Meet the collector: Associate Professor Martijn van Beek.

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Asia, Uncategorized

Today we bring next chapter in our ‘Meet the collector’-series. Our intern Iana Lukina has interviewed associate professor at Department for Anthropology, Aarhus University, about his fieldwork and the collections he made for the Ethnographic Department at Moesgaard Museum. All photographs are by Martijn van Beek.

Martijn van Beek in Ladakh

Iana: How did you become a collector?

Martijn: “I am not sure if I am a collector [laughing]. I was asked. Back in the 1990s […], at that time the ethnographic study collection was in the basement here at the university, so the people in charge asked me, they would ask pretty much everybody, all of us [university lecturers] who did fieldwork, whether we would consider bringing back some stuff for the collection. And that wasn’t really my thing initially, but then at some point I was told that Klaus Ferdinand, the founder of the collection, always had this dream of having a nomad tent, the proper black hair tent. The first thing I started doing for a little while was to collect a kitchen and both the more historical (the objects that were used to be made locally) and the ones that were increasingly pushing the locally produced things out of the market by cheap imports and so on. So, we started little by little with that and part of this work I did myself, but most of it was actually done by somebody else, who was there in Ladakh for a few months; namely Tine Skotte, who was not at Aarhus University. She is a friend of mine, she is married to a Ladakhi. That was the first bunch of stuff that I collected, and I honestly don’t remember how many things.”

A nomad tent in Kharnak, Ladakh. 
In the background is the snowy tent-shaped 
mountain abode of the deity Kalabuskyong.

“A few years later, in 2001 or 2002 or there about, I was asked again to do something about Ladakh. And I said: ‘Okay, well, if I am going to do something, I want it to be something that is meaningful’. As it is still the case today, Kashmir is a highly volatile issue, often seen in terms of religious identity and the work that I did in Ladakh was very much focused on the antagonism between Buddhists and Muslims at least in political discourse. So, I thought it would be interesting, because this was at a time when tensions between India and Pakistan were really building up […]. I thought what we could do would be to try to show the ways in which there are continuities and dependencies between those two areas: Ladakh, which is predominantly Buddhist and the Shia Muslims, part of western Ladakh and then the predominantly Sunni Kashmir valley. The Kashmir valley has a very long tradition of handicrafts. Cashmere sweaters, the wool comes from Ladakh actually – and Mongolia and Tibet, but Ladakh was a prime source of pashmina wool. Not only does it tie Buddhist nomads, Muslim traders, and Muslim crafts people together, but also European fashion, markets and so on. Pashmina shawls were really popular at this time. Most people thought pashmina was the designation for the shawl, they had no idea that it was the wool, and that it is goat wool people also didn’t know. Pashmina means woollen, ‘pashm’ is the Persian word for wool. I thought an exhibition on pashmina that showed pashmina’s different lives; that showed the connections across cultures; that showed something about handicrafts and nomadic lifestyle and traders; this whole Central Asian trade network, could be really, really interesting.”

Shearing sheep in Rupshu, Ladakh.

“(…) During a couple of different visits within two or three years, I would go out to spend time with the nomads to partly to film their daily life so to speak. When they were working with the goats, the combing of the goats in spring, the collecting of the pashmina, how it was packed. And then I talked to them about pashmina and its importance in their economy. It is the main resource for that area. Pashmina is very interesting because it has a very strong political story attached to it, also because the reason why pashmina got to be known as Cashmere, is because it was processed in Kashmir and Kashmiri artisans had more or less a monopoly on trading pashmina for couple of hundred years. […] Cashmere a monopoly on trading pashmina for a couple of hundred years. […] Cashmere became popular in Europe because Napoléon Bonaparte had brought a shawl for Joséphine and so it became a fashion at the court, particularly the embroidery. So, the Paisley pattern for example is a Kashmiri traditional pattern. Many of these things in the Western fashion world were influenced by Kashmiri artisans. Jacquard weaving was developed in part to be able to produce the patterns of traditional Kashmiri shawls.”

