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Tales The Textiles Tell

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By GANESH SAILI

When I first met Martand Singh or Mapu as we called him, I thought he was levitating (or so it seemed to me) off the scaffolding inside Christ Church, above the Library in Mussoorie. He was lost in restoring the damaged pieces of the stained glass windows. As Chairperson of INTACH (UK), he was ensuring it was done perfectly.

Out on a photo-shoot, I soaked in the grace of those tapering windows; their brilliant colours take the breath away, but after two hundred years, the oldest church in the Himalaya needed a bit of tweaking.

‘The man was the uncrowned King of Mussoorie,’ recalls his friend, old time Barlowganj resident Deepak Vaidya.

Martand Singh had hung up his proverbial boots after setting up the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad and the pioneering of the documentation of Indian Textiles. Task complete, he headed home to these hills like a homing bird.

After he came down from his perch, we sat on a bench in the churchyard for what was to be the first of many meetings. His knowledge of the arts was vast, sparked by the likes of Pupul Jayakar. Later he curated the India Exhibitions on his own. For when he spoke, the likes of the Directors of the Met and British Museums sat up to take notes.

Gentle and elegant like his mother, Princess Sita of Kapurthala, who has best been described as ‘beautiful inside and out.’

For the unversed, come with me to 1974 – to what were our days of Camelot.

‘Get stuffed! Take your hill station elsewhere!’ barked the quarry owner, with a toothpick in his mouth, adding: ‘Pure bad luck that you happen to be sitting upon the richest limestone deposit in India.’

At St. Helen’s cottage, three elderly ladies, two hoteliers and a school Principal were meeting over a game of bridge followed by high tea. The town’s roads had been reduced to wheel-ruts by the trucks, or Gattus, loaded with limestone from the quarries at Hathipaon or Lambidhar.

‘We must stop this.’ No one remembers who said that, but that meeting was the beginning of the Save Mussoorie Society. It launched a movement, the likes of which had never been seen before. In June, a human barrier of determined townspeople at the Gandhi Chowk had blocked the truckers, spelling doom for quarrying in our hills.

Meanwhile the tradition of high teas at St. Helen’s continued. Everyone was desperate to be invited to what was a sprinkling of the old and a sprinkling of a few newer arrivals. Loaded with delicacies, the tables creaked with scones, cucumber sandwiches, minced pies and chiffon cake, mingling with Nepalese sour potatoes and fiddlehead ferns.

To this home in 1867, after seventeen years, returned Reverend Maddock to ease the new headmaster into his job. But it was not meant to be. In March he died of smallpox. A marble plaque on the wall of Christ Church laments his departure with ‘bemoaned by many good men.’

Mapu, this hill station’s best story teller, always dressed in white pintuck kurtas and khadi pyjamas, with a shawl thrown casually over his shoulder. Small wonder then that he was known the world over as a connoisseur and doyen of Indian textiles, an accolade he wore lightly upon his sleeve while he promoted Indian handlooms.

‘Pintucks, Ganesh? We had a special sewing machine fabricated for the tailor in Old Delhi. A dozen needles, to stitch fabrics faster,’ he chuckled.

At the By the Way Café, he drew my attention to a poster on the wall with the Dalai Lama’s exhortation: “We can live without religion and meditation but we cannot survive without human affection.”

 When I saw him for the last time, he was researching the history of gems.

 ‘Diamonds are Fragments of Eternity and rubies have the original spark of life – a drop of the heart’s blood of Mother Earth.’

Coming from one who himself was salt of the earth, these were mere understatements considering that he would soon leave behind a hard to fill vacuum.

Mapu is a growing absence and is much missed by all, even those who had barely known him.

Ganesh Saili, born and home-grown in the hills, belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.