The woman wears layers of richly adorned clothing; her blouse is beaded and densely stitched with bands of color. Her head scarf, sequined and embroidered around the edge, covers her hair and hangs well down her body. She squats on a cushion on the floor, bare feet set flat beneath her.
The cloth before her tells a story – the story of the Rabari people as nomads who have settled since an earthquake changed their society completely. There are camels on the cloth, and men and houses; there’s also a well depicted there, where people and animals are gathered. She points to areas of the cloth as the interpreter speaks, relating the bare bones of the tale, the saga of her people told in fabric and threads. The woman so ready to teach us is from the drought-ridden Kutch region of India, on the northwest coast, near the border of Pakistan.
She is one of two artisans who have come to the US for a one-month visit from the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya: “The Art Preservation Institute of Higher Education.” Kala Raksha was founded on the premise that tradition is the foundation of innovation. This is what Judy Frater, director of the school, relates to us. She answers questions, shows a slide show, and answers more questions. Suddenly one of the women with her steps forward, adjusts the cloth on her head, and speaks. Judy laughs and tells us, “She is pleased you want to waste your time listening for so long.” It is obvious that she is ready to teach. We gather before her, eager to learn.
First she demonstrates her skill, quick neat stitches flying around the edges of the figures she sews down, turning minute edges to affix the shapes in a richly detailed fabric story. With a deft movement, ending her appliqué work at the figure’s head, she begins to add details with the same thread. Stitches which curve at the base of the throat appear; she points to her own throat, her own necklaces, then gestures back to her work. We nod understanding, and she smiles. Suddenly, with some quick motions of the needle, the figure has fingers on one hand. She holds up a thumb, then thrusts it forward with a grin – a “thumbs-up!” The room erupts in laughter.
Abruptly she stops her work and gestures to the pile of fabrics in my lap. She nods to me to hand them over and she begins to sort through my treasures, rejecting one after the other. Finally, much to my delight, she settles on two. She folds one carefully. One end of the folded fabric is thrust into my hands and I must hold it just so while she cuts a strip from it. Then I am instructed to produce a needle and she hunts through my thread for just the right weight. I must thread the needle precisely as she directs me while she readies the fabrics together. Without a word spoken, this is where the magic of learning truly begins. She works straight; no lines drawn, no pins; she is skilled and fast; she shows us exactly what steps we have to take to produce what she has produced. We are not allowed only to observe; we must be active learners. One sharp point of an applied zigzag edge appears under her hands; she makes it look easy to fold the fabric just so, to control it in this unique way. We find, to our delight, that it is easy, if we try it her way.
This is the nature of her teaching, and of our learning; we’ve received no kit, no long and detailed list of supplies to bring. There is no handout to tell us what we can expect to learn. We must be open to the simplicity of the learning experience and leap into it fully in order to receive what it being offered. The morning races by too fast, and we reluctantly set our work aside and bow back when she puts her hands together to thank us for our attention. Suddenly a smile illuminates her face and she opens her arms for hugs all around.
As an educator myself, this experience moves me to a deeper understanding of how a lesson can be learned; it inspires me to think of new ways to reach my own students, to give them new, eye-opening, mind-broadening opportunities to find their own path to understanding.