The tapestry of her life


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‘THERE was a great explosion of colour, expanding and contracting; flaming reds, and the intense blue of a peacock’s throat; as my sight began to return, these colours gave way to dots of grey that came together once again as tangible shapes and forms.’ Pupul Jayakar had been through two weeks of complete blindness after having lost an unborn child. She had been in contact with a dog that had rabies and the doctors had injected a full dose of anti-rabies injections; seven months pregnant, she was allergic to the drug and developed eclampsia and with it soaring blood pressure, convulsions and total blindness. ‘Blindness is not blackness,’ she said. Her mind must have travelled across many levels during that period, crossing the manifold experiences of her life.

Her childhood, where familiar sounds of the recitation of Ram Charit Manas, the epics, the beliefs and philosophies of India had come down to her through the spoken world, the oral tradition – a tradition by which India communicated with the many past generations.

Her father was a liberal intellectual in the civil service, driven by the passion of that generation to participate and determine change and growth. Her mother came from a Gujarati Brahmin family, rooted in their strong cultural traditions. The security of these two strands, their diversity and yet their common values, is what must have had greatest influences on her. Clearly it is that which gave her the base to build upon.

She recalled having spent weeks travelling as part of her father’s entourage through the districts, camping in villages, sometimes in wide-open spaces, often amidst mango groves. A camp meant a mobile home with all the familiar paraphernalia. Through this exposure she never felt unrooted. She began to absorb the nuances of India, its contradictions, disparities, and congenital strengths. Early years are always the most impressionable and often establish the ethics and values of one’s future.



Fakirs, and itinerant storytellers would collect at the camp on their nomadic route, sharing what they had to say, telling their ancient tales. Bards would sing and recite verse that encompassed the history and the way of life of the region. This bottomless archive was what Pupul began to delve into from a very early age and this is what she continued to draw upon, to disseminate and interpret. She had always given precedence to feeling and seeing textures of a civilization and when asked by Jawaharlal Nehru to help set up the handloom industry after independence, Pupul Jayakar launched what in many ways was a revolution in the world of fabric and clothing in India. She capsuled her range of experience into one specific area and successfully established the HHEC (The Handloom and Handicraft Export Corporation) that put traditional Indian skills on the map of the world. Her experiences of life itself manifested in something tangible, which could regenerate and nurture an inherent need for a tested tradition. That is, in fact, the definition of true culture.

From the life of a civil servant’s child she was plunged once a year into the ambience of a traditional Brahmin home in Surat. She was therefore never free from the authenticity of India. The influence of her father was strong and he instilled in Pupul an interest in reading, in meeting all manner of people ranging from pundits to philosophers.



At the age of eleven she went to Banaras, to a school started by Annie Besant, the great theosophist active in India’s freedom movement. Here she began to get rooted more confidently, in the true life and ambience of India. The many images and myriad passing encounters from her childhood began to crystallize. Early mornings were spent walking with her father, strolling under clusters of cork trees, talking endlessly about everything. She shed western dress and took to wearing saris. It was only when riding that she wore breeches!

Her father was posted to Allahabad when she was fifteen. It was there that she met Jawaharlal Nehru and his family. To her, as to many others of her generation, Panditji was the great source of inspiration, symbol of the future and of their lives.

When eighteen, Pupul left for England to train as a journalist and it was there that she met Jackie, the man she married. In 1937 she became Pupul Jayakar and settled with her husband in Bombay. Radhika, her first child, was born in 1938. In 1939 she became pregnant again. That child she lost along with her sight. She was shattered. Worse still, as she began to come to terms with her personal trauma, she lost her father to whom she had been excessively close. He had been a firm influence and stable anchor in her life. That was 1940.

Another phase of Pupul Jayakar‘s life was about to be born. For the decade that followed, she involved herself in political activity. She worked with Mridula Sarabhai as her assistant in the Kasturba Trust and was also assistant secretary of women’s affairs in the national planning committee. In the course of those years she met Gandhiji twice, went to Sevagram, was exposed to Gandhian attitudes but was never deeply moved by Gandhi. She admired him for the ‘precision of his mind, his understanding of the nuts and bolts of development.’ In 1942, the Quit India movement took her to the forefront of the agitation for freedom but a sudden attack of appendicitis followed by surgery, kept her away from any active participation.



In 1945 Pupul Jayakar had a third baby. Born deformed, the infant died within three weeks. This was another link in a chain of emotional upheavals and personal tragedy. That same year, Jawaharlal Nehru was released from British custody and prison. He encouraged Pupul to get involved in the cooperative and development movements, which she did. For a while during that phase of her life, Pupul became interested in the Socialist party. In 1947 both the Congress and the Socialist party offered her a seat to contest the elections. She declined and moved away from politics. It was possibly that decision which led her on to the most important and substantial decade of her working life.

During this time Pupul met J. Krishnamurti. She had accompanied her mother on a visit and vividly recalls the initial encounter. In her words, ‘This figure was immensely beautiful. There was a silence in him that you could touch and feel.’ In the course of that first conversation, Krishnamurti asked her why she worked. She left feeling a trifle angry but drawn to the tremendous sense of truth that Krishnaji radiated.



Through those years, Pupul had been at the centre of the social whirl of Bombay. Then, quite out of the blue, she began to feel like an outsider, an alien within the society set. That life seemed to be out of sync with her true being. She went back to Krishnaji and thereon began a long-standing relationship of much speaking and discussion, a sharing of ideas. ‘He was a great listener. Then, one day I had a message that he wanted to see me. His listening had ended. Hearing him, the artificial dam cracked open and a river of scars and sorrows burst forth. My life and perceptions began to change. I began to go within myself, to grapple with the despair and darkness, to begin to come to terms with myself.

