of Ladakh fought a Tibetan king to retain control over the wool of the Changpa, a mountain goat native to the region. “When the war was won with the help of the Mughals, they insisted the territory be shared by all three. As a result, the vocabulary of the carpets woven here began to incorporate motifs and symbols from three cultural traditions: Persian, Tibetan Buddhist and Chinese,” mentions the catalogue note. Each of these series from Majnun is available at Jaipur Rugs.

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It is only natural that Rajaram brings together her penchant for design with her passion for heritage and history. Her work with the Sarmaya Foundation—a not-for-profit museum archive committed to creating awareness about India’s cultural legacy—allows her to interpret ancient idioms in a modern context. Rajaram has always been fascinated by carpets, bringing back specimens from Uzbekistan, Turkey, Morocco, and more, during her travels. “A chance meeting with the founder of Jaipur Rugs (Nand Kishore Chaudhary) three years ago really inspired me. I was struck by his vision of empowering weavers to become artisans once again and I loved his idea that each carpet is woven with the blessing of a family,” writes Rajaram in her design note about how her first ever carpet collection came about.

There is a layered narrative in the Majnun collection—one that traverses time periods and geographies. Different stories coalesce together in each piece. In an email interview, Rajaram takes up the example of the Maryul series yet again about how she explored the history behind carpet traditions to give them a modern interpretation. “In the mid-17th century, Mughal carpet weavers from Kashmir moved to Ladakh and began to work with the wool of the Changpa… . The result was a unique and stunning tradition of carpets known as ‘Yarkandis’, which was characterised by the unique geometric placement of motifs especially the Chinese ‘cloud head’ motif known as Yun Tsai T’ou,” she says. Her interpretation brings together some of the most popular motifs of the Yarkandi tradition, including flowers from the Buddhist Gandhara style, medallions from Kashmiri carpets and Chinese cloud heads—all symbols of prosperity and happiness.

Working alongside artisans from Jaipur Rugs was a masterclass as they added so much nuance to the design and storytelling process. Discussions around motifs, colours and material acquired greater depth as a result of this collaboration.

To Rajaram, design and craft are ways of recording culture and collective history. Through this collection, she also acknowledges and celebrates the artisans’ and design team’s own role in being part of a continuum of storytellers. To her, the philosophy of slow design is extremely important. And in Majnun, particularly, you need to take time to soak in the detailing. “Whether you connect to the design, the colour or the storytelling, it is all aimed at someone who buys consciously, and is willing to invest in something that they will love for a long time. They need to understand the incredible patience and talent of the weavers who have spent over thousands of hours on a single piece,” she elaborates.

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