The Weavers of Darjeeling

The preservation and sometimes restoration of old print photographs is important to me, not just because it is a way of keeping in touch with my past, but there are some veritable treasures in those old archives. One of the first trips I took in India without my family was to the tea plantations in Darjeeling. It was my privilege to be invited along by a German nun (may she rest in peace) who was visiting a convent in the area, so I said Yes! and never regretted it.

One of the projects the convent supported was the displaced widows and orphans. Although Darjeeling’s primary economy is based on tea, there are a few looms around the area for carpets and cloth. I don’t agree with the working conditions in these places, but compared to others that I have seen in Southasia, this was somewhat acceptable. What struck me was the number senior citizens who sat patiently at the spinning wheels. It was like something out of a fairy tale and I kept expecting Rumpelstiltskin to show up any minute.

Lost art of spinning thread ©FrogDiva Photography

My initial reaction to see the grandmothers at the spinning wheels was shock, and I utterly failed to understand why anyone would employ them in the first place when they should be at home enjoying the slow life. But the catch was they volunteered for the work, it was part of their occupational therapy, they wanted to contribute something useful to society, and were bored at home. So the looms “hired” those who could still see well and were manually dexterous enough to handle the threads.

The second component of their employment was the fact that spinning cotton into thread with the old wheels was a dying art, and none of the younger women could be bothered to learn it. They preferred to work at the weaving looms, which paid more and moved faster. They had none of the patience required for the threads. Note the difference between the first and second photographs, particularly in the technology used. The second granny had a more “modern” version of the spinning wheel, with a bicycle wheel that moved infinitely faster than that of her colleague’s sitting on the floor!

In case you are wondering about the quality of the images, the photographs shared here today were scanned from the print form, as this was still the time when I shot with a Nikon analogue camera that used film, and had to wait a few days to see the results. There is something infinitely charming about old photographs, and the retouching is minimal.

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