For this I realized one needed no guru, no anchor except the disciplined quest to know oneself. Man is caught in opposites which have to conflict. Perception is action – if perception is true. I work, and through that experience I have discovered one great truth – not to carry over anything; to work in the today. The energy that is released brings with it insight and the creative channels of the mind open. Perception is a state of total attention. The immobility of the mind creates and it goes on to generate an energy that sustains. The brain doesn’t necessarily age as one grows old.’

From 1950 on, Pupul Jayakar worked towards moulding her ideas and beliefs into reality. When Jawaharlal Nehru and T.R. Krishnamachari asked her to take a look at the handloom sector and launch a viable industry, she extricated herself from evenings of poker and bridge at the Willingdon Club in Bombay, and set out to teach herself what the business of textiles was all about. As she herself once explained, ‘A piece of fabric is a synthesis of texture, colour and design.’ Her inherent, instinctive response to all three was latent and she consciously began to follow her judgement through by studying the complex subject in practical and real terms.

She was fortunate to have what many do not – tacit, unflinching support. This she used to build the weavers service centres, marketing structures, and institutions. The support enabled her to create the tangible and taught her what she considered, a prime lesson. ‘When you see or spot true talent, give it your total support and it will never let you down. I hope I have been able to do likewise with many young people.’ In the sphere of handlooms she says with disarming honesty and pride, ‘My living heritage is manifested in Mapu. He is carrying forward what I was able to initiate. [Mapu being Martand Singh]. I found him, backed him, made him go out there into the field and see for himself, experience, learn and then develop.’ About Rajiv Sethi she said, ‘He has an ancient mind in a young body’. These were her two primary protégés.



With her involvement in regenerating India’s second largest economic sector after agriculture, she brought about, possibly inadvertently, a radical change in the dress and style of the urban woman in India. For the chiffon clad elite to wear handloom saris became fashionable. The more traditional, the better. Today, compared to the average urban man, the woman is undoubtedly better dressed. Yes, this is a value judgement but often such judgements do trigger off a trend, a movement that helps nurture an indigenous attitude within an environmental need.

By inviting French designer Pierre Cardin to India when she was heading the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of the Government of India, she put Indian textiles on to the international map. He worked with Indian fabrics and designed a new collection. Thereafter, many leading fashion designers from Europe and America delved into the trove of Indian textiles using them for creations of high fashion. Fabrics from India made an impact on the world market. Today, this launch may appear the most obvious thing to have done, but at the time it was a calculated risk. And the risk worked. A risk that indirectly set the stage for establishing institutions of design and fashion in India. She remained involved in both.



Pupul Jayakar never deterred from taking risks. Rather, such risks of entering unknown areas and markets seem to spur on increased energy and spirit. With every unconventional idea and decision that she initiated, Pupul was besieged by vast doses of criticism and sometimes abuse. Instead of collapsing under much of this, or retracting from her position, she came into her own, taking on the challenge and refusing to crumble under the pressure.

She was, more often than not, accused of operating with the assistance of a small, handpicked ‘coterie’ of people. Her explanation of this, when confronted, was that she did not believe in building and creating large cumbersome infrastructures and institutions. She always found it easier and more effective to work with smaller groups. In actual terms though, doing what she did in the handloom sector, Pupul involved and supported huge numbers of people in specialized areas of work.

Indira Gandhi had asked her to initiate the Festivals of India abroad in an effort to enhance India’s great tradition of skills and culture. When a tirade against the festivals began to gain ground, Pupul’s reaction to it was characteristic. At a press conference in early 1985 where she was questioned about not having spoken with the press earlier, she said, ‘The country has recently gone through the worst trauma of many decades and at many different levels. Those realities surely take priority and precedence over our festivals abroad. Now, since we are about to inaugurate one in France and another in the United States, I am confident that the events as they unfold will bring in the bouquets. We hope these festivals will reveal the great strengths of a young nation with an ancient culture and heritage.’



Pupul Jayakar set up the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, INTACH. It was something that Indira Gandhi wanted done and she in her personal capacity, along with Pupul, formed the trust and had it registered. Founder members were invited to join and thereafter, membership was thrown open. Through the first decade, INTACH struggled to find a space for itself. It identified architects, researchers, volunteers who believed in restoration and conservation of this multi-layered heritage, and over the years, INTACH took on conservation studies and projects and gradually established itself across India.

Volunteers in scores of cities and towns came together to create the many ‘chapters’ of this organization. It was a huge task, a very challenging one and it worked. It began to change the mindset towards this critical space that was till then controlled and determined by the Archaeological Survey of India. Today, conservation is an intrinsic part of every discussion and debate in the realm of planning and development. But having set the ground, the Trust itself has grown ‘old’. The ethos she had infused into it is no longer there. The ‘young’, fresh, creative and passionate minds are outside of INTACH. The trust has been taken over by retired administrators instead of another generation of men and women looking into the future. The soul has been replaced. That is the difference between the likes of Pupul and her times, with those at the helm today.



What was pioneering in her persona was the ability to take the plunge, to always accept the challenge, to never shirk the ‘impossible’. The young band of people who worked with her believed in her and worked with a passion. They were of another generation and saw a future ahead. She was a mentor. She never competed with them, she groomed them. She too kept pace with a changing world through her young colleagues and was never condescending. Age was never a barrier with her. Respect for those with a spark was always forthcoming.

This striving to discover herself in relation to her work, colleagues and environment, her ability to see her own weaknesses and strengths, her acceptance of criticism without the accompanying arrogance, her childlike quality of accepting a wrong when pointed out – all came together to make her what she was. Very complex but utterly straightforward and forthright. These personal traits and her constantly growing fund of knowledge gave her supreme confidence in herself. ‘The brain does not age,’ she once said and she was right. Her’s was sharper and younger than most.