SOCIETY

Flying colours & ground reality
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
I
N the year 1936, when even imagination was not permitted to fly free, Sarla Thakral, a 21-year-old married woman with a four-year-old daughter, soared into the sky. In the cockpit of a Gypsy Moth, dressed modestly in her saree, Sarla’s flight into the firmament landed her a place in history. She became the first Indian woman to fly.

Magical carpets
Vimla Patil
F
OR more than 40 years, Bini Malcolm has been fascinated by rug and carpet designs. She has travelled for decades through Central Asian and oriental countries to trace the origins of weaves and designs. "My husband John and I lived in Iran for five years, sharing our lives with tribals in hilly areas, deserts and lush forests of this exotic country.

Old ties
A
growing number of Kerala’s elderly are seeking new life partners to beat loneliness. Many of them are widows, with their children living far away from the state. P.M. Mathew Vellore, a leading psychologist, says remarriage among the elderly is a new trend in Kerala.

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Flying colours & ground reality
Smriti Kak Ramachandran

India’s oldest woman pilot Sarla Thakral at 91 is still firmly piloting the course of her life. She fondly recalls her flying days and how she landed up with other interests like painting, block printing and jewellery designing.

Sarla Thakral against the backdrop of one her paintings
Sarla Thakral against the backdrop of one her paintings. — Photo by Rajeev Tyagi

IN the year 1936, when even imagination was not permitted to fly free, Sarla Thakral, a 21-year-old married woman with a four-year-old daughter, soared into the sky. In the cockpit of a Gypsy Moth, dressed modestly in her saree, Sarla’s flight into the firmament landed her a place in history. She became the first Indian woman to fly.

Unlike girls her age who found their desires chained, Sarla was given wings to fly, with her husband and her father-in-law also becoming the wind beneath those wings.

"My first husband was a pilot as were some other members of his family. After I got married to him at 16 and was blessed with a daughter, both my husband P D Sharma and his father encouraged me to fly," she recalls.

"My husband was the first Indian to get airmail pilot’s licence and flew between Karachi and Lahore. When I completed my required flying hours, my instructor wanted me to fly solo, but my husband was away. All I did was ask for permission to wait till he returned," she says.

And once she took off, there was no looking back. "I had the support of my family, the boys who trained with me never asked a question, the only person who wanted to know ‘why’ was a clerk at the flying club`85otherwise I have faced no opposition," says the lady, who at 91 does all her work by her self.

"I believe in doing things with my own hands. I don’t waste time, don’t take an afternoon nap and don’t need help to cook and for other chores. Working keeps me busy, helps me fight loneliness," says the woman who was recently honoured for being the oldest yet the fittest person in her neighbourhood.

Pilot Sarla Sharma (later Thakral) got her flying licence in 1936
Pilot Sarla Sharma (later Thakral) got her flying licence in 1936. — Photo by Rajeev Tyagi

Going back to her flying days, she says, "After my first husband died in a crash in 1939, I went to Jodhpur to get a commercial pilot’s licence. Unfortunately World War II broke out and flying was suspended. I returned to Lahore, and joined the Mayo School of Art where I trained in the Bengal school of painting and obtained a diploma in fine arts."

Breathtaking watercolours of women that hang on her walls next to her own pictures are a testimony to her talent. Adroitly crafted costume jewellery that lies nestled in a box handcrafted by the lady herself emerges next and even as you watch in complete awe, she shows you her meticulous calligraphy.

"I write out shlokas from the Vedas and gift it to my friends. In our times there was a lot of stress on good handwriting`85these days children have such poor writing," she rues.

A dedicated follower of the Arya Samaj, she says it was easier for her to remarry because, "we Arya Samajis advocate widow remarriage." She met her second husband P. P. Thakral when she moved to Delhi after the Partition.

"I dabbled in designing costume jewellery, which was not only worn by the who’s who of that time, but also supplied it to Cottage Emporium for 15 years. After that I took to block printing and the sarees designed by me were well sought after. This too continued for 15 years. Then I began designing for the National School of Drama`85and all along I kept painting, " says Sarla, who is known as Mati.

"I like to take things to their conclusion. If I sit to paint or design I have to finish it`85of course, now it is a bit painful for me to sit for longer hours, but I have not given up," she says.

Another thing that she hasn’t given up on yet is her motto. "Ever since I was a girl guide in school, my motto was: always be happy. It is very important for us to be happy and cheerful. After all we humans unlike animals have been blessed with the gift of being able to laugh. This one motto has seen me tide over the crises in my life," she tells you.

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Magical carpets
Vimla Patil

FOR more than 40 years, Bini Malcolm has been fascinated by rug and carpet designs. She has travelled for decades through Central Asian and oriental countries to trace the origins of weaves and designs. "My husband John and I lived in Iran for five years, sharing our lives with tribals in hilly areas, deserts and lush forests of this exotic country. We travelled to innumerable Turkish villages, Samarkand, Bokhara, Kazakhstan, Turkemenistan and Kirgizistan. We studied museum pieces and photographed tribal villages and workshops, carpets and rugs in mosques, palaces and in the marketplace.

"Today, I have enough knowledge to call myself an oriental carpet scholar and researcher. I am also a collector of rugs. From Australia, I work as an international consultant on purchasing, maintaining and evaluating carpets and rugs. I have a great deal of data on the history of carpets and rugs and using this, I give lectures and presentations to interested groups all over the world."

