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The art of craft shopping in India

In the warm Kolkata night we join the longest, widest queue I’ve ever encountered. Tributary streams from all directions are gently marshalled into a great river of humanity. We shuffle patiently forward, pause, shuffle on again. It is the first night of Durga Puja, Bengal’s greatest festival, and we are on our way to pay our respects to the goddess Durga herself.

The city is full of hundreds of pandals, temporary shrines that range from the small and neighbourly to the vast, elaborate and spectacular. The goddess’s giant guardians – 40ft high, fiercely moustachioed, flood-lit scarlet and gold against the velvet of the night – loom over us as we stop before the shrine. Durga herself is surprisingly small – human-size, 10-armed and borne on a lion. The festival celebrates her epic battle and victory over Mahishasura, the buffalo demon – good triumphs over evil.

The bold colour and patterned intricacy of the shrines seem to capture the essence of my trip – for I am in India to find treasure. There are two kinds of treasure I seek: artisans who still produce crafts to high traditional standards, and scraps of original old fabric that send a thrill up my spine.

Before leaving home I’d been reading essays about the decline of craft traditions in India – more than once artisans were quoted as saying that they would be the last of their line. Their children, they said sadly, would end up working in IT in Bangalore. This echoed my own experience: several companies that used to supply us with wonderful hand-worked textiles have followed the dollar into larger-scale, industrial production for western chain stores.

Treasured textiles: traditional fabrics on display at stall in bazaar in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

In Delhi we meet an Englishwoman and two Kashmiri brothers working in a warmly familial partnership to produce shawls, scarves and blankets from lena – Ladakhi cashmere combed from the goats each spring in the high Himalaya, hand spun into a web-fine thread and then hand woven. I have never seen such refined work. There are plain pieces bordered with a shimmer of gold thread; masculine, understated plaids; microscopically fine embroideries, and rare kani – intarsia-patterned – pieces.

They tell us about a printer who for most of her career had taught textile arts in Ahmedabad University. Now she has set up a block-print studio in the flat, dry lands outside Jaipur. It is the airiest, coolest, tidiest workshop I’ve ever seen in India. Each printer goes about his work standing at his own 20m-long table. The walls are lined with a library of old teak printing blocks, and the workers produce craft of a quality that would have graced the Mughal courts.

The pink-washed 18th-century town of Jaipur is encircled by a modern city of nearly 7 million inhabitants, but in the old streets of the centre we ease back in time. We discover a great, ramshackle store called Saurashtra Impex (7-8 inside Jorawar Singh Gate, Amber Palace Road) that rewards hours – hours, not minutes – of rummaging, unearthing, bargaining. The more interest we show, the more time we take, the greater the wonders that emerge. In the evening, proud of our purchases, we sit in the graceful courtyard garden of our haveli as the sky softens and turns rose.

From Jaipur we catch a little plane to Udaipur. It is a very pretty town – the calm lake surrounded by fading hills, the Lake Palace afloat on its own reflection – but not a place I love: it feels too much like a machine for processing the romantic dreams of tourists. And I’m here for the hand-tailored experience. So I’m happy to climb into a car the next morning and head into the green hills and valleys leading south.

On a roll: block-printed fabrics in a showroom in Jaipur.

An easy drive of three or four hours takes us to Dungarpur, a town in the southern corner of Rajasthan, far from the tourist route. We stay at Udai Bilas, a mid-19th-century lakeside palace. It is a lovely, eccentric mix of Mughal, art deco, Edwardian Raj and the idiosyncrasies of the generations of maharajahs or maharawals who have lived there. The family still lives at Udai Bilas, the staff effectively family retainers, so it feels more like a private country house than a hotel.

On our last night we amble over to the palace’s motor museum, where some beautifully buffed classic cars nestle alongside a cocktail bar. As the evening settles into its happy groove of music and dancing, the maharawal discreetly nods to the barman, who flicks a hidden switch. The whole bar – seating and all – levitates on a hydraulic ramp, the kind mechanics use to get under an engine and change a rusty exhaust.

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We leave happy and fulfilled – we have found wonderful artisanal suppliers working to the highest standard. Their proprietors are from academic backgrounds, thoughtful people with a deep understanding of the craft traditions. Understanding the value of what they are making, they charge a higher price – which enables their work to be made in comfortable and pleasant conditions. I end the trip optimistic for the future. Textiles are, after all, humankind’s most intimate craft.


A double room at the hotel Udai Bilas Palace ( is 9,020 rupees (about £92) a night. Fly from London to Delhi with Air India from £452. Flights from Jaipur to Udaipur with SpiceJet cost £56.

James Seaton is the co-founder and creative director of Toast


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