A fully embroidered and dyed pashmina shawl. 
The value of a shawl is determined by the 
quality and extent of the embroidery.

“In Kashmir I have spent quite a lot of time working with local people […] documenting how the real industry works, which is a lot of different people that get to do a little bit of work before you end up with a shawl with embroidery on it. The raw wool is brought to Kashmir, where it is sorted by women. It is cleaned, then it is spun by women mostly, on Charkha, Indian spinning wheels, then the weaving is done by men. And there are different techniques, there is an ordinary shuttle loom that they use and there is what is called a Kani loom. Kani loom [uses] basically the same technique as you would use when you are making a Persian carpet. It is exactly the same knots and so on. What you do there is that you have pre-died wool (yarn), you make a pattern which you draw and then you are two men on one loom. One has the chart and you have all these different colors, so you set up the loom. And then you knot the pattern into the shawl, just like you do with a carpet. And one man who has the chart, he sings it. There are certain melodies, like chanting. So: ‘Red two, four white, blue three’. And like that they read the full thing. It takes two men about a month to make one shawl. So that is the Kani shawl. And other shawls, just basic shawls, they are produced on a shuttle loom. They are dyed. There are people to do the dyeing; I filmed those and talked to some of them. And there are people who do the embroidery. For the embroidery, they use wooden textile stamps. They print it, print a pattern with white glue-like stuff on the shawl and that uses the pattern that embroiderers then follow. Then it goes to another embroiderer, who actually does the embroidery. There are many different styles of embroidery, so it is the embroidery, actually, that makes the shawl expensive. They can cost up to several lakh [100,000] rupees for one shawl. The director of handicrafts and tourism in Kashmir showed me around, took me to some of the best living artists, and I filmed them and documented everything. The research and collection work in Kharnak benefitted tremendously from the help of Dr Pascale Dollfus from the CNRS Centre d’Etudes Himalayennes in Paris. Dr Monisha Ahmed, now of Ladakh Art and Media Organisation, was instrumental in the work in Rupshu and contributed also with her expertise on weaving in Ladakh and Kashmir. Both anthropologists have done extensive research among these two groups of Ladakhi nomads. What we have in the collection here is all the material stuff that goes into it, from a goat to a shawl so to speak. Pretty much everything. Would have been a great exhibition with a lot of people.”

kani loom in Srinagar, Kashmir. Kani shawls are produced 
by hand-knotting, like a carpet, rather than weaving. 
Two men work together on a single shawl, which can take 
a month to complete. Kani is the word for the small 
spindles with wool.

A kani loom with the pattern and reading chart for the shawl being knotted. One of the men working on the loom will chant the chart, so that the other can follow the same colour and number of knot to produce the desired pattern.

Handcarved wooden blocks are used to print the pattern to be embroidered on a shawl.

Iana: If you should make this collection today, would you have done things differently?

Martijn: “Actually no, because I still think it is good and important, the story has so many levels. There is a story about artisanship, there is a story about connections across religious boundaries, across cultural boundaries, it has something to do with global trade, fashion, and there is this whole Kashmir issue, which is still very relevant. So, the stories that one can tell are still the same. And as far as the collection work is concerned, if we would have done the exhibition, one of the things I haven’t done is to go back and do more thorough interviews with a bunch of people; that never happened. And there are a couple of things which we didn’t actually collect yet. The whole thing around religious beliefs, particularly among the nomads. We didn’t really do any collection, a little bit maybe, but that would have been interesting to do also. But otherwise, following the pashmina, I think it was a good concept. Of course, the collection work didn’t follow the trail in the sense that I started in Ladakh and ended up in Kashmir, it was more back and forth, but as a way of organizing and ensuring connections rather than just emphasizing difference, it would still be the point.”

//Iana Lukina

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