Bini’s journeys have taken her into the heart of history. "The art of weaving carpets has been one of earliest accomplishments of oriental civilisations," she says, "Iran, Iraq, Baluchistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Kazakstan, India, Pakistan – particularly Kashmir – have been known for thousands of years for famous carpets and rugs made by highly skilled craftspersons. One of the earliest carpets known to the modern world – more than 2500 years old – was discovered in the eastern region of the former USSR, where excavations included mummies, frozen animals and other objects wrapped in beautifully woven carpets. Though ice and rocky soil had ruined parts of it, the motifs, woven in pure wool dyed in vegetable dyes, are intact. This carpet is now in the British Museum for all to see. Some of the world’s most famous museums in the West have fabulous examples of carpets and rugs woven all over the world through the past millennia. I would say that the weaving of carpets and their diversity has been one of mankind’s highest achievements."

Bini classifies rugs and carpets into three categories. The most common among these are tribal rugs which are of diverse designs and are woven by tribes that live in the belt stretching from the Himalayas to the Central Asian mountain ranges. These are made with wool harvested by the tribes from their sheep, coloured with vegetable dyes and are chiefly used in homes and camps during winter months. Some carpet weaves and designs thus reappear on coats and wraps and women’s knee-length coats too. Tribal rugs – which are primitive in design – are made for family use, wedding presents or for covering camels and horses when their caravans move from place to place.

The second variety is called ‘village carpets’. They are woven during the winter months when tribes or craftspersons stay put in their homes. They are made in larger numbers and offered for sale in village or city markets.

The last variety is the ‘heirloom carpet’, woven in prime wool or silk and made by experts for the use of royalty or very rich people in most countries. This variety also includes the specially woven Mosque carpets in the favourite colour of the Prophet, namely green; and prayer rugs that are seen in famous mosques and durgahs.

The northern regions of India and Pakistan – mainly Kashmir – have a fabulous heritage of making carpets and rugs. In several centres in this region, the world’s finest carpets are woven and exported to the West. With the Central Asian countries losing their market share because of wars, fundamentalism and terrorism, India has gained and is probably the biggest producer of carpets and rugs in the world today. Indian and Pakistani carpets are fetching huge prices in the world markets because of the expert craftsmanship and world-class production values. The price and value of a carpet depends upon the quality of wool, vegetable dyes used and the maintenance requirements. Most experts advise that carpets should be washed and cleaned thoroughly at least twice a year.

"Carpet motifs are interesting," says Bini, "They usually reveal their heritage. In Central Asia, though the tribal weavers are Muslims, they traditionally use birds, animals and even human figures with floral shapes. With cross-cultural influences, the lotus, the swan, the tree of life and the paisley from India are found in carpets all over these regions. Most varieties have geometrical motifs. Other carpets reflect the vastness of deserts and barren mountain ranges. Interestingly, Kashmiri carpets mirror the fabulous Moghul garden concepts – the charbaug, the square garden with water pools, the hexagonal flower beds with paths dividing them – all these are used in a symmetrical manner in rugs and carpets. Some of the world’s best carpets have appreciated fabulously. One small rug that I bought in an Iranian village for `A350 in the 1970s has been evaluated at `A35000 today."

Bini gives credit to religious foundations, libraries and mosques in Central Asian countries for preserving the finest examples of carpets and rugs. "Many owners have given priceless heritage objects to them for safe-keeping during riots and bloody wars and they have looked after them with pride and care. The heritage they have saved has enriched the world’s artistic treasure fabulously."

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Old ties

Illustration by Sandeep JoshiA growing number of Kerala’s elderly are seeking new life partners to beat loneliness. Many of them are widows, with their children living far away from the state. P.M. Mathew Vellore, a leading psychologist, says remarriage among the elderly is a new trend in Kerala.

"I have been getting a number of enquiries from old people asking if it would be wise to go in for a remarriage," says Vellore. "Even their children come up with the question."

Many newspapers in Kerala now carry advertisements from widows and widowers seeking re-marriage. "This is a welcome change, one that could brighten these lonely lives. Our church has no restriction on whatever age a person wants to get married," says K.V. Mathew, a senior priest. "Nuclear families are one reason for the loneliness. A new partner late in life can make it more pleasant," he adds.

According to some experts, most elderly people seeking remarriage are Christians. M.K. Jacob (not his real name) is a 63-year-old retired man looking for a wife. He said he began to feel lonely after his wife died two years ago. "None of my children is with me. Life has become miserable. I talked with my children about remarriage and they had no problems," he confides. "So I advertised and got half a dozen replies. But none of them clicked for me. So I am preparing to advertise again."

Vellore recalls an incident when a man came to him complaining that his 70-year-old father was doing a mistake by wanting to marry again. "The son was annoyed. I told him that if he was so concerned about his father, he should kick his job in the US and stay with his father who needed company. The son finally agreed and soon his father remarried," says Vellore.

According to S. Irudayarajan of the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala’s aged population (above 60 years) is on the rise. "It has grown from 5.9 per cent of the population to more than 15 per cent as per the 2001 census. With migration and the number of children in each family coming down, the woes of the aged are increasing." — IANS

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