So I set off the next day determined to meet this man who is so widely praised.
I arose early in hope of avoiding busy traffic, jumped in a rickshaw, which took me to the wrong bus stand, which I only realised after about half an hour, so got another rickshaw to the right bus station, which took ages as we were travelling at peak shopping time through the market. I finally arrived and waited about half an hour, standing under pigeon riden roofs, for the Ghandinagar bus. This took about 45 minutes. On arriving in Gandhinagar, I was advised to pay 10 rs for a shared rickshaw, but I couldn’t find any shared ones so asked an individual one to take me to Pethapur. He tried to charge me 60 rupees (which obviously seemed cheap compared to travelling back in the UK, but when you know relatively its quite steep, you get in the habit of choosing the cheapest option). Then came along a polite young English-speaking lad who offered to help, and said why don’t I get a bus. So he took me to the local bus station and found the right bus. He then asked a girl who was taking the same bus if she would mind if I stuck with her! Such a kind gesture, but at the same time reminded me that I really need to learn the language.
The local bus didn’t take long to get to Pethapur, and on arriving at the central bus stand, I asked the local pan wallah, as advised by Errol, where Maneklal lives. There was some discussion between themselves in Gujarati and then: ‘He’s gone to Ahmedabad to see his daughter’. I couldn’t believe my bad luck. It had taken me about three hours to get there, and he was back where I’d just come from! So I asked where his house was anyway, and they pointed down the road. I found it and saw a big sign above ‘Maneklal Gajjar, Award winning block carver’. I sighed and thought well, at least I tried. Just as I was about to head back though, two men opposite gestured at me to go up. I hesitated, walked inside and saw stairs so checking again with them started to climb, and there was an old man just sat there. I expected there to be a door I could knock on, and felt rude just walking in. I called his name, and he said to come up. I introduced myself and apologised for not calling before I arrived. – I didn’t have contact for him except an address.
I knew it was Maneklal when I saw him as his retina was damaged and he couldn’t see very well – I’d been informed of his poor eyesight. I’d seen pictures of him from a while ago and he’d aged a lot since then. He started telling me how much he wished he could continue his carving, that he would carry on for ten more years if he could get his retina fixed. He was 81.
After calling for some help, he took me up to his workshop and took out all his blocks and talked through the process. He was very proud of his work, and said that his work has been exhibited all over the world – the Calico museum, the V&A in London, museums in America, Japan, Thailand and more. I could see why as the blocks demonstrated such precision and skill and were the solid evidence of a thriving block-making and block printing industry which is unfortunately dwindling. Maneklal clearly loves sharing his work and experiences There used to be about 25 workshops, now there are only 4 or 5. Maneklal said he thinks the art will be gone in the next 50 years. New technology is taking over, and people can no longer afford the cloth that has taken so much time and skill to produce. Young men are less likely to learn block carving now because of this. Maneklal didn’t have any sons to pass it onto, although he taught a few young men in the village. One of these was Chetan whose house I was invited to. Chetan introduced me to his wife, daughter and nephew. His wife made me tea, and he showed me his and his father’s blocks. He produces a few for Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka where I would be visiting later in the trip, and for other designers.
He then kindly escorted me to the bus stop and I took the same route back to Ahmedabad, again with the help of a few friendly locals.