Their Hands to Yours
Prabin has been selling silver jewelry in the back streets of old Kathmandu for as long as I can remember. He lives above his shop, and the same boys have been working for him as long as I can remember. He’s survived several changes of government. Prabin was one of the few merchants who refused to pay the Maoists protection money during the insurgency, but they left him alone. He’s tough and honest and cares for his family and his workers and his customers. I love sitting with him for hours at a time, choosing jewelry and drinking endless cups of sweet chai brought in little glasses from the corner stall.
The coin seller and I have never exchanged names, though we have known each other a long time. He has sat in the same place in Kathmandu Durbar Square, under the protection of a temple, for many years, with his coins and his deep knowledge of their provenance and age. This picture was taken two months before the great earthquake of April 2015. After the earthquake, I worried about the coin seller because it came on a Saturday, and I knew he would surely be sitting there, exactly where the greatest damage occurred. Some months later, an Indian friend of mine was going to Nepal, and I asked him to check on the coin seller. He found him, and when he told him an American lady had asked him to check, the coin seller instantly knew it was me. He said that on the day of the earthquake, he had very unusually, and very luckily, not gone to work.
Once I’ve chosen the coins I want set in gold, I walk through the labyrinth of ancient streets in the heart of old Kathmandu, to Vishnu’s shop, a tiny little blue painted hole in the wall, where this master goldsmith and his son have been creating beautiful jewelry for many years, including for the royal family back when Nepal was still a kingdom. We look over what I’ve brought for him to set, and decide on design. I always look forward to the day I can pick up the rings and earrings that have transformed the coins and stones and set them ablaze with gold.
Mr. Lala and his brother Romi run the family jewelry shop which was started by their grandfather. Their father in his time ran it, and the old man still sits in the shop every day, just watching over it. They all live with their families in apartments above the shop, and on festival days, they throw parties on the roof. Once when I was working in the back room with Lala for many hours, I came out to the main shop every once in a while to stretch my legs. The old father was sitting there, watching the workers chase a mouse that had gotten in. This went on for hours. Finally, I went out to find only the old man sitting there. I asked him, what happened to the mouse? Oh, he said with a big smile, they didn’t catch it. It turned out it was Ganesh’s holy day, and it would not at all have been auspicious if they had caught it. But they didn’t, so he was happy. I loved it that he didn’t try to influence anything, just watched the situation and read the results.
Lala is a true artist whose designs are breathtakingly beautiful and his eye for combination of stones unexcelled. I still remember a Navaratna necklace, the nine precious gemstones of the gold pendant reflected in the beads of the necklace on which it was strung. We called it Mr. Lala’s Masterpiece.
Anil is the lynchpin of a huge jewelry empire. He has been there from the start, from when his cousin-brothers sent him out to the villages to collect old jewelry pieces, and they had only their one shop in Jaipur. Now they have shops all over the world, all in the best locations. But Anil is the soul of their Jaipur shop, where it all started, and now that they have two Jaipur locations, he is always running between the two. I have several pictures over the years of Anil holding two phones on either side of his head. Every client wants and needs Anil. He’s a brilliant designer as well. And he adores jewelry. You can tell by his hands.
But none of it can run without Devkyi. Any question about where something came from, how old it is, what the symbols mean, gets referred to Devkyi. These men who run huge multi-million dollar companies, when faced with an old nose ring somebody just brought in from the village, inevitably say, take it to Devkyi. Devkyi will know. With his 7 daughters in a country that favors sons, and his years of studying old pieces of things from the deserts of Rajasthan, he will know.
I was introduced to Paljor Bodh by a friend who had a shop in London. We drove many hours up into the mountains bordering Ladakh to visit his weaving factory and purchase his beautiful shawls. There is a particular design to Kullu Manali shawls, but the ones woven by the Ladakhi men and women of Bodh Shawl Weavers were always the most beautiful. My friend asked Paljor how it was that his designs and colors were so lovely. Paljor pulled a tin trunk from under the bed, unlocked it, took out something wrapped in silk scarves, and carefully unwound them. It was a coffee table book from the west, something that must have cost him months of salary, called “Butterflies of the World.” And so we call him the butterfly weaver.
In the cobbled ancient streets of old Riga, I found a shop selling handwoven linen shawls and throws and blankets. The looms were in the back of the shop, with half a dozen women weaving. This is Alvida’s shop, and she is a designer with an exquisite sense of color and fabric combinations. I love the pure Baltic linen shawls, but she also combines the linen with cashmere or silk, and weaves sparkle into it so that it shimmers.
I still have a few pieces of Pasang’s apron art, and I treasure them because he no longer makes his patterned tapestries from pieces of Tibetan women’s aprons. In old Tibet, married women wore heavy woolen aprons over their Tibetan dress, and each district had its own particular pattern. Pasang collected these old aprons, and he cut them up and sewed them into astonishing patterns of landscapes and mountains, saving the leftover wool fluff to make into free kidney warmers for the local old people. His shop was just off one of the crooked back lanes coming off the Boudha stupa. He would serve tea, and while you looked at one amazing tapestry after another, he would tell you which piece of apron came from which town.